Saturday, January 31, 2009

Hannah's First Birthday Party

Here are some pictures and video of Hannah's first birthday party. Thanks to everyone who joined us for the celebration.

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Authority of Jesus' Teaching

This Sunday I'll be preaching from the passage (Mark 1:14-20) which I blogged about last week and intended to preach from last Sunday but was kept from doing so because of the snow. That means that I am slightly ahead of the game in looking at the passage I'll be preaching from on Feb. 8th which is Mark 1:21-28.

There are a lot of pretty weird things about this passage of scripture beginning with the fact that it is a story about a demon possessed man. Of course, there are stories of demon possession throughout scripture and such instances are mentioned in other ancient literature as well so its not weird in that sense. Its weird because most people today have never encountered anything quite like the story described in this passage. Of course, most Christians, myself included believe that there are evil forces at work in our world but rarely if ever do we encounter them in such a tangible form as described here.

But that's not all that is strange about this scripture text. It also seems odd that this demon possessed man is the first human being in Mark's gospel to make such a bold claim about Jesus. He designates him as the Holy one of God. You wouldn't think having fishermen follow you around and having an unclean spirit announcing who you are would be the best public relations move on Jesus' part at the very beginning of his ministry.

I also have to wonder what the story is on this guy with the unclean spirit. After all, this happens while Jesus is teaching in the synagogue which makes me wonder if this guy showed up just because Jesus was there or if he was a regular member of the synagogue? I've always assumed that his unclean spirit was obvious to everyone around him like the demon possessed man in Mark 5. However, on a closer reading, I wondered if this guy attended synagogue regularly and looked just like any of the other members of the synagogue and was able to hide his unclean spirit until Jesus showed up. In that case, he would be like an ancient version of the BTK serial killer arrested just a few years ago who had been an active member of a church without anyone in the church being aware of his evil practices.

Despite these oddities, the thing that the people in synagogue end up talking about is Jesus' teaching. Mark summarizes their reaction at the sight of Jesus' work of exorcism; "They were all amazed, so that they debated among themselves, saying 'What is this? A new teaching with authority!'" Jesus' teaching has just been summarized a few verses earlier as a proclamation that the kingdom of God is at hand (v. 15) and I can only assume that the people consider this teaching to have authority because he has just driven out this unclean spirit. His power to drive out the unclean spirit is evidence of his claims about the kingdom of God. Jesus is viewed as having authority because he can do what previous teachers have only talked about. In the face of this unclean spirit, Jesus shows no fear of becoming unclean himself. Instead, he fearlessly drives out the unclean spirit, liberating the man from his devilish captivity.

Perhaps the reason so few people today consider the Church to be an authoritative source of teaching is because of the ways that we have failed to allow God to work in us so that he might deliver us and others from our devilish captivities. Of course, I'm not advocating that we renew an interest in exorcisms but there is no doubt that there are all kinds of unclean spirits which hold both those inside and outside the church in bondage; unclean spirits which we desperately need Jesus to drive out of our midst. May God purge us of all but a desire for his kingdom so that we might be a force of liberating love in our world.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A few thoughts on War and Peace

I recently finished reading Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. And yes, I am bragging! OK, well maybe not really but I do feel a major sense of accomplishment. This is true mostly because I've been reading it for so long that I'm not even sure when I started it. I think it was at the end of the summer but it honestly feels like it was even longer than that. Never before has it taken me so long to finish reading a book, especially a work of fiction. Obviously, being a pastor and a father makes it difficult to find large chunks of time for reading anything but aside from that this book was just an absolute beast.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the long journey. This was actually the second time I had started reading this book. The first time I got through about 200 pages and realized I had no idea what was going on and needed to start over. That was a few years ago. But I decided to take it up again as a portion of a larger effort on my part to read more fiction. I am more or less convinced that there has to be some correlation between reading/watching/hearing good stories and being able to tell a good story. And since a considerable part of what I do in preaching is to tell stories, I would like to be as good at it as I can be.

With the disclaimer that I am by no means an educated critic of great works of literature (although I do spend considerable amount of time in one particular collection of literature) and am completely certain that there were all kinds of things in this book that were completely lost on me, I thought that such a long read was worthy of at least a few disjointed observations.

1. The worldview exhibited in Tolstoy's story gives high priority to the individual responsibility of average men and women while also allowing sheer chance to play a significant role in the story. In contrast to this interplay between chance and the lives of average people, the "movers" and "shakers", the people who should be the real brokers of power in Tolstoy's story seem to have little impact on its actual outcome. More than once, Tolstoy talks about how generals discuss maneuvers and military tactics at length without ever realizing that it is the courage or cowardice of each man on the field that wins or loses the battles which they so carefully plot. A military advantage provided by greater numbers and superior position seem to melt away in the face of a group of men who set aside their fear of death and refuse to give up their position.

