Jesus’ Gift to the Rich Young Man

Mark 10:17-22

The more I read this story the more I am convinced it is not about treasure, but about trust; not about keeping rules but about seeing the big picture.

It’s initially interesting in Mark’s telling of this story that the man calls Jesus “Good Teacher.” Jesus questions him saying: “No one is good but God alone.” To me this hints at the basis for the interaction. This man sees God active through Jesus; he is not just another teacher. He is drawn to Jesus, perhaps to be validated as “good,” but mostly because he is seeking something more.

Jesus first gives the standard “religious” answer: Keep the commandments. This is a checklist, but more than a checklist. This is the binary realm of dualistic consciousness: You have stolen, or not; you have murdered, or not; you have honored your parents, or not. It’s a guide for what Richard Rohr calls “the small self,” the ego that seeks to build itself up, put others down, and exert control.

The law can be a great source of certainty on a simplistic level. It implies a transactional deal with God: “If I do this (or don’t do that), God will accept me and welcome me into eternal life.” It also implies a separateness from those who don’t keep the same laws. And if we’re honest for most of us it allows us to say, “Thank God I’m not like them!”

This is approach is also about “control.” And it is our control, not God’s that really matters. It is I that keeps the commandments, and God is bound to offer suitable rewards.

The man quickly affirms that he has kept all of the commands since his youth – for as long as he has been accountable to do so. As I imagine this scene playing out, I do not hear the man boasting or arrogantly demanding his inheritance. He has come to Jesus as a seeker, asking for eternal life. I imagine the young man saying this in slight puzzlement, with a twinge of sadness. “I have kept all the rules – why am I still seeking?” Knowing the Hebrew texts he might be questioning the psalmist: “I have made the Lord my shepherd; why do I still lack something?”

This deep question gets Jesus’ attention. Mark shares a detail that Matthew and Luke skip over: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him…” One commentator says that the Greek word translated “look” really means to see deeply, to observe someone and know a truth about them. And what Jesus sees in this rich man moves him to compassion. He understands why the man is dissatisfied by keeping all the rules and desires a fuller, “eternal” life.

Many Christians have translated the phrase “eternal life” into “a place in heaven when I die,” an “eternal reward.” Scholars note that the phrase “eternal life” is difficult to translate. In The Secret Message of Jesus Brian McLaren calls it a life distinguishable from the common life most of us live. It is “a life that is radically different from the way people are living these days, a life that is full and overflowing, a higher life that is centered in an interactive relationship with God and with Jesus. Let’s render it simply “an extraordinary life to the full centered in a relationship with God.”” N.T. Wright calls it “the life of the coming age” – the age Jesus calls the Kingdom of God. Brian Stoffregen says eternal life is “experiencing God through the one God sent.”

In that understanding, it makes sense that Jesus “loved” the man (Stoffregen says this is the only place in the three synoptic Gospels that Jesus loves someone) by presenting to him not yet another command, but an act that can move him fully into this Kingdom-shaped life.

If I am honest I must admit that sometimes I get hung up on Jesus’ call to “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.” Our culture places a lot of value on what we own, and teaches us to derive identity from it. This command touches on the weaknesses in McLaren’s contrast to eternal life – “life as people are living it these days.” In many discussions of this text that I have participated in, solid Christians focus on the importance of providing for ourselves and our families and don’t consider the import of what Jesus says next: “you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

I hear Jesus not simply calling the man to let go of his possessions, but calling him more deeply into a life marked with surrender and solidarity. Jesus calls him to surrender the illusion that keeping the law earns him anything. He is asked to consider the possibility that God may have use for his wealth that have nothing to do with him, and to let go and live into that possibility. Selling all one’s possessions is not charity but a change of lifestyle. It moves him from seeing himself as different from the poor – even from seeing himself as a benefactor – and recognizing that he is the poor, and the poor are just like him. Selling is an act of solidarity, of standing with the poor in their poverty (as God does), of acknowledging the shared humanity and humility ignored by “life as people are living it these days.”

This entire exchange is about making the transition to a higher stage of the spiritual journey. Jesus calls this man to move from keeping the law’s externals to embodying its spirit. He is asked to leave the dualistic thinking that allows him to keep the law while separating himself from those who are different and enter the world of what Rohr calls “unitive consciousness,” where he would see himself as both saint and sinner, both rich and poor, and experience relationship with God through humble relationship with all of God’s people (not just those like him).

