Faith Alone, but Not Your Own.

I’ve never been able to get over the moment in the story told about the men who carry a paralyzed man to Jesus, even digging through the roof of the house to get him healed.  All the stories read that when Jesus saw their faith, he both forgave the paralyzed man’s sins and healed him physically.

I’ve grown up in faith tradition that is much about the individual and how people are saved by “faith alone.”  So much in my life, though, when healing has come, it hasn’t been through the strength of my own personal faith as through the faith of others who have often dragged me, sometimes paralyzed like the man, sometimes kicking and screaming, to Jesus.

Is it really faith alone that saves us?  Who’s faith?  I wonder if we’ll all be amazed in gratitude someday to find out that it wasn’t our own faith that saved us, but the faithful presence of others willing to carry us when we were crippled into the arms of grace.


Bonhoeffer on Love & Community.

Spent an hour this AM reading Bonhoeffer’s Life Together which he wrote while teaching at the illegal seminary in Finkenwalde Germany in 1935.  The Seminary was closed two years later by the Gestapo.  He draws a sharp contrast between “human love” and “spiritual love.”  Here’s some of my favorite thoughts:

Most of what we call ‘love’ is really our pursuit of the fulfillment of a desire within us.  That’s human love.  Spiritual love, according to Bonhoeffer, does not desire but rather serves.

Human love has little regard for the truth when it comes between it and the beloved person.  Thus it often desires the other person, her company, her answering love, but it does not and cannot serve her.  That’s why human love is devastated when the fake/selfish fellowship is broken, because human/worldly love cannot love the one who resists it.  Spiritual love is free to love and serve even its enemies, because it is not dependent upon the fulfillment of its desire but on Christ.

Human love makes an end of itself, nursing and cultivating an ideal.  It loves itself and nothing else in the world.  Spiritual love, however, comes from Jesus Christ and serves him alone knowing it has no immediate access to the other person.

Spiritual love, because it serves rather than desires, is free to love even enemies as brothers and sisters because it doesn’t originate in that brother or sister: it originates in the Word of God.

Spiritual love releases the other person from our attempts to regulate, coerce, or dominate them with our ‘love.’

Human love constructs its own image of the other person, of what he is and what he should become, taking the life of the person into its own hands.  Spiritual love draws its image of the other person from the God who created that person, and respects the line drawn between them and the other.  Thus, spiritual love is wholly dependent upon the truth in Christ.

Human love is ordered by our desires.  Spiritual love is ordered by the truth.

In other words, knowing Jesus Christ frees us from self-seeking narcisisstic pursuits of community & coercive forms of love inasmuch as we realize that “God is love.”


The Lie of “Supposed To”

Like many others in their late twenties, I’ve caught myself believing the lie of “supposed to.”

Saying things to myself like “I’m supposed to have (blank) by this time in my life.”  

A certain amount of money.  A house.  A wife.  A steadily advancing job.  A certain level of maturity.  Character qualities I should’ve had by now.  

Its a lie.  There is no ‘supposed to.’  Our idea of what we’re ‘supposed to be’ by this time in our lives is a socially conditioned way of ascribing worth and identity to ourselves in comparison with other people.  The only reason we think that we’re ‘supposed to’ have accomplished anything by this time in our life is because we’re looking around at other people.  

God places us uniquely where we are.  He has set you on a unique trajectory for your life in which, if you continue to cultivate a heart that is attentive to his leading, will prove to produce something unimaginably beautiful from your life.  

I’ve realized that in my life, it is only outside of all the ‘supposed tos’ I’ve constructed for myself that I find out the great truth that I may not be where I thought I was supposed to be, but I am right where I need to be.  

Be fully present in life’s disappointments and you will often later find them to be God’s greatest appointments with you.  

The life we feel we’re missing out on is almost always available right under our noses. 

Learning to Speak & See.

“Then was brought unto him one possessed with a devil, blind and dumb: and he healed him, insomuch that the blind and dumb both spake and saw.”  Matt. 12:22 (KJV)

I cannot imagine what it would be like to be unable to speak.   Can you imagine the agony of desperately desiring to communicate to someone and being unable to?  Especially being a pastor, where I make my living by…well…talking.  It’d be catastrophic.

