Jesus Creed 18 – A Society with Perspective

Posted: September 24th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Jesus Creed 18 – A Society with Perspective

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The readings for this chapter are: Mark 14:25; Matthew 25:31-46.

The bible gives us only an occasional glimpse of heaven.

That’s an important place to begin this chapter because it focuses on the perspective our eschatology gives us. However, Scot also connects the fact that our culture impacts our ‘idea’ of heaven at least as much as anything else. And that’s both accurate and a very important observation that is often missed.

I’m not going to delve into all the vagaries surrounding that point in this post. Scot touches on them, but does not dwell on them. His focus is on what Jesus teaches and what should be common to all of us.

Jesus teaches that heaven, or the eternal kingdom, begins with a judgement; that heaven is entered by the followers of Jesus; that heaven involves table fellowship between Abba and his people; and that heaven is magnificent in its glory, intensity, and splendor. In short, heaven begins with the judgement and then, once that is over, the whole place is decked out for eternal fellowship with God and others.

There really is a lot of exploration in this chapter, but I’ll skip to this.

The place to stand, the perspective it gives us, is this: The end is the beginning. That is, one’s view of the eternal (the end) gives one perspective in this life (our beginning each day). The most potent incentive to spiritual formation is to see the end of history, to ponder God’s eternity, and to realize that this end shapes our beginning each day. So, in the words of Thomas a Kempis, ‘Practice now what you’ll have to put into practice then.’

Scot then builds a case against reading scripture purely for information. And his case is a powerful one. It merges, for me, with Willard’s words about bible study in Spirit of the Disciplines. We should read, meditate upon, study, and otherwise use scripture not for information but for formation. It helps us little to learn about love. We need to love. That is a distinction always worth keeping in mind.

This concludes the part on the society the Jesus Creed forms. Mcknight moves next to living the Jesus Creed.


Jesus Creed 17 – A Society of Joy

Posted: September 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The reading for this chapter is: John 2:1-11.

This chapter opens with an exploration of the yearning that is a universal part of the human experience. While there are many good thoughts, quotes, and ideas in the opening, I’m going to skip straight to the following from the book.

Here’s the good news: Jesus claims that the yearned-for joy is already here, that he’s provided us with an abundant drink of it, and that his offer will satisfy our thirst forever and ever. To reveal that joy, Jesus performs miracles that draw down a little bit of heaven’s joy to earth, that suddenly make life in this world light up in glory, and that convert the humdrum routine of reality into the joy of life.

Sometimes it seems like we treat God’s joy, grace, and life as if it’s in short supply. We feel we have to be careful where we bestow it. We don’t want to ‘waste‘ it. And that’s so very foolish. If there’s anything that knows no limit, that overflows with abundance, in which we swim in riches unimagined, it’s the embarassing wealth of grace and life God pours out on us.

Obviously, from the gospel reading, Scot begins his exploration at the wedding at Cana. And he starts by pointing out one of those things that we don’t often consider. Why does John specifically mention that the vessels Jesus’ uses are for ceremonial washing? Here is where we’ve lost some of our points of reference to Jesus’ culture. These weren’t about hygiene. They contained sacred water. It is water used to purify people and things.

People and things are made pure to get them in the proper order before God, to render them fit to enter into God’s presence. Observant Jews wash their hands in this water so they can eat their food in a state of purity.

Think on that for a moment. We talk about those containers a lot but I can’t think of a time when I can say I truly paused to recognize their significance in the culture. I knew it, but never connected the dots. Scot draws a wonderful point from this.

Jesus transforms the water of purity into the wine of joy. … Purity comes, not from water, but from drinking in the wedding wine of Jesus. … Jesus not only transforms water into wine, he does so in abundance. … Abundant joy is a feature of the kingdom…

That’s a powerful thought. Scot closes the chapter with the following.

When Jesus transforms the waters of purification into the wine of celebration he is saying that the daily grind of yearning for joy through purity has come to an end. ‘You need search no longer,’ Jesus is saying, ‘the wedding wine is at the table, drink it, all of you. Drink of me, for I am the wedding wine of joy, for the forgiveness of sin. I am what you yearn for. I make all things pure.


Health Care in the US

Posted: September 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments »

As a rule, I don’t tend to post on political issues, mostly because I don’t tend to write about or otherwise wrestle with such matters at any significant level. I do stay generally informed, and I also find that much of what passes for political discourse in our country is pretty abysmal.

Health care, however, is one issue which does concern me a great deal, especially since at least two of my children have inherited celiac disease from me. Personally, my wife and I are somewhat insulated and secure from the worst of what has happened to health care in the US over the past decades. I’m a federal employee and as such we are covered under the FEHB. Twenty years ago, the FEHB offered pretty average employer insurance plan with low to average benefits and costs. Over the past couple of decades, I have watched our health care coverage become better and less expensive than that of almost everyone else I know.

And my health care plan has not significantly changed.

Let me say that again. Over the past twenty years, I’ve seen my health care plan go from, at best, a middle of the road plan, to one that seems to be better than that of most of the people I know without changing. I have watched the overall level of health care access and coverage dramatically decline for almost everyone else around me.

