Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Suburbia: Out of the Danger Zone

How much does danger fuel our training of others for kingdom-of-God work?

Oops! Did I write "danger"? What's gotten into me?

In Mark 1:14 we read, "After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee...'Come, follow me,' Jesus said, 'and I will make you fishers of men.' "

John, the forerunner, was imprisoned. Danger.
This triggered Jesus into aggressive calling and training of others. Discipling.

In Mark 3:6 we read, "Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus." A few verses later Mark informs us, "He appointed twelve—designating them apostles—that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons" (verses 3:14-15).

A plot to murder Jesus is hatched. Danger.
Jesus selects and begins training the Twelve. Discipling.

Between Mark 3:6 and 3:13 we learn that people were swarming to Jesus from all over--from the north, south, east and west. The Jerusalem religious mafia was thoroughly informed about Jesus' fame and impact. The danger is taking a life of its own.

But that was then. This is now...

It's seven p.m. The living room is cozy. What is USAmerican discipleship like, particularly in suburbia? How much urgency permeates the process? Is there any urgency at all that is ignited by real danger? We sip our coffee, eat our snacks, and read our "lessons" and fill in the blanks of our cool workbooks, wondering if this will be over before "24" starts. Oh, there's the urgency. There is more danger and urgency in a one hour TV show than there is in a whole year of Americanized, suburbanized discipleship.

Why the urgency and danger in an artificial show like "24"? Probably in order to show that with terrorism lives are at stake. Oh.

Good thing lives are not at stake in Christian discipleship. We can vicariously live urgently and dangerously through "Lost," "24," or "CSI."

Back to our version of dicipleship:

1. Jesus chose how many disciples? ________ Why that number?

[Oooo, oooo, I know. Pick me, pick me!]

2. What does the word "disciple" mean? (circle one)
clergy person/missionary/person likely to get killed

3. Extra credit: who is discipling you?

4. Extra, extra credit: who are you discipling?
[workbooks are for sale]

I smell the coffee. Isn't this fun? What time is it?

Danger? You've got to be kiddin' me. I'm into the pleasure-driven life. Oops! I'm sorry. Did I write "pleasure"? I meant....


Monday, January 29, 2007

Markan Priority: The Power of "Being With Jesus"

I like Mark's Gospel for the little surprises that he provides about Jesus' life and ministry.

When Jesus selected the Twelve, Mark writes in 3:14, "He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach..." Do you see the surprise? It's there in the verse and neither Matthew nor Luke offer it. It's the first little purpose (hina) clause "that they might be with him" (ινα ωσιν μετ αυτου).

Ponder what Mark puts first as the purpose of Jesus' selection. Jesus wanted the Twelve to be with him. "Be---with---him." What a thought. Jesus, according to Mark, did not choose only "doers" who would preach the available kingdom and cast out demons and heal the sick. Jesus chose "be-ers" who would hang out with him. Not serve together first, but live together first.

I'd suggest, if Peter is really behind Mark's account, that we're getting a heads up, as Henri Nouwen contends, that intimacy with Jesus is a priority over ministry for Jesus. And the context for intimacy leading to ministry is community (he chose 12).

Intimacy. Community. Ministry.

"Peter, do you love me?" is a question of intimacy--being with Jesus. "Yes, Lord, I love you."
"Then, feed my sheep." That is ministry. "Peter, do you love me?"

Loving devotion to Jesus Christ is the basis of ministry for Jesus Christ. Sure, education helps; certainly skills and abilities help. But nothing replaces "being with Jesus."

Have you marveled at Luke's note in Acts 4:13? "When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus" (οτι συν τω ιησου ησαν).

Uneducated. Ordinary. Unstoppable. Why?

Imagine that.

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Friday, January 26, 2007

Boundary Marker Spirituality: A Story

(musical theme: Dahn, da, daaahn; dahn, da, dahn, da, daaaaaaaaah...)

"The following story is true; only the names have been changed to protect the innocent. My name's Frye-day. I'm a cop. It was late Wednesday night in the city..."

Okay, okay, enough with the Dragnet motif.

I was with a group of people and as the conversation unfolded, I presented a brief summary of bounded-set spirituality versus centered-set spirituality (click here for a more thorough presentation).

