Friday, September 14, 2018

Introducing Cultivate

What’s life without a little irony?

If you had asked me a year ago what the chances were that I’d be working on a start-up youth ministry for at-risk teens in Fort Myers this fall, I would’ve said slim… very slim… possibly non-existent.

Many years ago now I left a job in Costa Rica working with at-risk youth to do the seminary and ministry to adults thing. At that time, I said that while I was tremendously blessed for the eight years I got to work with at-risk youth, I was ready to move on (permanently) to something different.

And somewhere God chuckled.

When Amy and I decided to launch a local missionary network last year one of our guiding principles was, “Who are the people that the established churches are not serving or seeking with Christ’s love?” We then set out to find those people and to see if God would open a door for us to build relationships with them, serve them, and reveal the Kingdom amongst them. That mission took us down many different streets, but we never received the green light we were looking for to put all our effort into one place.

This past June I was reasonably frustrated with the situation (it had been a tough spring for a variety of reasons), and at a loss for where we were supposed to be. And it was, of course, when I threw up my hands and said, “Okay God, you’re going to have to make something happen here,” that He did. He kicked a door wide open in fact, with just one catch… the people we were called to serve were at-risk youth.

That divine irony thing… get’s me every time!
(When I was 23 I also cursed God and swore I’d never go back to church. Yup, I’m that guy.)

So, for the last four months we’ve been hanging out a few times a week with a group of about 15 teens who are growing up in a particularly challenging neighborhood in Fort Myers. (Here's an example of what goes on in their neighborhood.) They are bright, funny and full of life, but face some very significant challenges in their surroundings.

Nothing like trusting another 13 year old when you're blindfolded
Four weeks ago we officially kicked off Cultivate, a ministry aimed at sharing God’s love with these teens and helping them develop their God-given gifts. Each Wednesday we are gathering to play games, eat dinner, and to talk life and faith. Through the ministry the youth will have mentors, and will have the opportunity to earn special outings and activities (through grades, serving others, meeting goals, attendance, etc). We have a long way to go, but as I write today I’m filled with joy and thankful to God for leading us to this community and for throwing a little irony and adventure into our lives in the process.

All that being said, if you are local and would like an opportunity to serve some great young men and women please let me know! We have many needs that could be addressed by all kinds of people. And to everyone reading this blog, please pray for us that we would lead this group with an abundance of grace, love and truth, and that we would continually point the guys to Jesus with our words and
The champs in action!

No injuries were sustained...

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Finishing Up Mark

In the last section of Mark’s gospel we discover the final, and most important, identity of Jesus: Son of God. This is where Mark’s story began (1:1) and in these last chapters we come full circle, albeit with very different and a deeper understanding of the significance of those words.

In Jesus’ day calling someone the “son of God” was simply another way of calling them “the king.” Numerous ancient kings took the title “son of god” (including Caesar Augustus), claiming that their rule was ordained by god and that they were the mediators of god’s (or the gods’) will for their people. In Israel this concept was slightly modified, in that the king was not the law-giver or the mouthpiece of God (those positions were held by the Torah and by the prophets). However, the idea that the king was God’s chosen ruler was still there (again, this was connected to the Son of David idea that we discussed in the previous post) and therefore when other Jewish characters (like the High Priest in 14:61) say “Son of God” they basically mean what we said for “messiah.” 

Redefining “Son of God”

At this point you might think we’ve already covered all this territory, but here’s the thing: Jesus redefines what it means to be Son of God. Through Mark’s gospel we learn that the Son of God is…

… the Son of Man, who is persecuted and suffers and is then lifted to victory by God and exalted. In other words, being God’s Son does not simply mean reigning on high apart from the struggle below. Rather, it means sacrificing oneself for the sake of God’s people, and through this sacrifice becoming the instrument of their victory. (Jesus alludes to Daniel 7:13-14, 21-22, and 23-27 in his speech about the destruction of the temple and in his own trial, and these references point to a prophecy of a “Son of Man” who suffers and is exalted by God… Jesus actively seeks this role!)

… the true Image of God (Col. 1:15), who reveals the Father’s heart and character through the passion and love he demonstrated in going to the cross for the sake of humanity. It is at the moment of Jesus’ final agony and death that the centurion under the cross declares him to be the Son of God (Mark 15:39). This indicates that Jesus’ death itself was revelatory; through it the love of the Father was revealed, as was his unique relationship with the Son, which spurred on the Son’s sacrifice (see also Mark 1:11 and 9:7).

… the Resurrected One, who has overcome evil and death and possesses in himself eternal life and the complete authority of God. His kingship is revealed to be eternal, and his call and invitation for people to follow him (i.e. give him their allegiance) continues to go forth after his death and resurrection, with the promise that his disciples will share in his eternal life and kingdom.

Where does this redefinition leave us?

