Lent: Jesus and the Demon of Status Quo

Mark’s gospel tells us that after Jesus called his first disciples‚ÄĒSimon, Andrew, James and John‚ÄĒthey left their nets and followed him. They all went to Capernaum. On the Sabbath day Jesus was teaching in the synagogue and a demonized man was there.¬† The man screamed, “What have you to do with¬†us¬†Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? We know you are the Holy One of God.” Jesus quieted the man, cast out the demon, and he set the man free (Mark:1-21-28).

This was Jesus’ first healing, and his first confrontation with the Darkness after his wilderness temptation. And it happened in a house of worship. The three L’s of exorcism are: location, location, location

Diverse interpreters of the Bible understand these unclean spirits differently. The quasi-charismatic evangelical hermeneutic that shaped my reading of the text, takes the spiritual world as a given. These are demons‚ÄĒbeings of personal evil bent on destroying humanity. Post-Enlightenment bible scholars with a bent toward demythologizing the supernatural look at what the spirits¬†means within the early church’s proclamation. So one group looks at demons as personal evil (could it be . . . Satan?) and the other group see demons as representations of cultural and institutional structures (e.g. the ‘spirit of the times’).¬†The result is that one camp reads this account as Jesus’ confrontation with a very real spiritual being, the other camp understands this as Jesus’ encounter with systemic, structural evil.

Of course these two readings are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to observe, in the context of Mark, a man in the synagogue who was really demonized and that Jesus’ first miracle and confrontation with the demonic happened after his teaching challenged the teaching of the scribes. “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22).

Ched Meyers observes, [T]he meaning of the powerful act must be found by viewing it in terms of symbolic reproduction of social conflict” (Binding the Strong Man, Orbis 1988, 2008, 142). The demonic stronghold becomes apparent as Jesus opposes the pervading political, social and religious thought.

Meyers writes:

Although Jesus identity is hidden to the protagonists (e.g. the disciples) in the story, the demons know exactly who he is. Clearly understanding the political threat he poses to the status quo, they struggle to “name” (that is control) him (1:34; 3:11) (143).

In Lent, it is easy to talk about following Jesus and the cost of discipleship. It is even easier to conceive our Lenten journey as our own little private devotion to God. However, walking with Jesus the way of the cross necessarily will bring us into spiritual, political conflict with evil. Following Jesus means opposing structures and systems which hurt people. In Mark’s story, Jesus’ teaching is contrasted with the scribes for the authority of his teaching (1:22, 27). In Matthew 23, Jesus is explicit in condemning the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy, and the way they subvert true justice. And yet these were the social, political and cultural leaders of his day.

The way of the cross is not about private spiritual devotion. It confronts political realities. This was as true at the beginning of Jesus’ mission as it was at the end.

“What’s that got to do with us Jesus of Nazareth?”

The status quo tends to hurts people. If you want to see the reality of demons, question it. When you hear the phrase¬†what’s that got to do with us¬†(or what that’s got to do with me) you may be listening to a demon. Cain, the first murderer, uttered a similar sentiment, “Am I my brothers keeper?”¬† That’s demonic. It is also demonic when a Christian apologist shames mass shooting victims for speaking out about assault rifles. Or when the victims of domestic or sexual violence are discounted because of¬†due process.¬†Or when you see an angry outburst when someone dares to say black lives matter, and challenges the practices of law enforcement and mass incarceration. Narrow is the gate to salvation but we have institutionalized the wide way of destruction.

Following Jesus will bring us more and more into confrontation with the powers because the way of Jesus is diametrically opposed to the kingdom of this word. To walk with Jesus will mean challenging unjust systems, structures and the status quo. If it doesn’t, you’re doing it wrong.

 

 

 

Picking up the Pieces, Reaching for Wholeness.

This past weekend, I drove up to Portland for a Christian conference of sorts. I went to the Northwest Ekklesia Project Meeting. Chris Smith and John Pattison, authors of¬†Slow Church¬†were the speakers (I heard about this gathering via Chris, and I’ve interacted with both authors online, though we had never officially met them until this weekend). In three sessions, Chris and John described our age¬† as being characterized by profound fragmentation, and they offered three biblical metaphors of church (Church as family, as body, as light) as a counter vision and way of being in the world. John and Chris drew ¬† on their book, Slow Church, their current personal projects, and stories from church communities they’ve been privileged to interact with as a result of their book.