Bounded-set spirituality relies on "markers" to identify who's in and who's out. For the Jews in Jesus' day, it was circumcision, dietary code, Sabbath law, racial origin and the like. Bounded-set spirituality when I was a teen included no smoking, no drinking, no movies (in a theater), no dancing, no playing with "devil cards" (though you could kick butt playing Rook). Centered-set spirituality defined by Jesus was loyalty in following him as he demonstrated the life of "the great commandment" (what Scot McKnight presents as The Jesus Creed).

Brent, a man in the group, told me the following: When he was a teenager, he violated a boundary-marker for spirituality. Growing up in a strict religious home and church, it was drilled into him that he could not buy anything on Sunday; he could not even enter a store. It was against the law of God, and severe judgment would result. Christians never bought anything on Sunday.

One Sunday night he was with some friends and they decided to go into a supermarket. He felt jittery, but went along. Here is his description as he walked through:

"As I walked down the aisle, I was really scared. I was afraid, not so much that I was breaking the Sabbath, but I was alarmed by all the people I saw. They were all pagans. They must be, because they were in there shopping. I clutched my wallet because only very degenerate people would be in the store--robbers, drunkards, low-life types. There would not be any good people in a store. I was shocked at how many pagans there were. I was afraid for my life. I didn't want to look them in the eye because I thought they would hurt me and my friends. I felt so relieved when we got out of there."

Because of a religious boundary marker, this man recalls defining a mass of people that he did not know as degenerate, dangerous, and hell-bound pagans. He felt very threatened by them. He knew they were "out." He was "in," even though he was feeling guilty. Boundary marker spirituality turns people into fear-driven, judgmental, character-assassinating homophobes.

I am thankful that Brent told me his story. It helped me understand the fear and hostility that Jesus generated in people by his boundary-breaking love. Boundaries create bubbles and everyone outside the bubble is contaminated. It's not a safe be a lover of God and a lover of people.


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Jesus: Beyond Anger Management

(picture from images)

We all admit that anger is a tough emotion to handle. Usually, but not always, our anger makes things worse rather than better. Yet, anger is here to stay.

Jesus shows us how anger works for the good. In a Sabbath incident recorded in Mark 3:1-6, we read in verse 5 that "Jesus, looking around at them in/with anger ( μετ οργης ), deeply grieved (συλλυπουμενος) by the hardness of their hearts, said to the man, 'Stretch out your hand!'"

William Lane remarks that Jesus is angry here with "the anger of God." We are not left to wonder if this is "righteous anger." We are honestly reluctant to label our anger as such. James 1:20 is correct that our anger seldom if ever advances the righteous life that God desires.

Yet, note the intentional connection of "with anger" and "deeply grieved." In the Greek text, the two phrases are side by side. This is very instructive. With this insight into Jesus' emotional state, we see anger and grief together: not anger alone nor grief alone.

Rarely am I aware of grief when I am angry. I say and do things that grief wouldn't go near and never prompt. Yet Jesus' anger is a companion to deep grief.

Are grief and anger different? Of course, they are. And grief, when teamed with anger, transforms anger into active, courageous compassion. We see this modeled by Jesus in this Sabbath episode. The religious leaders have schemed to trap Jesus in Sabbath disobedience. Compassion is the last thing in their hearts. Their hearts are calloused; resistant to grace. Is it lawful to kill on the Sabbath? Yet, in verse 6, these leaders on the Sabbath plot to kill Jesus. These so-called guardians of the Sabbath are blatantly disobeying it. How ironic.

Jesus looked at the religious leaders in anger, yet was profoundly grieved by their insensitive spirits. Anger and grief together keep Jesus from being obsessed with the leaders. His anger and grief keep him focused on his mission; on the needy human being--the man with the withered hand. Anger diverts us (usually) from the righteous life God desires. Anger united with grief advances active compassion and brings about the righteous life that God desires.

We need God to transform our anger into grief. Anger alone will harden our hearts and destroy the hearts of others. Anger with grief will prompt us to act courageously and compassionately.

David, who felt the fierce energy of angry hate, prayed this:

Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

Spirit, mix our anger with deep grief for your sake and ours. Amen.


