Tag Archives: Understanding

A Good Day

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
Mark 10:35 (NIV)

Every parent knows a set-up question when they hear it.

“Dad? I’m going to ask you something and you have to answer ‘yes.'”

“Mom? Haven’t I been really, really good this week?”

The set-up question is intended to get the desired answer from the real question. I remember being a young boy playing this game in my prayers with God. If I wanted the Vikings to win the game or my older brothers girlfriends to simply “stop by” our house (they always doted on me, and I loved it), then I would barter with the Almighty to get my wish. I might make the case for my good behavior to have been good enough to “earn” what it is I wanted. I might have promised all sorts of obedient services I could render on the back-end of my fulfilled wish should my Genie-God grant my self-centered request.

Obviously, as a young boy, I had a lot to learn about God, prayer, the Great Story, and my role in it. I’m grateful that God is eternally patient and faithful.

In today’s chapter, I found my lesson wrapped in the layout of events that Mark includes as Jesus prepares to enter Jerusalem for the climactic week of His earthly sojourn.

First, Jesus sends a rich, young man away sad because the man was unwilling to do the one thing that stood between him and God: sell everything he owned and give it to the poor. In the post-event discussion with His followers, Jesus reminds them that in the economy of God’s Kingdom (the real one, not the false one that the institutional church created for 1700 years) “the first will be last and the last will be first.”

The very next thing, Jesus tells #TheTwelve for the third time exactly what’s going to happen:

“We are going up to Jerusalem 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.”

Sometimes I’ve noticed that the chapter breaks and headings that modern scholars have introduced into the text keep me from seeing the flow and connections between pieces of the story. Today was a great example. Jesus reminds the disciples that the first will be last, and then He gives them the ultimate example: I, the miracle-working Son of God who heals, frees, feeds, and raises people from the dead, am going to submit myself to suffer and die in order to redeem all things.

What happens next?

James and John come to Jesus with a “set-up question!”

“Um, Jesus? We want you to promise to do whatever it is we’re about to ask you.”

What was the question? They were looking out for numero uno. If Jesus was going to die, then the brothers Zebedee just wanted to tie up some loose ends. They wanted to make sure that their eternal future was secure. They wanted to ink the deal with Jesus, once and for all, to make sure they ended up “Top Dog” on the heavenly food chain.

I can hear the echo of Jesus’ words from what seems like every single chapter I’ve read the past two weeks: “Do you still not understand?”

For the record, James and John got about as far as I did with the Vikings winning the Super Bowl.

In the quiet, on this Good Friday morning, I am reminded of all the ways I have cast myself in the role of James and John. It might have been cloaked in religious set-up questions, bartered goodness, and the economics of a worldly institutional kingdom dressed in religious robes. The truth is what I’ve been quietly contemplating this week. In so many ways, I know that I still don’t completely get it.

Good Friday. The secret trials. The kangaroo court. The beatings. The mocking. The jeering. The crowd screaming for blood. The scourging. The nails driven into wrists and feet. The hanging naked on a cross as public spectacle; Naked, bleeding and losing control of his bodily functions in front of His own mother. And, as He hangs there between heaven and earth on the cusp of death…

Making sure his mother will be cared for.

Forgiving His executioners.

Extending grace to a confessed and convicted thief.

“The first shall be last. If you want to be the greatest, you must become the servant of all.”

A good day to open my head and heart to continue understanding, to continue getting it, and continuing to let it change me.

All of Tom’s chapter-a-day posts from Mark are compiled in a simple visual index for you.

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. This includes social media such as Facebook or Twitter. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Getting It

[Jesus] then began to teach [the disciples] 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.
Mark 8:31 (NIV)

I spoke to a friend on the phone yesterday. We, of course, discussed the current world situation with the COVID-19 pandemic and how different our lives have been the past few weeks with everyone stay home and keeping to themselves.

“And it’s Holy Week!” my friend exclaimed. “It doesn’t feel very Holy. It feels more like a week with holes.”