That’s not to say they aren’t constantly tweaking and adjusting my health care plan each year. Some years we pay a bit more in deductibles and other copayments. Some years we pay a bit less. Premium costs have pretty much risen every year, but at a less dramatic pace than that of many people I know. They did add a PPO network in the nineties, and reduced coverage for care received by non-participating medical practitioners and facilities. But the plan’s PPO network is so large, that’s been a non-issue. I don’t think there’s ever been a doctor or facility we wanted to use that was not a preferred provider on our plan.

As a result, my wife and I have been somewhat insulated from the abuses in health care coverage in this country and it’s less likely to ever be a critical issue for us personally. However, at least two of our children inherited celiac disease from me — that is they’ve been tested and positively diagnosed with active celiac disease. Thus, they already have one strike for a pre-existing condition and it’s a condition which can manifest in a huge variety of ways. They also have a family history for a variety of other conditions they could develop over the course of their lives. So from a personal perspective, the issue of health care does strike close to home.

However, that statement is true for every single one of us. The odds that we or someone we love will face some sort of serious, life-threatening, and individually unaffordable (unless you happen to be a Bill Gates or Warren Buffet) health crisis at some point in our lives approach certainty. And within the context of the privatized, for-profit system we allowed to balloon over the course of the past two decades, the odds were unacceptably high that during that almost inevitable health crisis, we would not have access to the level of care we might expect and our family would be crippled by debt for the care we did manage to receive. This is clearly the sort of problem that can only be mitigated by sharing the risk, responsibility, and cost as a society. It’s for reasons like this that we group together as a society and a country. There are many things we can do together that we simply can’t do alone.

Of course, it’s a scientifically demonstrated fact that the way our minds function leaves us remarkably poor at evaluating and acting on those sorts of risks. Even when we know the odds, we tend to have irrational optimism that we can beat the odds in some situations. (That’s one reason why, in every flood here, there are usually people who get in trouble and even die from driving around barriers and into flooded low water crossings.) Conversely, we tend to inflate threats that seem riskier, but which actually have a comparatively lower and often even minimal chance of impacting us. The biggest risk many of us personally encounter on any given day is the risk of simply driving to work, school, or the grocery store. But if you ask people to list or rank risky activities, that rarely makes the list at all.

In this instance, managing health care at the societal level in some way is the common sense thing to do from a self-oriented, pragmatic perspective. Ironically, it’s also the only thing you can do if you claim to love your neighbor. In this country, we have organized ourselves as a form of representative democracy. One of the things that means is that we all share in the responsibility of ruling our country. As Christians, that has particular implications. It means we face, though perhaps on a more distributed scale, exactly the same sort of dilemmas that Christian emperors and other rulers have faced throughout history. We are the powers and authorities who will be held accountable by Jesus for the way we have exercised that power. We cannot escape that responsibility and we cannot abdicate it. There are no easy answers to the proper use of that power. There never have been.

Unfortunately, there is no easy button.

So what are our options? I’ve studied what other countries do to some extent and it seems to me that most employ variations of one of three different general approaches. (Yes, I know there are a lot of ideas out there, but most countries seem to actually end up doing one of three things.) It also seems to me that part of our problem is that we are trying to use them all in a disorganized and hodge-podge manner rather than selecting one approach for everyone in our country. If we are going to truly share the risk, responsibility, and cost, it doesn’t seem effective to me to take that approach, especially if, as you’ll see, we segregate pools of those with higher risks and costs from those with lower risks and costs.

So what are these options?

  1. Government run health care. In this system, the government owns the hospitals. Most doctors and other health care practitioners work for the government in those institutions. And basically, health care is delivered directly by the government. England is one example of a system like this. There are many variations and permutations.
  2. Single payer health care. In this system, the doctors and other practitioners largely do not work for the government, nor does the government own or directly operate most of the hospitals and other facilities. Instead, the government is the single payer for health care services. They negotiate payments and they usually distribute the costs to some degree across the populations based on your ability to pay. Canada is one example of a system like this. Again, there are a lot of different ways to do it, but they do share the same common characteristics.
  3. Government regulated health care insurance exchange. Here, the government does not directly pay most health care costs. Instead, it establishes and regulates an insurance exchange and mandates the participation of all citizens in order to spread the risk across the population. Such a system typically must include subsidies for groups like the poor. Switzerland’s system is generally the model for a system like this.

Those are the basic, widely used options. And here’s where the arguments of those who seem to oppose almost anything that is proposed turn irrational. Why? Because we employ all of the above approaches in our country and have for a very long time. Yes, I know there has been widespread demagoguery over government taking over health care or socialized medicine, but though it has been noisy, it’s had no basis in reality. I don’t personally have any strong preference for one system over another. But my life has been such that I prefer to maintain some connection to the world as it actually is rather than my fantasy about it.

Let’s start at the top of my list. Because we are so large as a country, we actually have a government run health care system that rivals that of some smaller countries. It’s called the Veteran’s Administration. While the VA operates many programs on behalf of veterans, one of the largest is certainly the network of doctors, hospitals, and clinics it runs. We hear about it in the news when there is a problem with a VA hospital, but they mostly do pretty amazing work — especially when you consider that we usually choose to underfund them. If a government-run health care system is good enough for those who have served us in our military, tell me again why it wouldn’t be good enough for all of us? Be careful how you answer that question. Though I’m not eligible for care through the VA, I am a veteran.