Saturday, January 20, 2007


Scot McKnight has posted some thoughts about "doubt and faith" over at Jesus Creed.

My question is this: Is all doubt sin? I raise the question because, apparently, many Christians think so. They believe that all doubt is from the devil, therefore, all doubt is sin.

As I reflect on doubt, I think there are several kinds.

1. Trivial doubt. For example, you say something to me and I say, "I doubt it." It may merely mean, "I disagree with you." No more.

2. Sinful doubt. This is the kind sown into Eve by the serpent. "Has God really said...?" This is a dangerous doubt and needs to be confronted. It requires obedience to all the New Testament commands to "Be alert!'

3. In-Between doubt. We are living in a world where we know that how things are is not how things ought to be. We ought to live at peace with everyone, not kill them. We ought to have no starving children or orphans due to AIDS, etc. Yet, we do. We struggle with being caught in between our promised future and our present reality. Doubt arises.

4. Finite doubt. We are limited human beings. As glorious as the human mind is, it still is finite, limited, and subject to profound error. At the same time, human beings who bear the image of God have "eternity in their hearts" (Eccles. 3:11). Caught in time and space, we yearn for that which is free and eternal. In this disjunction doubts arise.

So, of the doubts above, only one is sinful: doubt springing from unbelief. The other doubts are here to stay. They are not sinful. They are part of life as it is.

What do you think?


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

I've Been Tagged: Five Curious Things

Scot McKnight tagged me. I am constrained to report to you five odd or curious things about myself that you wouldn't know.

Here goes:

1. I was born in Corinth, Mississippi. I was converted to Christ in Zion, Illinois. My mother named me John (God is gracious) because God, in her dream, told her to. What do you know about Corinth, Zion, and John from the Bible?

2. My best meal ever was eating beans and rice with my right hand with rural national pastors in Mozambique.

3. I enjoyed a martini with N.T. Wright at a country club when he came to my city to debate Marcus Borg about the resurrection of Jesus.

4. I have four knock-down gorgeous daughters and four grandsons and two granddaughters. I am a blessed father and grandfather. My wife, Julie, is a beauty, too, and we've been married 38 years.

5. My dream car is a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air, 2 door, hard top (no post) with a 327 engine and Hurst 4 speed and positraction rear-end. That's all.

I tag Evan Haskill, Greg Mutch, Peter Fitch, Ken Kemp and Ben Kraker.


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Peter and Mary Ellen ("Sally") Fitch, Eh?

Mary Ellen and Peter Fitch
God brings good gifts into our lives and into our lives God brought Peter and Mary Ellen Fitch. They feel, and act, just like family. We are comfortable with them as we laugh together, probe life's pains together, eat and drink together, and love and seek to follow Jesus together.

We can discuss Foucault and David Crowder, or the prolific N.T. Wright, we can explore C.S. Lewis's writings and Teresa of Avila's; and we can laugh at "Betty Butterfield" and "R.D. Mercer" and "the little Irish girl's" prank calls. We can enjoy the comedy of mockumentaries (e.g., A Mighty Wind) and the acting skills of Peter Sellers, Will Ferrell, and Ben Stiller (in Zoolander). We can discuss global politics (what do you know of the "Blair papers"?) and economic issues. We can enjoy karaoke at Cheers, we can discern deep theological concepts in the movie Telladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and the humor in, yes, The Passion of the Christ.

We have a thing for "shiny dimes" (which we need to talk about to you in person).

We like old people like John of the Cross, Bernard of Clairveaux, Theresa de Lisieux and Nicholas Herman. We are fascinated with Jesus of Nazareth.

We love the local church and all things small. Glitz and bigness and noise are uncomfortable concepts ecclesiologically speaking. We like books and a good cup of coffee. Peter really likes duct tape, too, for some unexplainable Canadian reason. Mary Ellen keeps Peter alive. Thank you, Sally. Peter, "Stop it!"

St. Stephen's University in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, Canada, is sought as an effective and beautiful alternative to Christian higher education. Julie and I have been there and it is a wonderful blend of excellent, even demanding scholarship and intentional Christian community. Where is it? Go to the most northern point of northeastern USA and then just one block more. You're in St. Stephen just across the St. Croix River from Calais, ME.