2. Tolstoy's story seems to be a critique of the system of honor and recognition that exists in Russia at the time (and perhaps of all societies?). Repeatedly, soilders or commanding officers are given medals for acts of no real significance while individuals who perform truly heroic acts go unnoticed by those in power. One of the main characters in the story even ends up being imprisoned on false accusations after rescuing a baby from a fire. The climax of this reality is when the general of the Russian army, who defeats Napolean essentially by just outlasting him, is repeatedly chastized for not pursuing Napolean's retreat so as to destroy his army and make victory complete. Even though this general saves all of Russia from utter destruction, he is considered imcompetent and unpatriotic by the commanding officers beneath him simply because he refuses to risk the lives of Russian soilders in pursuing a French army that is already defeated.

3. Tolstoy spends a considerable amount of space reminding us of the reality of death. I think this is characteristic of most of Tolstoy's writings. It is, at least, of the one other work of his that I have read; The Death of Ivan Illyich. Tolstoy demonstrates some of his most profound skills as a writer when he narrates the thoughts of a character who is dying or thinks they are on the verge of death. Everything seems to suddenly fall into perspective for these characters in their final moments. They suddenly realize that so many of the things they have pursued in life are nothing but vanity. It seems that for Tolstoy somehow understanding death is the real key to understanding life.

Of course, there is much more to a classic like this one but those were a few of the major themes that stood out to me. I'd be interested in hearing anyone else thoughts.

Friday, January 23, 2009

A Year of Change

I’m sure that most of you who are reading this will not be surprised when I say “It’s hard to believe that Hannah is a year old!” The amazement at how quickly our children grow and develop seems to be a nearly universal experience for parents. It is almost unthinkable that the fragile little newborn that we took home from the hospital a year ago is now walking all around our house, babbling new sounds everyday, and constantly discovering new things about the world around her.

Of course, there will be even more changes to come, many of them even more dramatic and drastic than the changes of this first year. Some of those changes will be challenging and some might even be painful for Hannah and for Jess and I as her parents. As Hannah grows and changes, Jess and I have to grow and change in certain ways as well, adapting to her new abilities. In fact, if Hannah stopped changing in her appearance and abilities we would think something was terribly wrong. If Jess and I continued to respond to Hannah when she is 15 in exactly the same was we respond to her now, we probably wouldn’t be very good parents. Hannah, Jess, and I all remain the same people and even the same family but within that continuity there must be changes that take place in order for us to be a healthy family.

If God has created us in this way so that change is so fundamental to our existence as human beings, then shouldn’t we expect the same to be true of our existence as a church? Too often, we speak and act as if any change in the Church is a compromise or a step backwards from the way things used to be or the way we’ve always done it. We are fearful that if we change then somehow we are less faithful or we have lost our way or we no longer know who we are.

We must recognize that change is just as much a part of who we are as the Church as it is a part of who we are as growing and changing individuals. Change has always been and will always be a part of the Church. Certainly, we must remain the same Church. We must remain faithful to the same gospel but the only way we can do that is by changing and adapting to our changing context just as a person or a family remains true to their character while adapting to the their changing situations.

Jess and I often find ourselves laughing, smiling, and filled with a unique kind of joy when we consider all the ways that Hannah is growing and changing. I think that God must laugh and smile and be filled with a similar type of joy when he watches his Church take bold new steps and try new ways of living out his kingdom in this world. It is my prayer that our church will be one that puts a smile on God’s face as we embody our ancient faith in new ways.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Inauguration

Yesterday's inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States arouses mixed feelings and convoluted reflections for me.

I think that Barack Obama is an intelligent man and that the way he speaks about many of the issues that our country is facing demonstrates a considerable depth of thought and substantial wisdom. I am also convinced that Obama's convictions concerning many of the issues are born out of a well thought out ethic that takes seriously what it means to be a Christian in our American democracy. When you add to all of that the sights and sounds of yesterday's inauguration; Obama's inspiring words, the innumerable throngs of people huddled in the cold for hours just to welcome him into office, the historical significance of our nation's first African American president taking office the day after our nation celebrates Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday... its difficult to not be at least a little caught up in all the excitement.
But then that little bit of excitement also reminds me of George Bush's election to office. It reminds me of how impressed I was with his message of "compassionate conservatism". It reminds me of all the patriotism that I felt and that arose throughout our nation after the attacks on September 11, 2001. It reminds me of how high President Bush's approval rating was, much as Obama's is now.

Of course, Obama and Bush are very different people with very different policies. I, too, am a different person than I was eight years ago, voting for very different reasons than I did then. So maybe Obama is right. Maybe change really has come to America.

