Malcontents for Jesus

The news this morning heralded a new high in lows. A lone gunman had broken the U.S. record for a single killing spree: 58 dead, more than 500 wounded. As if I am watching some distorted, despicable, dystopian game, I wonder how long it will be before the record is broken again. There is something deeply wrong with the world.

We are more divided than ever along lines drawn by race, gender, sexuality, political party. Hate and vitriol control even the most mundane conversations. Social media, which was to bring people together, instead tears us apart. There is something deeply wrong with the world.

processional cross

The normal response to something being broken is to “fix it.” So, most discussions about the problems of the world jump to fixing this or that problem, then it will all be well. A little more data, some innovative thinking and we’ll be good to go. Like a car with a bad starter, it just needs a new part. Unfortunately, we are one part of the whole system known as “the world.” We are so enmeshed with what is causing the suffering we can’t just “fix it,” because fixing “it” means fixing us, and we can’t even see the problem clearly.

There is an old Hasidic saying that says, “To a worm in a jar of horseradish, the whole world is horseradish.” The worm doesn’t know anything but horseradish, so what is to change? Our world is shaped by violence, hate, judgment, competition, a sense of scarcity, greed and a hundred other things that are not just around us, but in us. The cross of Christ is the ultimate unveiling of the world’s foolishness. The ways of the world murdered God! God gave love, and the world (we) hung love on a tree to die.

Eugene Peterson, in his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, says that the first step in becoming a disciple who follows Jesus Christ is to wake up and realize that “the world” that shapes us and causes us so much pain is broken. We have broken it and we are clueless as to how to fix it. He says:

“The first step toward God is a step away from the lies of the world. It is a renunciation of the lies we have been told about ourselves and our neighbors and our universe.”

Discipleship begins when we turn away from the lies of the world and toward the life-giving promises of God in Christ. This is the classic definition of repentance – to turn away from the wrong way to the right way. We need to be malcontents in this world – unsatisfied with the way things are and committed to what can be in Christ. We renounce the world to embrace Christ.

This turning can hurt, at first. It means we leave behind what we know – like the rich man to whom Jesus said “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21) The man couldn’t do it. His wealth was too important to him. But, it was that piece of the world that kept him from God’s reign.

In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this:

“Grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”

The thing is, once we make the turn, we come to see that all it really cost us is our captivity to the violent, death-dealing lies of the world. What it grants is life in Christ, the reign of God, the peaceable kingdom. As the cross reveals the deathly nature of the world, the resurrection of Jesus reveals that the way of Christ is the only way to life, in this moment and in all future moments. How do you know this for sure? God has raised only Christ from the dead. Caesar, Washington, Lincoln, Rockefeller and everyone else is still dead. So, who are you going to follow? Me? I’m a malcontent for Jesus.

 

copyright © Timothy V. Olson, 2017

Christian Tourists

Every year I spend time asking folks what they would like to learn about in the adult classes I teach. Every year one of the most requested topics is: “How do I live my faith in daily (real) life?” Part of me rejoices at this, because it is what people who profess to follow Jesus should be asking about. Another part of me sighs. I sigh because, while I have graduate degrees is divinity, theology, and preaching, none of these make me an expert on following Jesus. As a pastor, I’m on the same road you travel when it come to living my faith. In some cases, I may be down the road another exit or so, but I’m still working at it right with you. I also sigh because I know that folks are not always going to like the answer to the question.

This week, in our adult class (which meets at 7:15 PM Wednesdays) we looked at how we live in a world that has trained us to demand quick fixes, easy formulas, and immediate results. Eugene Peterson, in his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, observes:

Our attention spans have been conditioned by thirty-second commercials. Our sense of reality has been flattened by thirty-page abridgments. It is not difficult in such a world to get a person interested in the message of the gospel; it is terrifically difficult to sustain the interest. (16)

The result of the instant, quick fix mindset is that we “play” at living our faith. We make it an extracurricular activity, an option. The phrase, “I’m spiritual, but not religious” is all the rage today. Frankly, I worry that if I hear it again, I’m going to be sick. It is not that I don’t understand that the empty traditions and rote practice of a religion can rob it of its spiritual center. I get that. But, I suspect most often this is another way of saying, “I want to be spiritual in a quick and easy way that does not intrude on my life.”

Peterson thinks that the problem we have in this world where “busy” is the stock answer to the question, “How are you?” is that we have become Christian tourists:

Religion in our time has been captured by the tourist mindset. Religion is understood as a visit to an attractive site to be made when we have adequate leisure. (16)

We go to church, when we have time, to fit in a little spirituality to our already planned and scripted lives. Like planning a trip to the lake, we plan to set aside time to go look at the stained glass and strange people you can find at church. We leave no more (maybe less) affected than a trip to Mt. Rushmore or an amusement park. Been there. Done that. Got the T-shirt.

Following Jesus is not, however, a tourist opportunity. The two words used to describe followers of Jesus most often are disciple and pilgrim. The first denotes a long-term relationship between master and teacher. Peterson notes: Disciple (mathētēs) says we are people who spend our lives apprenticed to our master, Jesus Christ. (17) Wow, living faith in daily life takes a lifetime devoted to Jesus!

The second word, pilgrim, Peterson points out, “tells us we are people who spend our lives going someplace, going to God, and whose path for getting there is the way, Jesus Christ. We realize that “this world is not my home” (17)

Following Jesus, which is what living your faith in daily life is all about, is not a quick, easy, instant process. It is a long-term relationship with a master, a teacher, a Lord named Jesus to whom we apprentice ourselves to be trained to be human beings, created in God’s image.