In Matthew chapter 12, Jesus encountered a man who was both blind and mute.  Jesus is always encountering people with physical ailments, but this man is particularly afflicted, having lost 2 of his 5 senses.  One thing you realize if you study the Gospels is that the condition of the particular physical bodies Jesus encounters is often reflective of the condition of the nation as a whole.  This man was blind and mute, but so was Israel.  Blinded by its lost leaders, and left mute by the oppression of Roman occupation, the condition of the nation could also have accurately been described as “blind and mute.”

Societal muteness means that there are vast amounts of people that don’t have a voice.  It means there are people who are unable to speak because their voice has either consciously or subconsciously been dismissed by those in power as lacking credibility.

The man Jesus encountered was “possessed by a demon.”  I have no reason to doubt that demon possession is possible.  But more important than whether or not you believe in demons is what being demonized meant.  It meant to have your entire person under control of evil.  Whether or not this man was actually possessed by a demon or had simply been accused of it, this man was one whom everyone saw as under the control of evil.  They say “perception is reality,” and the reader of this story is reminded of the corporate character attacks launched at marginalized members of the community, rendering them voiceless.  The institution (in this case, the Temple aristocracy) had declared this man to be demon possessed, thus discrediting his words (right after this they will do the same thing with Jesus, telling him that it is by the power of the Ruler of Demons that he casts them out).

It is eternally curious that Matthew tells us that Jesus healed him so that he could speak and see.  Seems kind of redundant, Jesus.  I mean, obviously when you heal someone who is blind and mute they will be able to speak and see.  But Matthew is calling our attention to a deeper reality.  Among other wondrous things, I believe that one thing the presence of Jesus brings is the liberation of language so that the cry of the oppressed is finally heard.  The salvation-history of God and his people always begins with someone in oppression crying out and their voice being heard (“out of the slavery, their cry for help rose up to God” Ex. 2:23-24).  Often those cries for help involve the upheaval of the current regime…the catastrophic subversion of the current institution.  So its no wonder why we try to silence them.  But when those regimes are overthrown, whether by miraculous intervention or suffering love and nonviolent resistance, people long mute are able to speak again.

The problem with centers of power that set themselves up as ideological monopolies is that they will always react in self-preservation against dissenters.  Because they have the resources, the power, and the numbers to back themselves up, they are often ruthlessly efficient in the mutification of the marginalized.  If the character-attack doesn’t work, there is always the cross.  As such, the cross becomes the ultimate price for refusing to conform to the corporate society’s crippling language.

So the man disappears from the story, speaking and seeing, and now Jesus is front-and-center for the character attack of the Temple regime.  All Jesus does is give them a strong warning about how the words they are speaking against people are leading the entire nation into a forever deepening blindness.

Who are we unintentionally marginalizing with the words we speak?

Who are we rendering voiceless in our attempts to preserve and protect our institutions?

What restitution must be made in order to invite the marginalized, forgotten, neglected, and oppressed to a seat at the table?

What ‘ideologies’ need to die in order that ‘individuals’ might live?

What societal sin do we need to repent of in order to discern God’s activity in and through the Messiah?

Could it be that in our attempts to protect our corporations and our “ministries” we are unintentionally opposing the healing presence of the Messiah?

Expression on a child's face after hearing for the first time in his life after experimental auditory testing.

Expression on a child’s face after hearing for the first time in his life after experimental auditory testing.

The Storm of Jonah. (part 4)

Jesus and his disciples arrive at Bethphage and the mount of Olives.  This is the place from the legend of Zechariah from which the Messiah king would enter into Jerusalem.  It is here that Jesus stages a political demonstration.  In the classic fashion of kings entering into Jerusalem after conquering, Jesus enters riding not on his war steed like the kings of old, but on a donkey.  Jesus is making a statement about the kind of victory God is accomplishing in and through him.

He has come for his coronation as Israel’s new King as the true Son of David, and the crowds (so far a fascinating character in the story) acknowledge this by quoting Psalm 118: “Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”  These people are ready for Jesus to lead an uprising and finally end Roman occupation like Judas Maccabeus before him.  They are ready for Jesus to finally disclose his power in a violent coup.  They are ready for he and the disciples to launch a revolution, wielding the power of God to crush Israel’s enemies…

…and all Jesus does is turn over some tables in the temple and hang out with children…

Its no wonder that a few days later the same crowd that shouted “Hosanna!” will be stirred by the chief priests and the elders to swell in demonic unison as they cry out “CRUCIFY HIM!”  Pilate, the Roman governor attempts to release Jesus having found nothing to charge him with.  He offers to the crowds a known criminal named Jesus Barabbas.  The crowds cry for the release of Jesus Barabbas.  At least Barabbas gets things done.  They want a revolutionary who fights for them, not one who turns over tables and lets children sit on his lap.  But this is the very essence of the kingdom and reign of God.  It doesn’t come in visible demonstrations of power that awe the crowds, nor in violent military victories:  It comes in peace, obscurity, and suffering love.