But can the kind of change we really need ever come from an elected official? Don't get me wrong. I think good government is tremendously important. American democracy is truly an amazing thing. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else in the world. But let's imagine the best case scenario: the economy recovers, the wars is Iraq and Afghanistan come to a suitable resolution, education improves, and green technology advances. What then? Of course, I prefer an America where all those things happen to one where they don't but even if they do, where does that leave us? With an even more powerful and affluent country than with which we began? And isn't it our power and affluence which usually gets us into trouble in the first place? Our power leads to arrogance and our affluence leads to greed and these seem to be the very things that have lead us to the mess we find ourselves in now.

So while I certainly prefer prosperity, peace, and justice to poverty, violence, and inequality, my greater hope is for a spirit of humility and self-sacrifice for President Obama, our nation, and our world because I'm pretty sure those are the only things that can lead to lasting prosperity, peace, and justice for all. Humility and self sacrifice, in addition to new policies and politics, are the real change that we desparately need.

Perhaps Dr. King's dream can be realized in an even more profound way than an African-American becoming president (as profound as that is). What if the Church in America looked to Dr. King as a modern American example of what it means to seek justice with humility, to seek peace and reconciliation through self-sacrifice, to embody Jesus' way of life in our own context? That would truly be a dream fulfilled.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Kingdom of Fishermen

Mark 1:14-15 tell us that after John the baptist was arrested, Jesus began to preach the gospel in Galilee saying "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the gospel." This is how Mark chooses to sum up Jesus' proclamation and ministry. As the first words out of Jesus' mouth in Mark's narrative, they are paradigmatic for all that Jesus is about. Jesus has come to proclaim that God's reign has come to earth. The day for which Israel has been waiting has finally arrived. God would finally reign with his righteousness and peace over all the earth.

There could hardly be a more important announcement that could be made. God's reign coming to earth would be the most transformative, cataclysmic, and world-changing event in history. We would expect some pretty awesome displays of power from someone who is making such a major claim about himself. In fact, the few verses leading up to this point in Mark's story already lead us to expect pretty tremendous things. We've already seen the sky ripped open, seen the Spirit of God descend, and heard a voice from heaven. So now that Jesus has made the biggest claim of all, that God's reign itself is at hand, we might expect some unimaginable demonstration of Jesus' strength and authority to come next in Mark's story.

Instead, Jesus goes and calls some fisherman to follow him so that he can make them fishers of men. Where are the miraculous displays of power? Where are the world changing events? If Jesus is going to begin campaigning for the reign of God on earth by surrounding himself with a select group of disciples, he could at least find some people with more power and influence than mere fisherman! How are they going to help him change the world? How will they help Jesus bring God's reign to earth?

That is one of the things I find continually fascinating about God's kingdom as opposed to the fading kingdoms of this world. We build our kingdoms on power, wealth, fear, military might, and political influence but eventually someone else is able to accumulate more of those than we can and our kingdom fails. God builds his kingdom out of fishermen who follow the crucified and risen Lord and it is the one kingdom that will never fail.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Finally...Some Christmas Pictures

I've been wanting to post some Christmas pictures for quite some time but things have been busy and we just got internet and phone hooked up at our house today. The picture above is probably my favorite from Christmas this year even if it is a bit blurry from the lack of lighting. Below are a few more pictures from our Christmas in Ohio as well as some pictures of Hannah's first time playing in the snow.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Jacob's Dream Fulfilled in Jesus

So much of John's gospel seems to involve conversations that are taking place on two different levels; one is plain and literal while the other is more complex and cryptic. On one level, the conversation between Nathanael and Jesus in John 1:43-51 is a simple one that demonstrates Jesus' unique knowledge and authority which in turn causes Nathanael to confess that Jesus is the Son of God and King of Israel. That alone is a remarkable confession but it seems that the gospel writer may be saying even more than that to us if we listen carefully.

The biggest clue is in v.51 of John 1 where Jesus' words allude to a dream that Jacob has in Genesis 28. In this dream, Jacob sees angels ascending and descending a ladder that is reaching to heaven. God stands above the ladder and reiterates the same promise to Jacob that he had made to Abraham and Isaac before him; that he would give Jacob land and numerous descendants through whom all the peoples of the earth would be blessed. Jacob then awakens from his dreams and declares that surely God was in the place where he had been sleeping.

Once we have been clued in by the obvious allusion to Jacob's dreams in Jesus' words, it becomes easier to notice other parallels between this passage and the story of Jacob, each of them in Jesus' words to Nathanael. In Jesus' first words to Nathanael in v. 47, Jesus declares that Nathanael is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit which is the same word used to desribe Jacob's action in stealing his blessing from his father. Therefore, Nathanael, who confesses Jesus as Son of God and King of Israel, is presented in contrast to Jacob and his descendants, the Israelites (Jacob's name being changed to Israel after wrestling with God just a few chapters later). Even though Nathanael is an Israelite himself, he is set apart by his response to Jesus.