The young man knows he lacks something, and thinks he wants this kind of alternative life, with less focus on the wealth and the rule-keeping that he knows doesn’t satisfy. Jesus offers him that way, which requires taking on a more expansive, less ego-driven way of thinking. (Jesus knew, long before Einstein, that transcending our problems requires new ways of thinking.)

It’s not surprising that the man is “shocked, and went away grieving.” Jesus’ solution is the last thing his everyday small self would think of, and elevates following the rules to surrendering to the rule-giver. Like many of us in Western consumer society, he has many possessions and he is attached to them; selling them is a form of death of the assumptions he has played by his entire life.

I like that this story, unlike so many of Jesus’ encounters, does not resolve with a clear answer or an easy moral. The step Jesus is calling for is not a quick “decision for Christ” as much as a process of developing a new way of thinking, seeing and living. We do not learn whether the man takes Jesus’ offer or settles for his old pattern of keeping the commandments and his personal wealth. Because ultimately this is not his story. It’s ours. And its questions call attention to those we must face on our lifelong spiritual quests.


What I learned from posting a viral meme

This image was posted, without explanation, last Saturday around 12:30 pm. By Sunday night Facebook reported that it had "reached" more than 100,000 people. As of today it is still getting a few "likes" and "shares." According to our page Insights:
  • It has been served to more than 132,000 people.
  • It has been shared more than 2,000 times, with an equal number of "post clicks."
  • More than 9,000 people "liked" some version of the post.
  • More than 735 people commented on some version.
  • We also added 28 "fans" to our page over this time.
This is for a page with 1,100 "fans," where posts reach 200-500 people on average and engagement numbers in the single digits or teens are the norm.

So what did I learn?

  • When inspiration strikes, go for it! With all of the pouring water videos going around thanks to ALS fundraising, and some humorous responses, I thought of this simple image of our bishop baptizing an infant during a visit to Tanzania a couple of years ago. So I just jumped into Pixelmator and knocked this out for immediate posting. (This was our photo, shared on our Flickr page, so there were no permissions issues. Don't just grab images that are possibly copyrighted.)
  • Keep it simple. There are memes out there with a lot of text, but when you have an emotional image like this, let it speak for itself. (Also, in trying to boost another image post, we found that Facebook rejected it because text made up too much of the image.)
  • Humor works. Just have fun with it. Not that profound sayings won't work, but stay away from preachy. People already think the church is preachy.
  • Don't point out that you are responding to a trend. We didn't say anything about the ALS challenge, although people picked up on it and added comments to their shares, suggesting that people give or that they remember their baptism and respond.
  • Boost, but be realistic. We did experiment and spent $20 to promote the post to our fans and their friends. That did reach more than 2,000 people, but the vast majority of the shares, likes and views were viral...people seeing that through the normal exposure of our page and of our fans to their friends, and then passing it on themselves.
  • Interestingly most of the new likes came from the promoted post, which makes sense as we targeted friends of people who were already fans, some of whom were likely Lutherans who would be interested in our content. 
So if you have an image, an idea or an event that is meme-able, dive in. Be strategic about whether or how you promote it. And don't be disappointed if the post reach is only slightly larger -- or slightly smaller -- than your norm; we've had image posts go both ways. 

Happy meme-ing!

Reorganizing Church

Welcome Church "Welcome Table" 2013 by (C) Bob Fisher

David Lose, new president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, put up a thoughtful post earlier this month titled "What Role Does the Church Play in Our Lives?"

It's well worth a read. There are a couple of points in the post and its comments that I want to reflect upon:
Given how many other groups and movements legitimately lay claim to our allegiance today, can the Church ever expect to exert the level of influence in our lives that it once did?
When I first came to the church in the 1970s I recall folks at the small Lutheran parish that I joined wistfully recalling "Church Night," the idea that community groups -- even the schools -- would block off Wednesday nights (in our town) to kids to be at church events. The actual practice was long gone, but the sense of entitlement to it remained. Similarly I still hear church folks complaining that youth sports and other civic programs don't respect "church time" on Sundays. But the days of "Blue laws" are over and for many people catching up on laundry and chores, and even sleeping in, don't respect "church time," either.