This was not one of those huge church conferences, but an intimate gathering, tucked into a small church in northwest Portland. Nobody made me wear a name tag, so I wasn’t subjected to institutionalized intimacy. There was only about 20-30 people there. I learned pretty quick that everyone else was in a thicker sort of community than I am in. The other folks who were gathered were committed to neighborhood and place, and they didn’t just¬†do¬†church¬†together. Most were part of intentional Christian communities (co-housing, shared life, etc.). Nobody made me feel out-of-place for my thin, anemic communal life, or like I didn’t belong there. I felt enfolded in the hospitality of the group, but it made me aware of ways my experience of church was far less robust.

In the first session, John noted that fragmentation is a characterization of every age‚ÄĒin the very warp and weft of the universe. However, he identified three forces of fragmentation peculiar to our day: radical individualism, hypermobility, and materialism.

Traditionally the season of Lent is a time for preparing. We fast, and we examine our lives, we repent, and we strive to follow Jesus more wholeheartedly. And yet, I am not whole. I recognize the forces of fragmentation in my own life but also the longing for wholeness.

I am individualistic

John Pattison noted in his Friday night talk that the Apostle Paul uses the phrase ‘Our Lord’ something like 53 times, but only once says “my Lord” (cf. Phil 3:8). Similarly, 22(?) times the New Testament speaks of Jesus as “our Savior” and only once does an individual refer to Jesus as ‘my Savior’ (Mary, in her Magnificat, Luke 1:46).¬† Our post-Enlightenment age emphasizes the private individual. We are the self-made men. And faith and spirituality has become privatized. Evangelical Christians preach the need to accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, and deemphasize the fact that Jesus came to overturn the social order and establish a new people.

And yet so much of my Spiritual journey is all about me, following my bliss, me on¬†my journey toward my self actualization.¬† But Jesus calls us to something fuller, deeper and more involved than my personal relationship with him. God is community (Trinity) and the community the Godhead establishes images God’s unity in diversity, God’s justice and God’s love for all.

I hunger for deeper community, even as my own woundedness and suspicion keeps me from others. Part of my journey this season is to experience more of God with others because spiritual experience is so much more than the internal experience of my own human brain.

I am rootless

Sitting in a room full of people with a deeper, thicker experience of community life, I was struck with how hypermobile my life is. In conversation with Chris and John, before the conference began, I revealed my circuitous journey, and how I came to be in Medford. Born in Edmonton, Alberta, raised in Hawaii, two short years in urban mission in Atlanta and Miami, Vancouver BC for seminary, North Washington for several years, my pastorate in Florida and now, my neighborhood in South Medford. And then John went to talk about hypermobility as led to further fragmentation and rootlessness

Theologically, I prefer stability. I’ve read my Wendell Berry and Eugene Peterson. I went to a Parish Collective thing a few years ago and cried through the whole thing feeling like¬†these were my people‚ÄĒ those who commit to place and neighborhood and strive to feel the rhythm of what God was already do there.¬† As much as I’ve moved, I believe wholeheartedly in tending the soil where you are, and committing to place. Jesus was God with human skin come to dwell among his people. Incarnation happens in place, and there is reality we won’t enter into if we keep¬† on moving. I feel the rootlessness, but wherever I moved, I’ve hoped it would be for the long haul.

I am a materialist. 

Materialism means valuing the material more than the spiritual. It creates within us both a consumer mindset, where people and things are commodified, and a scarcity mindset, where we are most conscious of our material lack (e.g. resources, programs, technology, etc).

Certainly I feel both the forces of commodification and scarcity in my soul. Too often, my individualist impulse has subsumed even spiritual practices into commodities‚ÄĒ techniques to achieve my personal satisfaction. And the weight of scarcity also weighs on my soul. Everything is a commodity and none of it is enough.

But of course, as in Browning’s phrase, my reach exceeds my grasp (or ‘what’s a heaven for?’). I long for a greater sense of God’s Presence to invade my reality, alerting me to where the¬†real world of the senses doesn’t comprise all of reality, and that there is always more of God around than I realize. I feel too much the weight of scarcity, but the promise of Jesus is abundant life.