Additionatlly, in John's passage Jesus knows Nathanael before he has even spoken a word and Jesus tells Nathanael that he saw him under the fig tree before Philip had even called him to come meet Jesus. This is in sharp constrast to Jacob's father Isaac who is nearly blind and does not even know one of his sons from the other. Therefore, Jesus and Nathanael are held up as Israelites who are greater than the patriarchs of Israel themselves. There is no deceit in Nathanael as there was in Jacob and Jesus demonstrates just the opposite of the blindness and lack of knowledge that is demonstrated by Isaac.

What is John's point in all of this? John is making a theological point about who Jesus is; he is the patriarch of Israel in a way that Isaac and Jacob never could be. He is the Son of God and King of Israel just as Nathanael confesses him to be. But it is likely that John is also addressing a specific need in his own community. As far as we can tell historically, it seems as if the believers for whom John initially wrote this gospel were in conflict with the Jews of the day who did not believe that Jesus was the messiah. Because Judaism was beginning to define itself as something separate from Christianity, these early Christians had probably been kicked out of the local synagogues where they were accustomed to hearing scripture and praising God. Therefore, John is reassuring these believers that they have made the right choice in following Jesus. Just because they have been excluded from synagogue does not mean that God has abandoned them or that Jesus was a false prophet as they were probably being told by the same people who had expelled them. Instead, John boldly declares that Jesus is the true patriarch of Israel and that Nathanael's response to Jesus is one that these believers should continue to emulate. John is reassuring them that what Jacob only knew in a dream, they have come to know in flesh and blood in the person of Jesus.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Mark's Christology

Mark wastes no time in his gospel. Immediately, Mark wants us to know who he understands Jesus to be. The first eleven verses of Mark's gospel are jammed pack with Christology. Mark is presenting Jesus to us as the Spirit-filled Messiah, even the presence of God himself, who will deliver Israel from its exile.

The most explicit statement about Jesus is probably the one verse introduction of the gospel in which Jesus is descibed as Christ (which means Messiah) and the Son of God. However, in the following verses Mark continues to present Jesus as the Christ in more subtle and symbolic ways. This is true especially of the quotations from Isaiah and Malachi in verses 2 and 3 which Mark clearly uses to desribe John the baptist as the one who is preparing the way for the Lord, Yahweh, the God of Israel(You can read more about the quotation from Isaiah here.) The fascinating thing is that immediately after John the baptist finishes talking about the mighty one who will come after him, Mark inserts Jesus into the scene. Thus Mark presents Jesus as Yahweh himself, the one for whom John was preparing the way.

The barrage of Christology then continues with the short, two-verse description of Jesus' baptism. As Jesus comes up out of the water the heavens are torn apart (possibly a reference to Isaiah 64:1?), the Spirit descends upon Jesus like a dove, and a voice declares from heaven "You are my beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased." Only eleven verses into Mark's gospel, there can be little doubt for Mark's audience that he intends to present Jesus as God's Spirit-filled agent of deliverance.

It was how Jesus would accomplish that deliverance that would have been scandalous to Jesus' contemporaries and a continual challenge for Mark's audience. But Mark makes an intentional link between his presentation of Jesus as Messiah and his death on the cross. Mark places three literary parallels to Jesus' baptism in his description of Jesus' crucifixion. First, the curtain temple is torn in two from top to bottom at Jesus' death just as the heavens are torn open at his baptism (these are the only two places this word is used in all of Mark's gospel). Second, the centurion who is standing in front of Jesus says "Truly this man was the Son of God!" echoing the voice from heaven at Jesus' baptism. Finally, Mark 15:37 says that Jesus breathed his last. In English, this has no apparent connection to the baptism passage but this Greek word is a combination of a preposition and the word for spirit. Read very literally, it says that Jesus "spirited-out", thus linking his death once again to his baptism when the Spirit first descended upon Jesus in Mark's gospel.

This has at least two imporant consequences for our understanding of Jesus, the Spirit, and the Church. The first is that Jesus' presentation as Messiah, deliverer, and Son of God can not be separated from his crucifxion. It's not that his crucifixion made him these things. After all, the Spirit descended upon him long before his crucifixion. However, it is to say that the all-powerful and glorious God of all creation has forever linked himself to the shame and profanity of the cross. We can not know the resurrected king of glory without knowing the peasant crucified as a rebel.

Secondly, the "bookends" of Mark's gospel communicate to us that the Spirit of God has been poured out on creation, let loose in the world. The Spirit of Yahweh which dwelt in the temple, the same Spirit which rested on Jesus and empowered him throughout his ministry, has now been breathed out by Jesus and ripped out of its place through the Temple curtain. That Spirit now rests on Jesus' disciples, empowering us to continue the same minsitry that he began.