In the end, living or faith everyday is about loving God and loving others. It is about a lifelong journey that takes us deeper and deeper into the very heart of God.

love shoes

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, in his book Being Disciples describes the daily living of Christians, the following of Jesus:

 

 “We follow him, not simply to the ends of the earth, to do his work and echo his service; we follow him to be next to the heart of the Father.” (13)

There are no shortcuts in the journey of discipleship. It is not a quick trip. But, God promises it to be a blessed and joyful journey. Just look who you get to follow!

 

copyright © Timothy V. Olson, 2017

Following Jesus: Easy or Hard?

“In the course of Christian discipleship we discover that without Christ we were doing it the hard way and that with Christ we are doing it the easy way.

A man once told me that following Jesus never presented him any struggle. I was impressed. I mentioned that things like loving my enemies and forgiving people who had wronged me always gave me pause. He explained that those things were not the key parts of following Jesus. Then he proceeded to tell me about a Jesus he followed who I never encountered in Sunday School. Miraculously, his Jesus had never challenged him to think or act differently; never had changed his mind about anything. His very personal Jesus would be easy to follow.

This encoutner always makes me think of the story in Mark (10:17 ff) where a rich man asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life.” Jesus tells him to follow the commandments – no murder, no lying, no adultery, honor his parents and the like. The man says, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” My (rather loose) translation of the Greek is, “That’s it? That’s easy-peasy ! Haven’t you got anything else?” The man is thinking that this Jesus is offering a pretty easy path. So, Jesus adds, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (10:21) Suddenly, the path to eternal life gets steeper, longer, and harder for the man. He turns back, unable to follow.

I would think that most folks, if we are honest, would say that following Jesus seems hard. There seems to be a lot of rules, demands, and requirements. The way of Jesus calls us to give up things we love; to change when we like things just the way they are. Like the rich man, we all have an idea about where we won’t follow Jesus. It is just too hard.

But what if we are looking at it all wrong?

wrench

One day, when I was a kid, I went out to the workbench in the garage and got busy building or fixing something (I don’t recall what it was). The task at hand called for me to drive a nail into a piece of wood. So, I found a nail and a tool for pounding – my father’s pipe wrench. I was wacking away at the nail, making very little progress, when my dad appeared and asked me, “What the heck are you doing?” I stated the obvious. “Pounding a nail.” He asked how it was going, and I had to admit that it was not going very well at all. He grabbed the wrench, handed me a hammer. I drove the nail in easily. He the told me never to hammer things with a wrench. He was a wise man. I was making something easy very hard.

Eugene Peterson, in his book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, insists that following Jesus is actually the easy way. What makes it seem hard is that we have been living the hard way for so long. We’ve been driving nails with a pipe wrench or screw driver and a hammer seems weird. He says, “In the course of Christian discipleship we discover that without Christ we were doing it the hard way and that with Christ we are doing it the easy way. It is not Christians who have it hard, but non-Christians.” (Peterson, Eugene H. A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society (Kindle Locations 1427-1428). IVP Books. Kindle Edition.)

We are created in the image of God, but we spend lots of time fashioning ourselves into our own or someone else’s image. We have been shown what it means to be a human living in the image of God in Jesus Christ. We would rather find our own way, follow our own path instead of walking in his footsteps. We receive the gift of the Holy Spirit to stir our hearts to love and serve, to orient us in this world to the hope of God’s future. We ignore the voice within and listen to the voices of the world calling us to forsake our birthright. We are surrounded by a creation and creatures all dedicated to the same God, but, we treat them all as personal possessions.

Jesus beckons us, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30) 

It is the way of the world that kills, creates violence, and robs us of meaning and purpose. We were built for peace, the world drags us into conflict. We were built to love, but the world divides and conquers us through hate. We were built to live in community with others, the world calls us to go it alone.

We were made to follow Jesus. Maybe we just need to stop resisting; stop wacking nails with wrenches.

 

 

copyright © 2017, Timothy V. Olson

 

 

 

In Memory of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

So, I was thinking that it is April 9. For many in the Church that means it is the day we commemorate Dietrich Bonhoeffer who died on this date in 1945 – martyred by his Nazi captors for his role in the plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler. Bonhoeffer was 39 years old that day and had already established himself as a brilliant theologian, a dedicated and capable pastor, and ecumenical leader, and a voice that stood in opposition to the Führer from the very beginning.  His role in the plot was to reach out to Church leaders in Allied countries to seek support for the overthrow of Hitler from Allied leaders.

Bonhoeffer has been an influential figure in the Church since his death. It would be hard to estimate how deeply Bonhoeffer’s life and works have influenced my own faith journey. He left behind books that are still published, read and re-read to this day.  His story is a compelling vision of life as a disciple in our age. Books like The Cost of Discipleship, Life Together, Spiritual Care, Letters and Papers from Prison and Psalms: Prayerbook of the Bible are standard fare and absolute must reads for any Christian.  Amazon.com offers a page dedicated to his works. 

LivingLutheran.com has observed today by lifting up some key quotes that offer just a little taste of Bonhoeffer’s wisdom — check it out:  In commemoration: Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Seeds – LivingLutheran.com.

The story of Bonhoeffer’s life is told best in three works.  The newest is by Eric Metaxas in his Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy; Perhaps the oldest, and very intimate portrait is written by Bonhoeffer’s best friend, Eberhard Bethge – Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography;  A third offering is also new.  Martin Marty has written Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison: A Biography looks at this one, very influential and oft misunderstood collection of his writing while in prison.

So, on this day we remember one of the saints whose witness echoes into history.  Say a prayer in thanks for brother Dietrich today, if you don’t mind.

Pax Christi – Pastor Tim