Or let’s move to the next item on my list. Our government-operated single payer system is the largest single health care system in our country and is much larger, I believe, than Canada’s entire health care system. Our single payer system, of course, is called Medicare. In the debates over health care, both Republicans and Democrats publicly defended Medicare. I remember some of my older relatives, especially the ones with serious illnesses and inadequate coverage, anxiously waiting to reach the Medicare enrollment age. It has problems, of course, because of the way we’ve chosen to structure and fund it over the years, but as a system it works well enough that threats to take it away seems to raise the ire of those who have it.

Finally, even before the recent Act, we had government-regulated insurance exchange option available. It’s the one that has covered my family and me for most of my life, the Federal Employee Health Benefit (FEHB) program. OPM has regulated the program pretty well over the years and overall it’s worked pretty effectively.

The recently passed health care reform act requires that similar exchanges be established at the state level (or the state can opt into a national exchange), but the only population of those exchanges will be those who do not have health care coverage through their employer and who do not participate in any of the above health care systems. (And yes, I know I left Medicaid off my list, but it’s similar to Medicare in the way it functions.) That’s certainly an improvement over our current situation, but it means the pool will be a lot smaller which isn’t very good for sharing the cost and risk across the population.

Personally, I believe we need to move toward some single system. As I said, I don’t have any strong feelings about any particular system. Since I’ve participated in the FEHB for twenty-five years, I probably have a slight preference for expanding it to be the single exchange for all United States citizens. That’s not necessarily easy. In order to fund it and make it affordable, we would probably have to mandate that large businesses pay at least the same portion of the premium for their employees that the Federal Government does for its employees. And then we would need to develop appropriate subsidies for individuals and people in various categories such as the poor and the elderly. And it would obviously require a larger regulatory body than OPM currently has in place. But it could work if we had the will to make it work. Switzerland has proven that it’s possible.

In the interim, the health care act has some excellent features. The changes to prohibit denial of coverage of preexisting conditions and the end of the evil practice of rescission alone are very worthwhile. The extension of coverage under parental plans until the age of twenty-six means I will be able to keep my younger two children (both with celiac disease) on my insurance for as long as should be necessary. The insurance reform requiring that a minimum of 85% of premiums be used to cover medical loss is a great first step. I still remember when the typical medical loss by our mostly non-profit insurance companies was 95%, so I’m not impressed by the 85% number. Still, it’s better than the current 70%-80% medical loss. 85% is at least less egregious than the current situation. There are others, but those were the ones that I found particularly relevant.

Nevertheless, it’s a patchwork law that really doesn’t do enough. That doesn’t upset me terribly. That’s how things usually work with us. The health care reform act was a good start. Now we just have to keep making it better while trying not to take any steps backwards.


The Jesus Creed 16 – A Society of Restoration

Posted: September 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Creed 16 – A Society of Restoration

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The readings for this chapter are: Matthew 23:8-12; Mark 5:24-34; Luke 5:12-16.

If justice is really about restoring people to God and others, then it follows we are a society of restoration. So this is an obvious next step.

However, the chapter begins with a discussion of miracles. Scot McKnight explores the way many Christians think that miracles are proofs of various sorts. And while they do, in fact, prove that Jesus is God, the Son of God, and basically is ‘right‘, that’s really more of a side-effect. I hadn’t thought of it exactly that way, but it’s a strong thought.

God isn’t in the show-off business or in the convincing business. Miracles, again speaking generally, are not done to prove the truth about God or about Jesus Christ. They may reveal plenty about Jesus (as our next chapter will show), but their intent is often otherwise.

I must emphasize this: Miracles do reveal things about God and His Son. That is beyond dispute; that they are always designed to prove something is disputable. I’m on the side of those who think Jesus did miracles, and on the side of those who think miracles tell us something about Jesus and about truth. But I am also on the side of those who think the miracles had intents other than proving something.

Let that sink in for a bit. I’ll go further. I believe God is still in the miracle business today. There is little else that accounts for some aspects of my experience and life. But it isn’t about ‘proving something’. At least I don’t see it that way. What is it most often about? Restoration. And that, as the title indicates, is McKnight’s point.

It is quite easy to see the normal intent of Jesus’ healing miracles. Any glance at the many records of Jesus’ miracles in the Gospels reveals what the miracles normally do: They restore people. Miracles are performed by Jesus out of love and are done to restore humans to God and to others. Miracles are what happens when the Jesus Creed becomes restorative.

Think about that. As we expect the Jesus Creed to restore, do we live in expectation of miracles? Not at our beck and call as some ‘Christian‘ sideshows would proclaim, but unexpectedly and when and where they are needed? It’s something to ponder.

Jesus heals to restore others into a society without the age-old classifications. He heals to knock down walls between people.

Scot then proceeds to examine two walls that are crushed by the restorative power of the Jesus Creed.