This consideration of Jesus as the Son of God leads us back to the previous post, in which I said Jesus wasn’t about helping us get what we want (“win”) out of life. Rather, I said that he wanted us to renounce our own agenda and interests (“deny ourselves”) in favor of God’s agenda, even if that meant loss and death (“pick up your cross”). That of course then begged the question, “Why be a disciple of Jesus if it might cause me to lose what I want for this life?”

While I partially answered that question by pointing to Jesus’ character and trustworthiness as a leader, it was not the moment to discuss the “incentives” of following Jesus. But now that we have a little understanding of Jesus as the Son of God, it is appropriate to name why we follow Jesus… note that it’s not just about “going to heaven when we die!”

We follow Jesus because in him (in his very being) is the eternal life of the Kingdom of God, which He offers to those who, as disciples, give him their allegiance. This means we can receive that life now (via the Holy Spirit) in part, and look forward to receiving that life fully on the day of the resurrection when the Kingdom is established in power. 

We follow Jesus because he is our champion: the one who willingly and lovingly laid down his life to defeat sin and death, atone for our sins and reconcile us with God our Father. Jesus possesses the true authority of God, who is always giving of himself in love in order that life and blessing might be received by others. His authority does not simply rest on his power (though he has all the power needed) but also on his love. 

Further, as one who struggled and sacrificed as a human like us, he is a faithful and merciful guide as we navigate the difficulties and disappointments of life, including our own sins and errors. We can trust him to lead us because he knows the way of God, the way to God and the obstacles that face us on our journey.

It is hard, and scary, to let go of our own interests and desires and to let Jesus have control over our lives and our full allegiance. But it is a wise trade in the end, because,  in the words of Jim Elliot, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” The invitation to follow Jesus, the Son of God, and to receive His love and His life, is the greatest gift we could ever receive. So much so, that it is indeed worth losing everything we could possess or desire apart from Him. I and  And that, in the end, is what the Gospel of Mark is all about.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Gridiron Glory Days and Mark #4

105 pounds of pure power...
Have you ever been excited to take on a challenge or risk, and then as soon as it began in earnest realized that it was a bad idea?

When I was in 8th grade I tried out for the football team. I was a solid backyard football player at that point in my life; I could catch, run and even tackle reasonably well. My one problem was that I only weighed 105 pounds. Being so small, I knew that I had to prove to the coaches I was not afraid to get hit and mix it up with bigger players.

So when our first “hitting day” rolled around I decided to roll the dice. I was put in the “B” group of hitters, meaning that we had done well (we weren’t group C), but we weren’t top level. At the end of practice, our coach allowed anyone from group B to challenge anyone from group A to a one on one hitting drill (the goal was to block the other guy down or out of the lane). In a moment of insanity, I jumped up and challenged the second best blocker/tackler on our team, who played middle linebacker and full-back, and probably out weighed me by at least 50 pounds. 

As we walked over to the drill area and got down in our stances I knew that I didn’t have a prayer of knocking this guy down, and there was a good chance of me getting crushed in front of the team and many onlookers. And the little voice in my head said, “What the ____ were you thinking John!” (fill in blank as you see fit). But it was too late to repent; the coach had the whistle in his mouth… And for the end of the story you’ll have to make it to the end of the blog…

So at this point you might be thinking, “What does that story have to do with the Gospel of Mark?”
Well, today we’re taking on sections four (8:31-10:45) and five (10:46-13:37) in Mark’s gospel, and in these scriptures we learn that Jesus is: One, the Son of Man, who is destined to lay down  his life in loving service to God and God’s people; and two, the Son of David, meaning the true earthly king and authority of Israel who will not avoid conflict or back down from those who don’t recognize his rule. The result of these two identities of servant and messiah being faithfully held by Jesus will be Jesus’ death. And the disciples, who were undoubtedly enthusiastic about Jesus the Messiah in Mark 8:29, are in these sections struggling mightily to follow through with their own professions of faith, and perhaps wondering what on earth they were thinking in following Jesus in the first place!

Section Four: A Few Takeaways

Four times in this section (just two chapters) Jesus predicts his suffering and death… Mark is not being subtle here! Jesus identifies himself repeatedly as the Son of Man in this section, and it is clear that for him this meant he would give his life away for his people. To be the Son of Man was to serve (10:45). And of course this stood in stark contrast to the hopes of his disciples, who believed that by virtue of being Messiah Jesus would cruise to an earthly victory over the enemies of God and Israel… If there are any doubts about the disciples struggling with Jesus’ decision making here note that the section begins with Peter attempting to rebuke Jesus for even speaking about being killed (8:32).

Jesus’ determination to give his life away in obedience to God is held up against those who are looking to secure their own interests… such as approval or recognition by others (9:34), exclusive claims on Jesus (9:38), self-importance (10:13), wealth and possessions (10:17-25), home and family (10:29), and glory (10:37). Jesus reveals that discipleship means a willingness to part with each of these items for the sake of the Kingdom, even if they are good and desirable things in many other contexts.