So I don't think the church can "expect" to exert its former level of influence. It might earn some of that respect back, however, by creating spaces where people in the community can explore their doubts, talk about big issues, and maybe experience helpful spiritual practices without being expected to immediately become just like the people in the church.
What, then, do we expect of the church? Do we expect it to be “first among equals,” taking priority over every other affiliation (even when we often devote more time, energy, and money to other groups)? Do we expect it to help bring our other activities into focus, that we might see these different enterprises in light of our faith? Do we treat it as one of several groups that is important to us?
I lean toward the middle option, hoping that my participation in congregational life deepens me in the faith so that the Christian story provides a lens through which I look at and make sense of the rest of my life.
David, I lean with you toward the option of the church as a lens that brings our other activities into focus. This would strengthen the connection between "religion" and life out in the world. A lot of people seem to wish for the "first among equals" option, but that is just that--wishful thinking.

I think this role of providing context for the experiences of life is valid even for people who are engaged in the church. Without going to church I can experience deep, transformative sermons, contemplative prayer experiences, meditation, wise teaching, and find sacred music at my fingertips. A congregation that sees itself as a purveyor of religious goods and services is no longer a sole source. It would be a huge help to many people if congregations would create places where they can wrestle and learn and discuss in community -- and recognize that these spaces are as much "church" as formal worship.

A couple of readers offered their experiences and concerns in the comments:
As a preacher I have become increasingly dismayed at the apparent lack of change in those who hear the proclamation each week, including me. I pray for the movement that only the Holy Spirit can bring that will breathe new life into the dry bones that make up so much of our church.
How might our preaching, teaching, and conversations create faithful people who are transparent in their faith, open enough that anyone is willing to engage with, and who have an abiding relationship with God, their faith community, and their surrounding community (the up, in, and out of 3DM), that simply by living their lives, they provide the pictures, the glimpses, and relate the story of faith and God’s relationship of love and grace with the world in an easy, engaging way?
To the commenters I say: Seems to me the transformation you are talking about will happen best in interactive, safe and trusting conversations -- in 1-on-1's and intentional groups (like 3dm huddles), coffee conversations, committed small groups, etc. -- rather than in large group lecture mode. Worship might be a way to seed these ideas, but I think they will take root more deeply in environments where people can interact, share and struggle safely, question and doubt, and process how (if?) faith influences their lives. Now that would take some reorganization of time, people and priorities! Those situations seem to me to be as much worship as a regular Sunday liturgy.

The second commenter also wonders:
As our shift is taking place now and folks do not feel compelled or the need to enter into those doors to even look at the stained glass, what are we called to do?
I see this post as a humble way of asking ourselves and our contexts how we might become stained glass for the world. How might we strip down the lingo, language, jargon, insider speak, or need for someone to come into the walls and windows of the building?
I like the idea of being stained glass for the world. If people aren't inclined to come to us and give us authority, then our best option is to look like Jesus to the people around us, and to go out into that world to eat with them, heal them, celebrate with them, and stand up for them. That method seemed to work pretty well for the Lord, as I recall.

Eliminating the barriers of jargon, insider relationships, judgment of others and the requirement to enter our buildings will require some creative, discerning and fun re-invention. Not everyone is going to do this, of course. Despite the trends there are people for whom church-as-we-know-it "works," even if not enough to support the weight of our current building- and staff-heavy paradigm. To speak to the people David Lose is writing about -- those for whom the church is not the top allegiance or on whom it exerts little to no influence -- the church has to make safe spaces where people can experience God's mercy and justice, see God's people on mission to the world, express their doubts, hear the church confess its shortcomings, and find a way to give meaning to their stories by relating them to God's story.


Moving the goal line

Amos 5:14-15, 21-24
Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 
But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. - Amos 5:23-24 

Our worship, our prayer, our study are not ends in themselves. They are the exercises that prepare us to join in God’s work of bringing justice to all people.

…[W]e have a responsibility to think bigger…these days. If spiritual practice is relaxing, if it gives us some peace of mind, that’s great — but is this personal satisfaction helping us to address what is happening in the world? The main question is, are we living in a way that adds further aggression and self-centeredness to the mix, or are we adding some much-needed sanity? — Pema Chödrön, “Taking the Leap”

Photo: Fairy Rapids, by Flickr user fs999 under Creative Commons license. 


Weathering the storms

Matthew 8:23-37

“Lord, save us! We are perishing!” — The disciples
“Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” — Jesus

Jesus says that faith and fear are not compatible.