Wall #1: Women Join the Table.

He uses one specific illustration, but the evidence is legion. Jesus breaks down the societal classifications/walls that keep women from the table of God.

Wall #2: Lepers Come to the Table.

Lepers were the prototypical outcast. Unclean. Unable to participate in any of the functions of society. The functional equivalent of the Hindu Untouchables. Jesus restored them. Again and again. I’m not sure the implications can be overstated. McKnight describes Jesus as “a contagion of purity”. Meditate on that a bit. He wasn’t consumed with the fear that others would make him impure, but confident that by bringing them to his table, he could make them pure.

Which model are we called to follow?


Jesus Creed 15 – A Society for Justice

Posted: September 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Jesus Creed 15 – A Society for Justice

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The readings for this chapter are: Luke 4:16-30; 6:20-26.

Scot McKnight stakes out his ground right away in this chapter.

By virtue of entering the kingdom of God, we Christians make the astounding claim that we live under a different order — God’s order. Living in that order should make a difference in our day-to-day living and in our society. After all, the kingdom Jesus describes is a society and not just a personal nest.

Why else do we pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”? If our faith has any meaning, then we are the enclave or manifestation of God’s kingdom here on earth. I think we need to do that for each other more often. It’s not all about the pleasant, the comfortable, the easy, or the personal. It’s about a whole lot more. Either we choose to live as citizens of the Kingdom or we do not. And we tend to waver between those poles. Sometimes we desire to so live. More often we do not. And that seems to be where our communion should enter the picture. Faith in isolation and without physical expression tends to fade. At least that’s my experience. I know the monastic hermits in their seclusion prayed for and were mystically connected with the whole world, but that’s a special calling, not something normative. Even the monastics mostly live in community. It’s not just that it’s helpful to have a ‘church family‘ (too bad we don’t really take that phrase seriously), there’s no other way for us to live. Sure, they’ll disappoint us, abandon us, hurt us, and all the rest. (Doesn’t your blood family do the same?) And yet, they and the Eucharist are God offered to our senses.  Where else can we turn?

Spiritual formation is not all contemplation and meditation, or Bible study groups and church gatherings. Spiritual formation, because it begins with the Jesus Creed, involves loving God and others. We need not choose one or the other; we need both, because loving others includes brushing up against the thorns of injustice in society. Love wants them removed.

Make no mistake. I love my country. I believe it is (on its good days) among the best the kingdoms of this world have ever offered. But it remains a kingdom of this world. We forget this reality to our peril. The Church is the one who must challenge the powers of this earth. Doesn’t Paul write about that?

Because the term ‘justice’ is used like this [in a retributive or vengeful manner] so often, it has acquired the sense of being negative and nasty. It seems to be little more than recrimination, retribution, and punishment. But in Jesus’ kingdom, justice is deeper than retribution. Any look at the Bible will reveal to you that kingdom justice concerns restoring humans to both God and others.

In the Bible, justice (Hebrew, tsedeqa or mishpat) describes ‘making something right,’ and for something to be ‘right,’ there has to be a standard. For the Jewish world the standard is God’s will, the Torah, and so justice for Israel was ‘to make things right’ according to Scripture. In our American society what makes something ‘right’ is if it conforms to the United States Constitution or to a decision made in a court of law. Jesus operates in the Jewish world. What makes things ‘right’ for him? What is his standard? Here is where a Christian sense of justice parts company with standard social understandings.

The standard of justice for Jesus is the Jesus Creed. What is ‘right’ is determined by the twin exhortation to love God (by following Jesus) and to love others. For Jesus, justice is about restoring people and society to the love of God and love of others. The vision of restorative justice clobbers, with a padded stick of love, any retributive sense of justice. The follower of Jesus is to ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness (or justice)’, but that ‘justice’ is defined by the Jesus Creed, not the Constitution. To get things right in our world, according to Jesus, is to love others and work for a system that expresses such love.

That’s a long quote, but I think this discussion required all of it. Now go read the parable of judgment day (sheep and goats) in Matthew. Think about it for a while. What distinguishes one who follows Jesus? Is it not ultimately a judgment of love? I think too many Christians confuse it as a judgment of ‘works‘ using a pretty anachronistic definition of the term. In a sense it is, but those works are works of love.

Not all of us are called to work in the justice system [of our society or kingdom of this world], but we are empowered to restore justice in our society. One person at a time; one change at a time; wherever we can.

That’s the closing thought of the chapter. And it’s a very fitting one.


Jesus Creed 14 – A Society of Mustard Seeds

Posted: September 13th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Jesus Creed 14 – A Society of Mustard Seeds

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The reading for this chapter is: Matthew 13:31-32.

Jesus thinks paradoxes best explain the kingdom.

Is there any better way to capture Jesus’ parables? What are they if not paradoxes? And the particular parable under discussion in this chapter is even more the paradox than many. N.T. Wright has noted that Jesus did things and when questions or challenges were posed him as a result, sometimes he refused to answer and other times he told a story that forced his listeners to work out the meaning of his actions themselves.