Earlier, before Caiaphas, the chief priest, Jesus claimed that in the very act of crucifying him they would witness “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven.”  In Daniel 7, the Son of Man came on the clouds of heaven to judge the sea monsters which represented the oppressive Gentile kingdoms throughout history.  By claiming this event was finding its fulfillment in what was about to happen, Matthew is declaring Jesus to be the judge of the world.  The Judge of all had finally come, the storm of Jonah had arrived, the sea monsters convulsing in satanic unison to crucify the Son of God.  The Messiah has been warning his people of a terrifying judgment coming upon Jerusalem, and his crucifixion represents his willingness to be the first one to endure it.  In a shocking reversal of events, the Judge had come to receive the very same judgment he came to bring…in his own person.



The Storm of Jonah. (part 3)

…cont. from The Storm of Jonah. (part 1) and (part 2)

We’ve already seen that Jesus’ popularity has grown dramatically, to the point where he has faced a crescendo of opposition from the religious leaders from Jerusalem.  Nearing a decisive point in the narrative of the Gospel of Matthew, some of these religious leaders come to test Jesus, asking him to show them a sign from heaven.  Jesus responds by commending their meteorological capacities … “You know how to interpret the skies to know whether a storm is coming, but you don’t know how to interpret the signs of the times.”  Why would they need a sign?  Hadn’t they witnessed the deeds of power Jesus was performing?  They’d seen a man’s withered hand healed on the Sabbath.  They’d seen the nameless forces of evil chaos in possession of human bodies listen to the command of Jesus.  Yet they could not recognize the signs of the times.

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas has pointed out that American Christians automatically assume that if we had been confronted by someone like Hitler, we would’ve been able to recognize that he was evil.  However, Germany was one of the most theologically sophisticated nation on the planted.  But Christians in Germany assumed they were German Christians just like Christians in America assume that we are “American Christians.”  He goes on to say that churches that are nationally identified will seldom be able to faithfully read the signs of the times.  Religious leaders read the New York Times and adjust, while followers of Jesus read the same papers to show how Jesus offers an alternative reading of the times.

The rumblings of the thunder of coming judgment roll off in the distance, as Jesus tells them that only a wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign.  Striking that Jesus calls an entire generation wicked.  To this generation, as to all generations, no sign will be given except the enigmatic Sign of Jonah.  Jonah was swallowed up by a sea monster in the middle of a storm, as the result of God’s judgment upon him for fleeing Ninevah, and the only sign the generation will be given is the same sign of judgment and death.

The sign of Jonah is at the same time a promise of a horrific coming judgment upon the generation, but at the same time a promise of hope.  Anyone who knew the story knew that even though Jonah was swallowed up by the big fish, it was unable to digest him & spit him out.  The coming judgment will be awful, but a statement is being made here that death itself will not be able to digest what it swallows.

Immediately following this Jesus takes his disciples to Caesaria Philippi, where his disciples recognize explicitly that he is the Messiah & the Son of the Living God.  Jesus commends Peter for this recognition, promising to give him the keys of power over the alternative community that Jesus is forming as witnesses to his Kingdom.  And then, in a shocking change of tone, for the first time in the Gospel story, Jesus tells his disciples that they must head for Jerusalem, for there he will face the ultimate storm and will die a terrifying, violent death.

Peter rebukes him, saying “HELL NO!  This will NOT happen to you!”  Jesus’ sharply attacks Peter and calls him satan, for Peter’s words reflect the same words that the devil gave him in the wilderness…”if you are the Son of God, save yourself!”  The road of the Messiah is not one of survival or self-preservation…the only way to accomplish God’s purpose for humanity is to walk the road of sacrifice and suffering love that always ends on a cross.

Jesus doesn’t expect all his disciples to follow.  In fact, he leaves it open for them to leave.  If they want to follow him to Jerusalem, they can, but the way of the cross is one where not only will they lose everything, and they will probably die.  Like the Fellowship of the Ring before the looming gates of Mordor, the Jesus and his band of followers find their vision darkened by the shadow of the cross which creeps ever closer.  A cackle of thunder booms from the south over the skies of Jerusalem, where the final Storm of Jonah now resides.