I thought about Holy Week as I read this morning’s chapter. I’m half-way through Mark’s version of Jesus’ story. If I’d been thinking ahead I should have scheduled to start a week earlier so that I’d be finishing the story on Easter weekend. Oh well. One more thing to add to the list of things that feels a little “off” right now.

I find it interesting that while Jesus has been speaking in parables and metaphors for several chapters, He is quite direct and plain-spoken about how His story is going to end. It isn’t even a veiled foreshadow. He just puts it right out there.

Peter rebukes Jesus at this point. Ironically, Jesus has been complaining for two chapters about the disciples not understanding His parables. Now He speaks more directly to them than perhaps He’s ever done. They still didn’t understand.

Here’s the thing. The people who walked with Jesus, talked with Jesus, witnessed the miracles, and spent three years in His constant presence didn’t get it when He said it to them plainly.

Who am I to think that I totally get it? How much don’t I get? What am I missing? How frustrated is Jesus with me? Is He shaking His head from heaven? “Tom! Dude! Forty years you’ve been following me, and you still don’t understand?”

I’m kind of glad that things are different this year. I’m asking myself this morning how much the traditions, the trappings, the religious services, the Easter dresses and bonnets and brunches and egg hunts distract me from getting it as I should.

The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law. He must be killed and after three days rise again.

I think maybe it’s good for me to be alone during Holy Week for a change. This plain-spoken statement of Jesus is probably something I should sit with in the quiet for a while. It’s something on which I need to ponder and let penetrate.

Lord, have mercy on this blind and deaf follower.

I want to better understand.

All of Tom’s chapter-a-day posts from Mark are compiled in a simple visual index for you.

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. This includes social media such as Facebook or Twitter. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Initiative and Patience

“Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.”
Jeremiah 33:3 (NIV)

Along my spiritual journey I’ve come to understand that progression in the journey requires a heady mixture of what, on the surface of things, seems contradictory ingredients. God asks me to develop both initiative and patience.

Jesus made it clear to any who would follow Him:  Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”

Asking, seeking, and knocking are verbs. They are actions initiated by the one who is doing the asking, seeking, and knocking. I also find it fascinating that Jesus did not mention one, but three distinct verbs with slightly different metaphorical meanings. I have learned along my journey that I have to be proactive if I wish to make spiritual headway. God doesn’t give passing grades for simply showing up at class and warming a seat. If I want to move to the next spiritual grade level I have to fully participate in each lesson, assignment, experiment, exercise, and practicum. Initiative is required.

In today’s chapter, God speaks through the ancient prophet Jeremiah and foreshadows Jesus’ spiritual lesson. “Call out to me,” God says. Take the initiative. Pick up the phone. Give a shout. If I do, then an answer is promised. “Great and unsearchable things” of which I am ignorant.

In the rest of Jeremiah’s message God takes responsibility for the judgement on the nation of Judah, but then spends the rest of the chapter giving a vision of healing, restoration, redemption, and blessing. “Yes,” God says, “I am letting my children experience this hardship, but if they take the initiative to seek me out and have patience they will ultimately find that this has all been part of a much larger plan.”

This is where I find patience required. I started my spiritual journey following Jesus almost 40 years ago, and there are things I’m only beginning to learn and fathom as I approach the 40 year milestone (which is full of all sorts of spiritual significance in the Great Story). If I had bailed out early, there is so much I would have missed.

This morning I find myself thinking of the times as a parent that I earned my children’s wrath for doing what they could not, would not understand in the moment. They only saw the surface of things through the immature lens of their immediate desires. Meanwhile, as a father I was more interested in their long-term character and spiritual development than in making my child momentarily happy. Even as a parent trying to raise spiritually mature children I had to take the initiative to do what may have been unpopular in the moment and have the patience that my children would someday thank me for seeking what was best for them.

At this, the beginning of another work week, I find myself once again taking the initiative to ask, seek, and knock what God would have for me in the days ahead. And, I patiently press forward one step at a time.

The Challenge in the Way We See the World

The earth will be completely laid waste
    and totally plundered.
The Lord has spoken this word.
Isaiah 24:3 (NIV)

Over the past week in the United States we have seen a clash of peoples with very different world views; People who see the world very differently. The presidential election has brought those stark differences into the spotlight, along with our continued struggle to to love those with whom we disagree and to let discourse rule over discord.