But instead of defining ‘kingdom’ as paradise, Jesus defines it with a paradox. If you want to see what the kingdom is like, look at a mustard seed. This surprises everyone because it asks everyone to think of ‘kingdom’ in a new way. We should look at what they were already thinking — and be honest enough to admit that what they were thinking is what we are thinking — before we look at what Jesus means by a mustard seed.

When we think ‘KINGDOM’, do we really think mustard seed? That’s not the impression I get, whatever people say. The following expresses it well.

Why does a mustard seed attract comparison to the kingdom of God? Because for Jesus the kingdom is about the ordinariness of loving God and loving others. The kingdom is as common as sparrows, as earthy as backyard bushes, as routine as breakfast coffee, and as normal as aging. He hallows the ordinary act of love, making it extraordinary. Instead of finding it in the majestic, Jesus sees God’s kingdom in the mundane. The kingdom of God is the transforming presence of God in ordinary humans who live out the Jesus Creed.

Jesus inaugurates the Kingdom of God, but it doesn’t look like any sort of kingdom that people expected. Paul saw that Kingdom growing and spreading and the word he most commonly used to describe it was ecclesia, a word that did not have a strictly or even primarily religious meaning before it was adopted by Christians. (At least, that seems to be the general consensus.) We translate it Church, of course, in English.

The mustard-seed paradox of Jesus surprises in many ways. The first surprise is that Jesus finds the presence of his kingdom at work in the most unlikely of persons. … Time and time again Jesus chooses odd people to follow him, and then he holds them up as examples of what the kingdom is all about.

As one of those unlikely persons, I certainly empathize with this. Think about it. Don’t you see it again and again in the gospels?

Our natural tendency is to search for the perfect, for the powerful, for the pure, and so prepare for paradise. But Jesus’ kingdom is about tiny mustard seeds, not big coconuts; it is about the ordinary act of loving God and loving others with a sacred love that transforms.

Love God. Love others. The two cannot be separated. And it’s work and requires discipline and a willingness to change. Moreover, we have to love others even though they disappoint us and hurt us. But if we say we love God and hate our brother, we are liars. John said that, though I’ve noticed we don’t much like to read what he says.

Jesus’ Parable of the Mustard Seed tells us that the mustard seed, though small when it is planted, becomes a large bush. It grows. So also the kingdom of Jesus: it spreads like seeds, one at a time, from person to person.

And I suppose that captures the essence of my discomfort with “programs” of evangelism. I see that they ‘work’ with some people, whatever that means. At the same time, I see how thoroughly I could have decimated any of them if someone had naively attempted to convert me using one of them. It wasn’t any ‘program‘ that reached me. There were a number of individuals over time who acted out of love toward me. Over time that softened my dismissal and rejection of Christianity. I doubt anything else could have ever reached me.

In the world of Jesus, there are only two ways the kingdom can be established: either wait patiently and peacefully for God’s time or force the rule of God with violence.

That’s certainly a true observation. Which did Jesus choose? Can there be any doubt at all? What does that say about us?

Jesus has a thing for paradox. The thing is that it works.


Jesus Creed 13 – A Society of Transformation

Posted: September 6th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Jesus Creed 13 – A Society of Transformation

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The readings for this chapter are: Matthew 6:10, 11:28-30; Luke 17:20-21; Mark 3:31-35.

This section begins with the point that your goal shapes your journey. You have to know where you are going or you can get lost.  Jesus, too, knew where he was going, and he had a term for it — ‘kingdom of heaven’ (malekutha shamayim). This expression of Jesus provides a goal for his followers and, by living out that vision in heart, soul, mind, and strength, life is transformed.

Thus we should be a society of transformation. Are we, though? Scot has this interesting bit.

But what does he mean by ‘kingdom’? Ask a Christian ‘What did Jesus mean by ‘kingdom’?’ and you will get something like this: ‘heaven, eternity, life after death.’ Or, you might hear: ‘heaven on earth, the millenium, a perfect world, a paradise.’ (On my unscientific questionnaire, the responses are about fifty-fifty.)

His ‘unscientific’ poll strikes me as exactly right. That does seem to be how most people view the term. Scot has a lot in the book developing his thoughts, but the below captures part of his conclusion.

So, if ‘kingdom of God’ is so important to Jesus, what does it mean? I offer this thumbnail definition: the kingdom is the society in which the Jesus Creed transforms life. Three parts here: first, it is a society; second, the content shaping that society is the Jesus Creed; and third, the impact of the kingdom is that it transforms life.

A society is certainly one term, an entry point if you will, into the reality we call the church, but I don’t believe it captures its fullness. The church does break down all human divisions — it heals Babel. But I would call it less a society than a restoration of communion between human beings. I will say that where a larger society or culture shaped by the Jesus Creed exists, it transforms both those within and those who come in contact with it. If the society, whether labeled ‘Christian’ or not, is not shaped by the Jesus Creed its impact is negligible or even harmful. We have plenty of examples of both of those from history.

I will note that in my own journey toward Christianity, I was neither uncomfortable with what I believed (I wasn’t seeking something different), nor did I have an unsettled opinion of Christianity and Christians in general. Rather, it was the actions — the love — I saw and experienced from various Christians over time that led me initially to wonder if my judgment of Christianity had been premature and unfair.