I am an individual, isolated from the Other. I am rootless, longing for connection. I am a materialist and a consumer, longing to taste and see the goodness of God. These forces of fragmentation are useful to me as a self-diagnostic, describing how fragmented I feel most of the time, but they also help me see the things I long to see in my life, in my journey with Christ. Fragmentation is not the end of the story.

 

 

Braving My Lenten Wilderness

If your church follows the lectionary, you would have heard Mark’s rendering of Jesus’ baptism, how the Spirit descended like a dove, the Father spoke affirming words, and how the Spirit immediately drove Jesus into the wilderness (Mark 1:9-15).¬†¬†Mark is the most economic in his description of Jesus’ wilderness temptation, but we know from reading his account: (1) Jesus was there 40 days, (2) he was tempted by Satan, (3) he was with the wild animals, and (4) he was waited on by angels. At the end of his desert days, John, his cousin, was arrested and Jesus went to Galilee preaching, “It’s time! God’s reign has come close! Change your heart and trust the good news!”

The forty days of Lent‚ÄĒAsh Wednesday to Easter minus Sundays in the western Church calendar‚ÄĒcorrespond to the 40 days of Jesus’ wilderness temptation. To practice Lent is to self-consciously follow Jesus into the wilderness. There we will be tempted, we will grow hungry, we will see ways we are in danger. But like Jesus, who was ministered to by the angels. We will sense ourselves as being held in God’s care, and have God’s presence mediated to us.

Going to the wilderness is the hardest part of practicing Lent for me because I feel like I’ve already spent too much time there. Jesus took forty days and clarified his call before going about the countryside preaching, teaching, casting out the Powers and healing the sick. But wilderness haunts my story and still feel perpetually,¬†vocationally frustrated. I graduated from seminary in 2010 with a mountain of student debt. Unable to find a way into pastoral ministry and needing a job, I worked at a hardware store in Blaine, Washington. I call that season of my life, ‘Waylaid in Blaine,’ and while there were gifts and blessings and the angels of God ministered to me and my family, it was a desert place for me.¬† I was eager to move into the land of promise.

A few years later I got the opportunity. I uprooted. My family and I moved across¬†country where I took up the role of lead pastor of a small congregation. I was 40. Our fourth kid was born there. We named our son Benedict Asher (meaning blessing and happiness) because I mused. “After 40 years in the wilderness, we are now in the promised land, doing the things God has called us to do.”

My son is indeed a blessing, but a year after coming to Florida, the church and I parted ways. They were a small congregation with big bills feeling the weight of scarcity and they needed a leader who would turn things around for them. I didn’t deliver on their hopes (e.g. grow the church, bring in money, invigorate them with spiritual vitality). But it wasn’t just them. I failed to deliver on the things I feel called to.¬† I mishandled important relationships and I failed in my attempts to get the church to partner with the wider community. I think it was an impossible situation and I was a bad fit for them, but I still feel the ways and places I didn’t measure up, and I grieve the broken relationships.

But for the next eight months, I lived in that community, seven blocks from my old church. I dreaded running into former congregants because when I saw them, I felt like a failure. Some members reached out and were kind, but most severed all contact. My kids would cry because we couldn’t go to that church anymore. Me too. And while I had worked at building community connections and relationships, I suddenly felt like any investment I had in the neighborhood would be perceived as competing with my former church. Every interaction became difficult for me (I’m normally gregariously extroverted). And it hurt. A lot. I don’t think I ever felt so isolated.¬† We were in the wilderness again, unsure of next steps and feeling isolated.

So we uprooted again, heading back to the Northwest and ended up in the city of¬† Medford, Oregon. We ended up in a new city but carrying the self-doubt, disillusionment, and disconnection. We started attending a local Methodist church and slowly building a life here. We subsist, ministered to by the angels, but in lots of ways I’m still in a wilderness place. I have had opportunities to preach and have healed somewhat, but I feel gripped with fear and haven’t done much to pursue the things I feel like I’m called to.

So entering the Lenten Wilderness is just a decision, for me, to recognize my own spiritual locale.¬†Here I am.¬†Where are you? Is your life the land of promise? Or are there ways you feel, as I do, vocationally and relationally frustrated? Perhaps you carry wounds that keep you from giving and receiving love in a community? The Spirit drove Jesus to the wilderness, but as we listen to the Spirit’s whisper, perhaps we recognize the ways we are already there.