I don’t hear people talking much about world views any more. I had an entire class on it in college in which we defined many of the more popular world views, discussed them at length, and weighed their differences. My impression is that higher education has changed a lot in the past 20 years. At the liberal arts college I attended we were taught that the loss of an election to those who saw the world differently was reason for fascination, personal challenge and understanding rather than fear and loathing.

World view is the primary way we see the world. World view is the lens of our core religious, political, and socio-economic views. Our world view is the filter through which we see the world and process news and events. It is a very human thing to assume that our world view is right and others world views are wrong; to struggle with those who don’t share our own personal view of the world.

There is, however, value in understanding how I view the world and to have it challenged. This is where discourse is a worthwhile friend.

Today’s chapter highlights a piece of world view that has been challenged in recent years. I had a discussion about this with Wendy and one of my daughters this past week in light of the surprising results of our election. Many followers of Jesus hold to what is essentially a medieval world view as it relates to our view of the future. This world view holds that things are going to get progressively worse and worse until there is apocalypse, and then Jesus will return and redeem everything in a eucatastrophic climax to the Great Story.

There is another world view I’ve been reading from some modern day mystics which takes an opposite view. God is progressively redeeming things. Things are getting better all the time, though we can’t really see it. Despite our fears, worries and a media bent on showing us all that is sensationally wrong with the world things are actually getting better as God’s resurrection power spreads in an ever-expanding universe.

So which is it? Apocalypse and eucatastrophe or evolving redemption? Isaiah’s prophetic words today certainly lends itself to the former. The world laid waste in desolation, but in the end the Lord is reigning in Jerusalem.

This morning I’m mulling over these things in my  mind. I’m pondering how I see the world and weighing what I read in God’s Message. I’m watching the news of the day and trying to see them both in context of my personal world view while understanding how those same events are perceived by those who see the world differently than I.

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Embrace the Mystery of the Moment

Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
John 13:7 (NRSV)

There was a lot that Jesus’ followers did not understand. It is a subtle, but recurring theme in John’s biography of Jesus:

  • Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
  • They did not understand that he was speaking to them about the Father.
  • Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot accept my word.
  • Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
  • His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.

Along my life journey I’ve discovered that I almost always desire clarity and understanding, but it quite regularly eludes me in the moment and in my immediate circumstances. It is only when I reach a waypoint down the road that I look back and perceive with clarity and understanding how God was at work around me, in me, and through me. I have come to accept that there are some things that will continue to elude me until my journey is over and I am safe at home.

At least I’m not alone. I take heart today in the realization that Jesus’ best friends and closest followers on this earth were perplexed in the moment, too. Being physically present with Jesus and hearing His every word, they still didn’t get it until further on down the road. Maybe it’s time for me to cut myself a little slack.

I’m reminded that this life journey is, for me, a faith journey. I will rarely have clarity and understanding in the moment. I am, however, assured of the hope that God will complete His good work in me. Having looked back at how He has brought me to this point, and all that He has faithfully accomplished thus far, it is evident that I can trust that my present circumstances are part of the plan.

You do not know now what I am doing,” Jesus says to His followers, “but later you will understand.”

Indeed.

So, go with it. Trust. Have faith.

Embrace the mystery of the moment.

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featured image by odreamer via Flickr

Life is Messy

Gideon made an ephod of it and put it in his town, in Ophrah; and all Israel prostituted themselves to it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and to his family.
Judges 8:27 (NRSV)

Life is messy. We generally like things to be black and white and believe that things would be so much easier if they were. We like our movies to provide us with simple delineations between the people who wear white hats and those who wear black hats. We like the ending of our movies to wrap up neatly. The bad guy is dead. The good guy rides off into the sunset.

But life is rarely that way. We would like a simple choice for President. We want the person who is fully qualified, looks the part, has no moral flaws, is void of skeletons in the closet, inspires us, communicates clearly, and unites a diverse citizenship. That person, however, does not exist.