Scot continues with this important insight.

It is important to understand that for Jesus the kingdom is about a society. Jesus did not come merely to enable specific individuals to develop a solo relationship with God, to run about on earth knowing that they, surrounded by a bunch of bunglers, were the only ones getting it right. No, he came to collect individuals into a big heap, set them in the middle of the world, and ask them to live out the Jesus Creed. If they live out that Jesus Creed, they will be personally transformed, and they also will transform the society around them.

Think about that. If it were all about individuals and God, there would have been no reason to amend the Shema, would there? It already covered that, didn’t it? Are we proclaiming and living the kingdom? Or are we returning to something like the focus of Israel under the Shema? That’s something to think about. I will, however, note that Jesus’ own language goes well beyond that of societal relationship. His language is that we be one with each other as he and the Father are one. That’s why I think a communion is a better word for the Kingdom than a society. But the point remains — this is not a faith for individuals. It’s not just about God and you.

The kingdom would be a society that is transforming life in the now, and that’s the extraordinary thing about Jesus. At the time of Jesus, it was not hard to find Jews pining for, pondering over, or planning for the kingdom. It was impossible to find one who believed that the long-anticipated kingdom was already present. Of all the radical claims Jesus made, this one stands the tallest: ‘The kingdom of God does not come visibly … because the kingdom of God is [right now and here] among you’ (author’s translation). Jesus’ saying- satchel is full of radical comments, but this tops ’em all. Jesus believes the kingdom of God is present. This can mean only one thing: he expects his followers to live in the kingdom in their daily lives — right now. Thus, a spiritually formed follower of Jesus lives the values of the kingdom now.

Do you agree? Or disagree? This is a central question, not a peripheral one. How you answer determines how you perceive the faith, Jesus, and everything surrounding it. Obviously, I see it much as Scot McKnight does. I get the sense that much of the church today does not. He does point out that Jesus says the kingdom begins by turning to him. So it is personal and relational. It begins by turning to him. But it doesn’t end there. “Kingdom transformation continues by following Jesus.” Scot has a lot more to say, but that captures it. Turning to Jesus is the start, but if you refuse to follow him, it doesn’t mean all that much. He talks a lot here about Jesus’ yoke as compared to the Torah-yoke and that’s a really good part of the chapter.

But it doesn’t even end there. The Kingdom transformation is only sustained by communion. Those fellow believers are the holiest objects presented to your senses. As flawed as they are, as often as they will fail you, they are the only thing that will sustain you in the faith. If you do not spend time with them, you’re in trouble. Pure and simple.

As a family they learn from Jesus about this new transforming: about boundary-breaking table fellowship, about forgiving one another, about financial responsibility for one another, and about equality within the family of God. What they learn most is the upside-down nature of the kingdom istself: instead of acting with power, his family serves one another. And, instead of living in self-absorption, his followers love one another. In other words, they live out the Jesus Creed as a society –and when they do, life is transformed.

Do we do that? Really?

The kingdom is the society in which the Jesus Creed transforms life.

In other words, that place where God’s will is done as it is heaven, even imperfectly.

Nothing else transforms life.


The Jesus Creed 12 – Women: The Story of Compassion

Posted: September 3rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Creed 12 – Women: The Story of Compassion

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The readings for this chapter are: Luke 7:11-17, 36-50; 8:1-3.

Jesus, in his radical actions of compassion, does not permit his followers to embrace the stories of only those who are similar — we are to love all those who sit at Jesus’ table.

Isn’t that the most difficult part of this? If our ‘fellowship’ looks homogenous (and it mostly does, especially when I see the pictures in publications like ‘The SBTC Texan’), what does that say about us? Do we seek the comfortable at the expense of faithfulness?

Sometimes we treat the needy as if they are pariahs, as if they have done something to deserve their fate. … Even when we believe that God loves everyone, we still don’t know what to do with some people. The distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’ creates hostility between the haves and the have-nots.

But Jesus, with eyes abrightin’ and heart awarmin’ and hands astretchin’ and feet amovin’, does offer hospitality to persons at the edges of society. He enters the safety zone, walks to the edges, takes the needy in his hand, escorts them back across the zone, offers them a spot at his table, and utters the deepest words they are to hear: ‘Welcome to my table!’ He offers them a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.

The first woman McKnight examines is the widow leading a funeral procession. “Jesus knows widowhood firsthand because his mother is widowed. Even though Judaism developed a small bundle of laws protecting widows, the label ‘widow’ (Hebrew: almanah) quickly became synonymous with poverty. … The widow from Nain had already seen the death of her husband, and she is now losing her ‘only son.’ And thus she is probably losing her income. She is weeping in grief when Jesus observes her.

Jesus empathized with the woman. And the words he utters reflect that fact. ‘Don’t cry.’ He had probably uttered them to his own mother.

Another story of empathy we see is toward the woman who bathed his feet in perfume and tears in the house of Simon. His response to her is full of compassion.