This past weekend I drove up to Portland for a conference. On the way up, I listened to the Audiobook version of Bren√© Brown’s¬†Braving the Wilderness (.¬†She describes her own longing for connection and¬†true belonging¬†and what it means to “brave the wilderness.” She offers up the acronym¬†BRAVING¬†to those of us who find ourselves in the wilderness (Lenten or otherwise):

  • Boundaries – being clear about our own boundaries and the boundaries of others
  • Reliability – the decision to trust others to do what they say they are going to do, and doing the same.
  • Accountability – trusting others who apologize and make amends for their mistakes, and doing the same ourselves.
  • Vault- holding in confidence what is shared with you and not sharing stories that are not ours to tell.
  • Integrity – choosing courage over comfort and practicing what we say we believe.
  • Nonjudgement – Nonjudgment of others in relationship, non-judgment for ourselves. We can fall apart, we can ask for help. We can be needy.
  • Generosity – Choosing to be generous in our assumptions about what people¬†do to us¬†and why.

So here I am, in the wilderness, longing for connection. Wanting to step with courage into calling, but still feeling wounded and afraid. I want so badly to be on the other side of the desert, speaking Good news of God’s closeness and welcome. But here I am. And I must brave this place and learn to find my voice again.

 

Reading as Prayer through Lent & Easter: a book (p)review

We are nearing the beginning of Lent. I love this season! I find the preparatory seasons of the church calendar (Lent and Advent) great times to press into devotional practices which are difficult for me the rest of the time. Wednesday, I will find a church service to attend so I can get the Face-palm of Death (AKA the Imposition of Ashes). I will fast. I will engage spiritual disciplines. This season is sacred time and I enter in eager to see what God will do in me. 

between-midnight-and-dawnOne of my conversation partners this Lent will be Between Midnight and Dawn: A Literary Guide for  Prayer for Lent, Holy Week, and Eastertide (Paraclete Press, 2016),  compiled by Sarah Arthur). This is one of three devotionals Arthur has edited following the church calendar (also: At the Still Point: a Literary Guide for Prayer in Ordinary Time, and Light Upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer For Advent, Christmas and Epiphany). At the Still Point was the only one of these devotionals I have read any of before, though my Ordinary Time resolve is nowhere near as resolute as my Lenten devotion.

Between Midnight and Dawn¬†pairs suggested weekly Scripture readings with prayers, poetry and fiction readings. There are seven readings for each week of Lent‚ÄĒsix poems and one piece of fiction. During Holy Week and Triduum, there are scriptures and 5-7 literary selections for each day, before returning to the weekly format of Scriptures, poetry, and fiction for each week of Eastertide.

The poems and fiction are selected to lead us deeper into the land of Prayer. Arthur suggests reading this literature, applying aspects of¬†lectio¬†divina‚ÄĒlectio¬†(reading), meditatio¬†(reading it again, several more times, slowly), oratio¬†(paying attention to words and phrases)¬†and¬†contemplatio¬†(shifting our focus to God’s presence,¬†p.13). Certainly, this takes a little bit of time. The story sections are longer (because ‘fiction doesn’t work its magic right away’), so Arthur suggests saving the story for a day of the week when we have time to just focus on the story.

Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter¬†(Plough Publishing. 2002)¬†is a similar sort of¬†devotional, using literature as a way into this liturgical season. Arthur’s selection is different in that she is more focused on reading literature as an act of prayer, and the scriptural readings (absent from¬†Bread and Wine) give focus to daily practice.

As of yet, I haven’t really read the book, only scanned the selections, the poems and stories selected.¬† Arthur has chosen both contemporary and eminent voices from the past.¬† Poets like Hopkins, Donne, Rosetti, Herbert, Tennyson but also those like Luci Shaw, Katherine James, Scott Cairns, John Fry, Tania Runyan). There are stories from Buechner, Chesterton, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, George Macdonald. There are some favorite poets and poems I am surprised to not see here, but I am interested to¬†read the ones which Arthur has chosen. I am excited to journey with poets and storytellers on my Lenten journey

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Paraclete Press for the purposes of review.

If you would like to get a copy for yourself for Lent you can purchase it from

Paraclete Press

Amazon (also available on Kindle)

Barnes & Noble

or wherever fine books are sold.