It is comforting to know that the chaos around us is ultimately in Christ’s hands. But not every storm that rages around us — meteorological, existential or emotional — is stilled in the outward sense. Tornados destroy schools. Diseases don’t respond to treatment. Jobs are lost. Angry words continue to be spoken.

I need to admit, as the disciples did, that these storms are bigger than I am — “Lord, help me. I am going down.” Yet safety is not in the rescue; not in the calming of the sea, the avoidance of discomfort, nor in vindication. The safe place is simply Jesus’ presence, and the inner stillness to connect to his peace when the waters rise, rather than scrambling for what I take for “solid ground” under my own power.

Storms come. Chaos surrounds us. The solution is not to pray them away but to experience the presence of Christ in the midst of my fear and anxiety.

How will I handle the squalls that will come today? How will that affect my ability to handle life’s Category 5 storms?


Tech Tip: Time to upgrade Windows XP

From my church tech side. This was written for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod website. If you're not connected with a non-profit or church, the technical advice still applies...unfortunately not the non-profit discounts on hardware and software.

Key takeaway: Windows XP and Office 2003 will no longer be supported after April 8, 2014. You should make plans to replace computer hardware and/or upgrade your software as soon as possible.

Microsoft’s venerable Windows XP was introduced in 2001, and has had an long and stable life. But nearly 13 years and three versions of Windows later, Microsoft is taking XP off of life support. This means that XP users will no longer receive free security updates through Windows Update after April 8. This puts your computer at risk because exploits and malware will continue to emerge for this now unsupported platform.

Office 2003, although still functional for many users, will also stop receiving updates on April 8. Without getting too technical, Office 2003 uses older and less secure file formats, which have commonly exploited vulnerabilities. Once support ends fixes for these exploits will no longer be released, which puts your system at risk.

To make matters worse, there is no direct upgrade from XP to Windows 7 or 8. Instead you must backup all of your data, do a clean install of the new Windows version, and then reinstall your programs and restore your data.

Another complicating factor is that Windows 8 introduced a new interface that can be confusing to new users. Windows 7 is a solid operating system that will be supported until 2020. However, Microsoft officially stopped selling it in December. Because your congregation is covered under the ELCA’s 501(c)(3) designation, you can request donations of Windows 7 licenses from TechSoup,  an organization that specializes in non-profit tech needs (free registration required). TechSoup donations carry a small administrative fee, currently $12 per Windows license. If you do not qualify for TechSoup donations, you should be able to get discounted charity pricing from retailers such as CDW. You can also find Windows 7 licenses at some online retailers.

If your computer is still running Windows XP, it is likely four to 12 years old, which means it may have trouble running newer software. If your computer meets Microsoft’s hardware requirements (http://windows.microsoft.com/en-us/windows-8/upgrade-from-windows-vista-xp-tutorial) you can use the backup and clean install approach. Windows 7 and 8 run well on older PCs. At the Synod office we have upgraded a number of 2008-vintage PCs to Windows 7 by adding memory, and they work fine. Replacing your old hard drive with a fast solid-state disk (SSD) can also extend the life of your PC.

If its time for a new computer, you have options. Unless you are already familiar with Windows 8, you can request refurbished computers with Windows 7 from TechSoup, which start at about $300. Vendors that sell to corporate clients, such as Dell, can also provide new computers with Windows 7 installed. Your local electronics retailer, though, is likely to only sell Windows 8.

New licenses for Office 2010 and 2013 can also be requested via TechSoup; the admin fee of $32 is less than a tenth of the price of Office Professional 2013 on Microsoft’s website.

After a baker’s dozen of years, it really is time to bid farewell to Windows XP and its cousin, Office 2003. If you have questions contact your IT provider or retailer, or visit the Community section of the TechSoup website.


Your Child of God self

At Kairos we continue to explore ways to make space for God's love in our lives at our gatherings.
This week's practice: Sit quietly, and get in tune with and slow your breath. Take full, deep breaths. As you breathe, remember the promise made to you at your baptism: 
(Your name), Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. 
(If you wish, divide this promise into two parts. On the in-breath: (Your name), Child of God.  On the out-breath, You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.) 
Do this as long as you have time for. If you don't have 10-20 minutes at once, try this for 3-5 minutes several times during your day.
When we gathered Sunday we discussed the various ways we all experience our identity, and noticed how many of up went to what we "do" or other societally assigned roles: mother, middle child, peacemaker, the strong one. Almost all of these "identities" that we discussed refer to what we do externally rather than who we are at the core.