Notice how Jesus’ compassion for these women turns into action to resolve the problem: he raises the widow’s son, he forgives the prostitute and gives her a new vocation, he exorcises demons from Mary Magdalene, and he heals Joanna, Susanna, and others. … Jesus’ kind of compassion is not abstract commitment. It is real and personal and concrete. Compassion moves from the heart to the hands and feet.

Absolutely. McKnight concludes this chapter with Mother Theresa’s creed. He even calls it her “Shema”.

The fruit of silence is prayer.
The fruit of prayer is faith.
The fruit of faith is love.
The fruit of love is service.
The fruit of service is peace.

And I would add: Amen and amen.


The Jesus Creed 11 – John: The Story of Love

Posted: September 1st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Creed 11 – John: The Story of Love

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The readings for this chapter are: Mark 10:35-45; Luke 9:49-56; John 13.

In John’s story we see the process of learning to love. John became the Apostle of Love, but he didn’t start that way. Not even close. In fact, not once during the gospels does John show any evidence of the love for which he would later be celebrated. Read them. They tell the truth. And the truth about John shows little love.

John does learn about love. He even ties loving God and loving others together, “Whoever loves God must also love his brother.” But John had a long way to go before he learned to live lovingly. In the gospels, John fails when he is tested in love. His failures are less celebrated than Peter’s denials, but I’m not sure that should be the case.

First, there’s John and James ‘request’ to let one sit on Jesus’ left and the other on his right. “If love is service (which is what Jesus goes on to explain to the brothers), then John fails in love.

Then John fails to recognize someone exorcising demons in Jesus’ name. John tries to stop them and ‘tells on them’ to Jesus. “To which Jesus gives the agelessly valuable response, ‘whoever is not against us is for us.’ Anyone following the Jesus Creed would not denounce someone who is breaking down demonic walls. Except John.

And then finally there’s John wanting to call down fire from heaven on the Samaritan town refusing Jesus hospitality because he was heading for Jerusalem.

John does eventually learn love. But key to that is that he was loved and loved deeply by Jesus. How does he describe himself? The disciple whom Jesus loved. John is a slow learner, but that constant exposure sinks in.

I probably empathize and connect more with John’s story of learning love than anyone’s, though Peter’s story of conversion is a close second.  I have always loved and desired family, but love of others was never my creed. At best, my perspective was that which fulfills the Wiccan Rede: An Ye Harm None, Do What Ye Will. At worst, my perspective was more along the lines of: Do unto others before they do unto you.

I still don’t think I would say that I’ve learned love.  I would say that I now desire to love — to truly love as Christ loves. While that’s quite a step for me, I don’t think it counts for all that much until I actually love. Until then, I pray for mercy as the least loving of all.

It occurs to me that scattered through my posts, I mention Wicca, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and other spiritual paths. It’s unlikely that many who read will be familiar with the many threads that shape my thoughts and thus my references. As a rule, I’m more drawn to the more ancient religions. Even so, though I have never been Wiccan, I have had friends who were and it’s one of the modern spiritualities that has to one extent or another shaped my life. I still remember how struck my wife was at the final line of a Wiccan handfasting of some friends of ours many years ago. You have been married since you met. She said that line described how she felt with me.

With that in mind, for those who may have never read or heard, I’m going to share the full Wiccan Rede. I do not believe it reveals the fullness of truth or I would be Wiccan rather than Christian. But there are ways to shape your life that are much worse.

The Wiccan Rede

Bide within the Law you must, in perfect Love and perfect Trust.
Live you must and let to live, fairly take and fairly give.

For tread the Circle thrice about to keep unwelcome spirits out.
To bind the spell well every time, let the spell be said in rhyme.

Light of eye and soft of touch, speak you little, listen much.
Honor the Old Ones in deed and name,
let love and light be our guides again.

Deosil go by the waxing moon, chanting out the joyful tune.
Widdershins go when the moon doth wane,
and the werewolf howls by the dread wolfsbane.

When the Lady’s moon is new, kiss the hand to Her times two.
When the moon rides at Her peak then your heart’s desire seek.

Heed the North winds mighty gale, lock the door and trim the sail.
When the Wind blows from the East, expect the new and set the feast.

When the wind comes from the South, love will kiss you on the mouth.
When the wind whispers from the West, all hearts will find peace and rest.

Nine woods in the Cauldron go, burn them fast and burn them slow.
Birch in the fire goes to represent what the Lady knows.

Oak in the forest towers with might, in the fire it brings the God’s
insight.   Rowan is a tree of power causing life and magick to flower.

Willows at the waterside stand ready to help us to the Summerland.
Hawthorn is burned to purify and to draw faerie to your eye.

Hazel-the tree of wisdom and learning adds its strength to the bright fire burning.
White are the flowers of Apple tree that brings us fruits of fertility.

Grapes grow upon the vine giving us both joy and wine.
Fir does mark the evergreen to represent immortality seen.

Elder is the Lady’s tree burn it not or cursed you’ll be.
Four times the Major Sabbats mark in the light and in the dark.

As the old year starts to wane the new begins, it’s now Samhain.
When the time for Imbolc shows watch for flowers through the snows.

When the wheel begins to turn soon the Beltane fires will burn.
As the wheel turns to Lamas night power is brought to magick rite.