Peter teaches in the university and founded and pastors the St. Croix Vineyard Christian Fellowship.

Peter and I met at Fuller Theological Seminary while doing Doctor of Ministry studies.

Thanks be to God for his marvelous gifts, eh?

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Monday, January 15, 2007

Your Rooms are Ready

I worked hard and had fun at the same time.
Julie was in Nashville, TN visiting her mother and sister. She then went to Haslet, TX (near Dallas-Ft Worth) to visit with our daughter, Leah, and her family.

While she was away, I painted our upstairs bathroom and what used to be Shamar's bedroom. We're making that an area a "guest room" area. I e-mailed the "I Love You" picture to Julie. She thought that I should have left the words there for the Fitch's visit.

Peter and Mary Ellen Fitch from St. Stephen, New Brunswick, Canada came to stay with us as Peter was speaking at a Bella Vista Church prayer retreat. (I was working to get the guest rooms ready.) Peter pastors the St. Croix Vineyard and also is a professor in St. Stephen University (a creative alternative to Christian higher education). Peter and I met while doing our Doctor of Ministry studies in the history and practice of Christian spirituality at Fuller Theological Seminary (1995-1999).

Let us know if you're ever visiting the Grand Rapids, MI area. You have a place to stay.


Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Gerald 'Our' Ford: A Little Piece of History

We entered into a little piece of U.S. presidential history yesterday. We visited the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum and passed by President Ford's flag-draped coffin.

We got into the DeVos convention center at 4:00 p.m. and after approximately 3 hours in line made our way across the Grand River into the museum. On our way in, John "Jack" Ford and his wife were coming out and we got to shake his hand. He seemed genuinely thankful for those coming to commemorate his father.

On crossing back over the Pearl Street bridge, we saw that the line was incredibly long and we estimated that people would be in line until about 2 a.m. before they entered the museum.

In the picture above (taken Sunday afternoon), Julie is signing the condolences book. We asked some strangers to take our picture and e-mail it to us. They did, along with some other neat pictures they had taken. On a restaurant window near Rosa Parks Circle we saw a sign that read "Gerald 'Our' Ford." Grand Rapidians are honored by the service and legacy of this good man.

President Gerald R. Ford will be buried in a small grassy knoll flanked by pine trees just to the north of the museum.

Update: The park authorities report that 57,000 people viewed the former President's coffin.

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Monday, January 01, 2007

Ancient-Future Hope: Simeon and Anna

Most of the time we focus on Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus at the Advent season. This is a proper thing to do.

Yet along with this young couple with their miracle baby, two older folk make their way into the story: Simeon (we assume is old because he says he is ready "now" to die after he sees Jesus) and Anna the prophetess that Luke tells us is 84 years old.

Young and old are brought together around Jesus at the Temple. I think this is important to note because of the words of hope and challenge that Simeon utters and that Anna confirms.

For Simeon and Anna, hope is a person; an infant brought to the Temple out of obedience to long-standing Mosaic law. Simeon's and Anna's years of longing, waiting and hoping are brought to completion in Jesus. The "comfort of Israel" is here (see Isaiah 40:1-5) and the "redemption of Jerusalem" is at a baby.

Think about our world. Young people need the stedfast hope and faithfulness of older people who are surrendered to the Spirit and who, from long years of life in an oppressive world, still bless children and give words of wonder to their parents. They offer a wisdom not jaded by the Fall. Joseph and Mary were stunned by Simeon's prophetic words.

Simeon is a truth-teller. While he has seen the "salvation of the Lord" in the person of baby Jesus, Simeon reports that Jesus is not only the promised deliverer, but he will be a troubling divider. Many will trip and fall over Jesus; others will grasp him and rise. Jesus will be a "sign" spoken against. Love is offered to all, but not all accept the offer. Mary will experience not only perplexing marvel, but searing pain. There will be both a Savior and sword. Simeon speaks the whole truth about Jesus and salvation.

Mary. Joseph. Infant Jesus. Simeon. Anna. Generations brought together in the ancient/future Story of God.

May the older followers of Jesus have courage and grace to speak words of hope and truth; may the younger generation have humility and grace to hear. May all, with Spirit-fired love, serve the LORD's Christ and the world he came to deliver.