The competing claims between these “desirables” (just listed) and Jesus’ way sheds light on what Jesus meant in 8:34 when he said that any disciple of His would have to “deny himself.” Many people think Jesus is talking about “self-denial” here in the sense of going on a diet, abstaining from pleasures, and avoiding things we otherwise like. But that’s not what Jesus is after. To deny oneself in this case means to renounce any claims (like ownership) we have over our lives. The Greek word used here for “deny” will be the word that Peter uses to deny he knows Jesus. Further, it was the word used by others in the Roman world to renounce political allegiances. To “deny ourselves” is to renounce our own rule over our lives, and to give that rule to God, via Jesus.

Section Five: One Takeaway

Jesus is the authority: that is the briefest way to sum up section five. This section begins with Jesus recognized as the Son of David by a blind beggar (10:46, don’t miss the irony), and Bartimaeus’s words should be noted. To be the “Son of David” was to be an authority in Israel. Jesus then proceeds to show off that authority in his last week: setting up a mock royal entrance to Jerusalem (11:1-8), stopping sacrifice at the Temple to deliver a prophet condemnation (11:15-17), cursing a fig tree as an illustration of judgment on the Temple (11:21), claiming authority in front of the chief priests (11:33 and 12:9-11), and delivering authoritative teaching on the resurrection (12:24-27), the greatest commandment (12:29-31), and the future destruction of Jerusalem (13:1-30).

A Disciples’ Problem: Then and Now

“What is Jesus thinking?” Surely those words (in a variety of tones) crossed the disciples’ minds as they journeyed towards Jerusalem and watched Jesus throw the gauntlet down once he arrived there. What kind of person makes a huge authority claim (to be king!) and yet presents himself as a servant who is unwilling to fight (physically), even in the face of manifestly unjust and false authorities? Shouldn’t he know that those things will get him killed, and possibly the disciples with him? Surely this is not what the disciples thought they were signing up for when they left their nets! They didn’t sign up to die with Jesus; they signed up to WIN with Jesus!

Win with Jesus… that sounds like a slogan that might (unfortunately) very well exist!

Win with Jesus is a problem because Jesus wasn’t interested in “winning,” or at least how we define winning. Jesus was about doing God’s will. Apparently he didn’t care if that made himself, or anyone else, happy or comfortable or wealthy or popular or wise or whatever. He was about God’s will because he loved God, and he loved his neighbor (that great commandment thing again, Mark 12:29!).

Many people (all of us?) are interested in Jesus because of what we think he can do for us. And there’s something true and good in that. Jesus was and is a healer, and a savior, and laid down his life for us (Gal. 2:20). But at some point we have to face the fact that Jesus is not ultimately interested in our success or happiness or desires apart from God’s Kingdom and God’s will. And therefore, if we are his disciples, we must continually fight to renounce our pursuit of our own good and interests (i.e. success, happiness, etc.) and turn over the keys of our life to Him. 

That might not sound what you or I signed up for. Admittedly, few people are attracted to slogans like “Deny yourself!” or “Come Die with Me!”. So why hang in there? Why keep following Jesus? Why go through with this difficult and painful journey of renouncing ourselves when Jesus doesn’t promise any “winning” in this life?

I have two things to say to those questions today:

First, wait for the next blog post when I will answer those questions at length!

Second, perhaps we have a ray of hope here: a true authority who gives away his life in love for God and others. Think about that… not something you see everyday. Most of us have big-time problems with authority, and many of our reasons for being skeptical of authorities are justified (just pick up a history book to know why). At the heart of these authority problems is our lack of trust. How can we trust anyone with power in a world like ours? It is in this vacuum of trust that Jesus stands out. Though we can’t trust Jesus to give us what we want for ourselves (see above), maybe we can actually trust him because he doesn’t make that promise in the first place. The only things he promises to us are fellowship with him and a share of His life (more on this next time) until God’s Kingdom arrives. And instead of making this a sales pitch, he simply models what it looks like to give oneself to God in love and in trust, and invites us to join him. So why keep going with Jesus? Because he is trustworthy.

So… how did that whole football thing work out for me? Well, as soon as the coach blew the whistle I threw myself with all my might into my opponent… and got destroyed! Honestly, I as soon as the whistle blew I shot off and hit him hard but basically the next thing I knew I was on by back. Silver lining though: my willingness to challenge him and the fact that I initiated the contact (I was quicker than him) got me moved up to the “A” team, and I wound up being the last person to make the cut! (No joke, the coach actually pulled me aside the day the roster was announced and told me I was the last person to make the team because he was scared I could die if some of the really big guys hit me or fell on me… nice motivational speech to start the season!)

Baby Steps into Mission: Presence, Part 2

Faithful readers, I apologize for the long delay in getting this blog up. Between summer vacation, official cross country practices starting...