Richard Rohr and others call this the "false self." We quite naturally assume these identities as we grow, learn and figure out our lives. 

It is also a key part of our spiritual path that we eventually begin to search for the elusive and well-buried "true self," or what the Zen masters call "the face you had before you were born." This true self is beautifully named in The Message's rendering of John 1 as our "child of God self".

Whatever identity you take on in life, and however those identities change, remember that God has defined your true identity, the one you had before you were born, as being God's child!

God's peace to you this week.


John 1:9-12 (The Message)

The Life-Light was the real thing:
    Every person entering Life
    he brings into Light.
He was in the world,
    the world was there through him,
    and yet the world didn’t even notice.
He came to his own people,
    but they didn’t want him.
But whoever did want him,
    who believed he was who he claimed
    and would do what he said,
He made to be their true selves,
    their child-of-God selves.


We hold these truths to be self-evident?

There's an article making the rounds in my circles from an ex-pat Lutheran pastor who visits home and finds some surprises going to church. First, she is acutely aware of being a stranger in this congregation, even though she is steeped in church culture. Second, she confronts the comfortable idea that once someone crosses the threshold of a church, the liturgy, prayers, and sermons convey what the people there believe. She says:
It’s a nice idea, but I no longer think it’s remotely true.
I've been pondering this idea for a long time. In my tribe we tend to think that if we can just accompany someone to church and get them involved somehow, they'll "get" faith. But I don't think this "attractional" model works so well any more. Many of the people I know who aren't involved in church don't see relevance to Sunday worship (at best), or have been bored by it or burned by the experience (at worst). Frankly, I know more than a few "church people" who are bored and looking for interaction and community and more depth than can be found in most liturgies.

(Disclaimer: these are anecdotal observations; I don't claim to "know" what "unchurched people," "nones," the "formerly religious" or any group think. Because individuals have different stories and experiences. And its individuals who embark on the journey of faith, not demographic cohorts.)

What's no longer remotely true is the idea that most people in our culture are looking for the Sunday-morning-go-to-meeting experience. Congregations that are waiting for such people to show up may be waiting a long time.

Nor is it true that people are waiting to be invited to a church service, of any style. "Church" is a meaningful experience for many people, most of whom already attend at least semi-regularly.

In my tribe we have long assumed that people are looking for traditions and theology and then form community bonds. And we've watched while (mainly evangelical) churches connect with people over contemporary music and coffee and build community -- and then teach them theology and practice. Our observation is usually that we don't agree with the theology. But the point is that we can share our treasure of God's mercy and grace and presence only after we are in relationship with people. And if we expect them to come with our history and ideas, there will not be much of a relationship.

(Aside: I am really uncomfortable with most of the terms we use in the church for "outsiders." "Unchurched" implies that others lack something, which they don't; God works with people who are not part of the church, sometimes more easily than with insiders. "Non-Christians" is similarly dismissive. "Not-yet-Christians" is even ruder. And please don't get me started on "the lost," possibly the most arrogant church term I've come across. So I'm going to talk about "our neighbors.")

Building relationships with our neighbors isn't a wish or a program or an ad. It's a commitment. It's a slow process that starts with "being there" where they are in daily life. It's an out of the building experience.

It can be tempting for us church geeks to focus on how we can make worship more inviting, more participatory, more clear about what we believe; to move toward becoming communities of Christian practice, not just Christian doctrine. That's important, for the faith formation of the people who are in church now.

Connecting with neighbors who are not participants requires new entry points into the life of faith that will seem odd to those of us steeped in church culture. Community centers to help youth with homework and offer space for music and art, rather than lock-ins. Theology pubs and coffee conversations -- in bars and coffee shops -- rather than classes in the parlor. Community service projects that engage the community rather than "just us" doing stuff for "them," so neighbors can hang with us with no expectation other than to help with painting, or cleaning up, or feeding people.

We need to get close enough to our neighbors that they might actually catch the faith we have been incubating. Then we need small, personal spaces where people can get to know each other and talk about their ideas of faith, as a step into the traditional gathering we know. Or maybe not. Maybe these entry points will become their "church." We could do far worse.

Photo by Flickr user loop_oh under Creative Commons License.