Four times the Minor Sabbats fall use the Sun to mark them all.
When the wheel has turned to Yule light the log the Horned One rules.

In the spring, when night equals day time for Ostara to come our way.
When the Sun has reached it’s height time for Oak and Holly to fight.

Harvesting comes to one and all when the Autumn Equinox does fall.
Heed the flower, bush, and tree by the Lady blessed you’ll be.

Where the rippling waters go cast a stone, the truth you’ll know.
When you have and hold a need, harken not to others greed.

With a fool no season spend or be counted as his friend.
Merry Meet and Merry Part bright the cheeks and warm the heart.

Mind the Three-fold Laws you should three times bad and three times good.
When misfortune is enow wear the star upon your brow.

Be true in love this you must do unless your love is false to you.

These Eight words the Rede fulfill:

“An Ye Harm None, Do What Ye Will”


The Jesus Creed 10 – Peter: The Story of Conversion

Posted: August 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Creed 10 – Peter: The Story of Conversion

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The reading for this chapter is: Luke 5:1-11.

Conversion, like wisdom, takes a lifetime.

McKnight has a whole lot more in depth on conversion in his book, Turning to Jesus. Nevertheless, Peter is a good story to explore. He’s nice and complex.

For some, conversion is like a birth certificate while for others it is like a driver’s license. For the first, the ultimate question is ‘What do I need to do to get to heaven?’ For the second, the question is ‘How do I love God?’ For the first, concern is a moment; for the second, the concern is a life.

The Jesus Creed is more like a driver’s license than a birth certificate.

The Jesus Creed is about the totality of life, and so conversion to Jesus and the Jesus Creed is total conversion — heart, soul, mind, and strength.

I think the present-day American church has failed to grasp that, for a lot of us, the question of ‘how to get into heaven‘ just isn’t particularly interesting or compelling. It’s not much of an incentive for conversion. And if you ask any sort of more complicated question, it becomes much harder to pinpoint an instant of conversion. Peter is a good example. Let’s start by asking what should be a simple question: When was Peter converted?

  • Was it when Shimeon was introduced to Yeshua and Yeshua tells him that one day his name will be Kephas? His brother told Peter that this man might be the Messiah.
  • Was it when Peter confesses he is a sinner? Remember? That’s the odd conclusion to the fishing story. I never have quite figured out how a big catch of fish prompts the declaration, ‘I am a sinful man!’ But there you go. Is this when he’s converted?
  • Or is it when Peter confesses Jesus is Messiah? Peter does get it right when Jesus asks, but then almost immediately screws up again.
  • Or is he only converted after the death and resurrection of Jesus? After all, Peter had flatly denied even knowing Jesus and had had to be restored by Jesus after the resurrection.
  • Or is his conversion only complete when he and the others receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost? After all, it wasn’t until then that Peter was willing to publicly proclaim Jesus to others.

Two other events are of note. Peter receives a vision that converts him to the reality that the church will include Jews and Gentiles. And finally, there is the Peter who writes the letters to the churches. He’s surely converted by the time these occur, but they are still noteworthy.

Still, a credible case can be made for any of the first five as the point of Peter’s conversion. And then Scot McKnight says this.

No one doubts that Peter is converted, but we may not be sure when the ‘moment’ occurs, when he gets his birth certificate. And therein lies the mystery of conversion. Conversion is more than just an event; it is a process. Like wisdom, it takes a lifetime. Conversion is a lifelong series of gentle (or noisy) nods of the soul. The question of when someone is converted is much less important than that they are converting.

That was a very freeing statement for me. Of course, I could shape my story to fit many boxes, but none of them ever felt quite right. There were many points of ‘decision’ and all of them were legitimate and authentic. They were also mostly of the ‘noisy’ rather than the ‘gentle’ variety. McKnight was the first Christian voice I heard who basically said my story of conversion could be my story, whatever it looked like. I didn’t have to have a singular Pauline experience. I didn’t have to have a point where I turned and was forever different. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with that, but “There is no reason to think Paul’s is the definitive model.

Moreover, even Paul doesn’t seem to fit within the context of what many today seem to mean by a Pauline experience of conversion. Paul, after all, still had a race to complete, a mark to keep before him, a finish to achieve. The thief on the cross seems to be the sort of conversion that many evangelicals really seem to have in mind. And while God can do all things, that was clearly an exception, not the rule. After all, most of us aren’t in the process of being executed.

McKnight outlines the seven stages that we see in Peter’s story as follows:

  1. Peter suspects Jesus might be Messiah.
  2. Peter recognizes Jesus as someone profoundly superior.
  3. Peter confesses Jesus as the Messiah. [But Peter disagrees with the Messiah on whether or not the Messiah ought to suffer.]
  4. Peter perceives the Messiah must suffer.
  5. Peter confesses Jesus is Lord.
  6. Peter realizes that Jesus is not just the Lord of the Jewa, but the Lord of all. Here Peter sees that the Jesus Creed is about loving all others.
  7. Peter embraces Jesus’ life as the paradigm of Christian living.

Peter illustrates a progression of conversion. And I would hazard that his example is more common than Paul’s.