Even the great heroes of the faith, whom God raised up as leaders in ancient days, were sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. They were flawed the same as me and you. God raised up Gideon to defeat the Midianites, but in today’s chapter we find that Gideon was far from perfect. He defeated an idolatrous oppressor only to create a golden ephod (generally, a garment woven with gold) that became an idol itself. Gideon, for all of his leadership qualities, had his flaws. With his power and prestige he amassed for himself many wives and concubines. With 70 sons on record, the total number of his children had to be well over a hundred. Talk about messy.

Today, I am reminded that on this life journey East of Eden we rarely get the storylines of our lives to work out how we like them in our movies. Despite our perceptions, people rarely fit into simple black hats or white hats. Most all of us wear shades of gray. We all make mistakes along the way; Some of them tragic. We have messy lives, messy relationships, and mortal flaws. Riding off into the sunset is often just the view we choose to see through our rose colored glasses.

I do not believe, however, that this is cause for pessimism or cynicism. Rather, it is an opportunity for grace, forgiveness, and understanding. Just as Jesus taught, if I can be honest about the log in my own eye, I can learn to have grace for the speck in the eye of my brother, my sister, my friend, and my neighbor.

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featured photo by senorhans via Flickr

Difficult Paths; Explicable and Not

The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to us and to our children forever, to observe all the words of this law.
Deuteronomy 29:29 (NRSV)

My life journey has led me on some difficult paths…

Some paths were difficult, but I willfully chose them knowing full well where they would likely lead. As Bob Dylan put it, “like a bad motorcycle with the devil in the seat, going 90 miles an hour down a dead-end street.” Those difficulties and the natural, negative consequences which affected myself and others are on me.

Some paths were difficult because of the willful choices of others and their natural, negative consequences which directly affected me in hurtful ways. Those difficulties are on the individuals who made those choices.

Still other paths were made difficult because we live in a fallen world in which sickness, disease, and inexplicable tragedy may suddenly affect any one of us at any time. Those difficulties are on Adam, Eve, and all of us who tread this earth east of Eden.

Some paths are made difficult because we live within a Great Story of good and evil. Evil exists in the world carrying out its chaotic and self-centered motives to destructive ends. Whether through direct attack or ripple effect, those difficulties are on the evil one and all who follow.

Then there are difficult paths I tread and I cannot explain them. They don’t fit neatly in any of the previous sources I’ve identified. These are the most perplexing. These are the things which I place within the description found in today’s chapter. These are the secret things that belong to God. I don’t see God’s purposes or perceive His reasons, and I struggle perpetually to find a place of contentment or peace in the mystery of it.

This is why it is called a faith journey.

 

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Living with Others on Life’s Big Playground

 
 
Do not eat anything you find already dead. You may give it to the foreigner residing in any of your towns, and they may eat it, or you may sell it to any other foreigner. But you are a people holy to the Lord your God.Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk. Deuteronomy 14:21 (NRSV)

One of the lessons I learned on the playeground was that not all kids were raised with the same standards and rules as were held fast at the Vander Well household. Certain words that were unacceptable in our house, were perfectly normal and common vocabulary for some families. What was expected behavior in my home was not expected behavior in friend’s homes. When I quizzed my parents about these discrepancies, I was informed that other families were free to choose their own standards. As a member of our household, however, we were expected to obey the commands of our home.

I was fascinated to come across this addendum in today’s chapter to the ancient rules God gave His Hebrew children. The rule was for His children, with the understanding that not everyone chose, or was chosen, to be God’s children. While God told His children not to eat roadkill, there was the understanding and acknowledgement that roadkill might be considered an acceptable feast for others. His children could give the roadkill away to neighbors or sell it to foreigners. The rule not to eat was between God and His children.
I observe that people in our culture are increasingly intolerant of any who disagree with their beliefs, choices, or the rules of life to which they ascribe. As I read through the news of the day I find ISIS terrorists, politically correct liberals, Christian right wingers, and adherents to any number of religious or political persuasions seem to be given to the same desire for everyone submit to their way of thinking, believing, and living.