The Messiah and his newly founded church begin their final march upon the Holy City where he will be crucified as Israel’s Final King.


The Storm of Jonah. (part 2)

As much as I like going to the beach, the Jews of Jesus’ day were not to fond of the ocean.  Part of the reason for this could’ve been that in some of their ancient stories the ocean was were all the powers of evil lived.  The deeps of the surf were the battle ground in which God took on the Leviathan (cf. Is. 27:1; Job 3:8), a massive sea serpent that the old writers imagined as the embodiment of the nameless, faceless, unexplainable chaos of creation.   The ocean represented the primordial anarchy of the universe.

The ocean also represented something more tangibly sinister in Israel’s legends: Gentile kingdom superpowers that had subjugated and oppressed the people of God for ages…from Egypt to Assyria, to Babylon, to Persia, to Rome.  The book of Daniel records a well-known story of Daniel (a Jewish exile in Babylon) and a nightmare that he had of the ocean.  In his dream, four beasts arise out of the ocean and wage war against the earth and against each other.  Just when it seems as if the beasts are going to devour the world in fire, Daniel sees something else in the middle of the flames…a mysterious figure whom he simply describes as a “son of man” who emerges on the clouds of heaven.  This Son of Man is given authority over the beasts…the wicked kingdoms devouring the flesh of humanity are subjugated to his everlasting dominion.

Large crowds had began to follow Jesus.  They’d heard the incredible words he had spoken on the hillside outside of Capernaum.  They’d witnessed people get healed by the words of his mouth.  At one point the story, because the crowds are getting be so great, Jesus gives orders to “cross to the other side of the lake” (Mt. 8:18).  Matthew is subtly evoking Israel’s past in which she was led literally across oceans (Ex. 14:29) from slavery to freedom, & from life to death.  At this command, a teacher of the law approaches Jesus and makes a bold claim: “teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.”  Jesus’ response is startling on multiple levels: “foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”  Almost out of nowhere, Jesus claims the title from Daniel’s nightmare for himselfand in the same breath also claims to those that want to follow him across the ocean must realize that this great Ruler given authority over everything that breathes and all the powers and armies of the world is…are you ready for it?…homeless.  

So this homeless man and his disciples get into a boat to cross over the Lake of Galilee to the other side.  While on the lake, suddenly a ferocious storm descends upon them.  Waves are crashing over the side of the boat and Jesus is … sleeping!  His disciples frantically wake him saying “Lord save us!  We’re going to drown!”  Jesus yawns, stands up and says “you of little faith, why are you so afraid?”  And then Jesus speaks to the storm to be calm, and the storm obeys him.  

Everyone is amazed and they ask the question that provides the central drama of the story of Matthew: “what kind of man is this?  Even the wind and the waves obey him!”  What kind of man is this, who calls himself the Son of Man, the Ruler of all, who treads on oceans, who like sleeps peacefully amidst the terrifying pressure of the oppression of Gentile superpowers, who orders multitudes to cross over oceans with him?

A curious connection with the prophet Jonah echoes underneath this storyline.  Jonah ran from God’s command to go to the Gentile city of Ninevah to call its people to repentance.  Jonah did not want Ninevah to experience God’s forgiveness: after all, they were Assyrian.  This was the capital city of the empire that had brought immense suffering on his people.  And now God was calling him to go and preach in it?  Jonah did not want these people to repent; he wanted judgment!  God sends a storm on Jonah’s boat, and Jonah is below the deck, fast asleep.  Because of Jonah’s disobedience he is thrown overboard and according to the legend is swallowed by a great sea monster.

Unlike Jonah, Jesus is traveling towards Gentile territory, into the lands of Israel’s enemies … into a great storm much larger than the small squall this band of travelers face upon the lake.  Later Jesus will warn his opponents that the “Sign of Jonah” will be intertwined with his own fate…that the Son of Man will enter into the heart of the earth for three days.  Jesus crosses over the lake to the other side and continues to perform deeds of power with words of his mouth.  As they travel his mission becomes increasingly clearer to his disciples, and we begin to think that perhaps Jonah will get the judgment upon Israel’s enemies that he once longed for after all.  An ominous darkness creeps over the horizon of the narrative in the skies to the south and distant rumblings of the storm of Jonah can be heard once again…