I am reminded this morning that the world is a big playground and Jesus readily accepted that people would choose not to follow Him and His prescribed dictates for conducting our lives. In fact, Jesus was downright discouraging to certain individuals who said they wanted to do so. This is consistent with the roadkill rule in today’s chapter. If Father God is accepting of the fact that not everyone on the playground will follow our house rules and our way of thinking then shouldn’t I, as a child of His household, also be accepting of that reality? Loving and accepting those who live life by the same life rules and principles as I do is relatively easy. I tend to believe that the true mark of a Jesus follower is how well we love, accept and treat those who don’t.

Unshackled

This matter arose because some false believers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. Galatians 2:4 (NIV)

As an actor, I was trained to dig into a character’s motivation and what makes him or her tick. Why do they act the way they do? What is it that he or she wants? What drives him or her to do that? The result is that Wendy and I find ourselves constantly observing people and discussing what it is that seems to motivate them. It’s not about being critical, in fact it’s just the opposite. Rather than observing a person’s behavior and immediately judging the person based merely on our reaction to his or her behavior, we try to genuinely gain a better understanding of why that person behaves the way they do.

Wendy and I were just talking over the weekend about a person we have observed who seemingly chooses to be shackled to their legalistic, religious rules. Our discussion led to  that people who choose to be enslaved to legalistic, religious rules are motivated out of a fear of what others will think. It would seem that they are so worried about appearing good, pure, upstanding, holy that they will tie themselves up in knots to keep up the appearance of propriety (and will try to force their loved ones to do the same). The result? Uptight, joyless people enslaved to rules and perceptions.

This is exactly what Paul was touching on in today’s chapter. Experiencing the spiritual freedom to follow Jesus’ teaching without jumping through the legalistic hoops of Judaism, Paul now had to confront the uptight, joyless legalists who wished to put, and all other believers, him back in shackles. “No thanks,” I hear Paul saying and my own soul echoes the sentiment. I walked the path of legalism for several years and it twisted my soul to the point that love, joy, and peace were wrung out of my life – the very things that matter most.

To the legalistic, religious, rule following Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

The discussion Wendy and I had led us to feel sorry for our shackled friend. “We need to pray for them to experience real freedom,” Wendy said. Indeed. And, so we are.

Different Times, Same Human Challenges

source: kurt-b via flickr
source: kurt-b via flickr
After some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Come, let us return and visit the believers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul decided not to take with them one who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work. The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. But Paul chose Silas and set out, the believers commending him to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. Acts 15:36-41 (NRSV)

On occasion I will run across fellow believers who hold the early church with high esteem and want today’s church to look and behave in the same way. As I mentioned in my post the other day, I think it’s a bit silly to presume that it is even possible in most respects. Today’s chapter, however, reminded me of a couple of things:

The early church wasn’t perfect nor was it some kind of utopian organization. Read between the lines and you find that the entire period was marked by controversy, politics, arguments, and interpersonal conflicts. Today’s chapter starts with a controversy (i.e. should circumcision be required of all followers of Jesus) that broils into a debate among factions. Those Jesus followers who were of the Jewish sect of the Pharisees were vocal pro-circumcision. The Jesus followers who were non-Jewish Gentiles (and really didn’t want to go through the pain of a very intimate surgical procedure for no good reason) were passionately anti-circumcision.

The church, then and now, is made up of fallible people who inevitably find themselves in conflict. Today’s chapter ends with Paul and Barnabas having a such a sharp argument about whether to bring John Mark on their trip that they part and go their separate ways. Paul had written John Mark off because of an earlier falling out (Where was the forgiveness?) and Barnabas wanted to give J-Mark a second chance. It appears that there was no sweet agreement and reconciliation. There was no idyllic conclusion of unity. There was anger, sharp argument, and division. That sounds like every group of Jesus followers I’ve ever been a part of. So,  maybe we’re more like the early church than we sometimes realize.

Today, I’m reminded of things that change and things that never change. Daily life, work, and culture have changed drastically in the last twenty years let alone the past 2,000. At the same time, our human challenges of love, kindness, understanding, reason, acceptance, and reconciliation have never changed. They simply takes on new guises in changing times and places.