Follow Me

Follow Me

 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Mark 1:16-17

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. Mark 1:35

The childhood game of Follow the Leader consists of one person – the leader – acting in certain ways while the other players do as the leader does. If the leader takes 3 steps forward, twirls around, takes 2 steps back, and then does a somersault, it is up to the followers to copy the leader’s actions. In a way, Jesus invites us into a game of Follow the Leader. He says, “Follow me,” and we are to do as Jesus does. One foundational habit of Jesus, found throughout each Gospel, is going to a quiet place to pray. Some of us pray before meals, at bedtime, and in church with a congregation, but how well do we follow the way Jesus modeled prayer? First, Mark says Jesus got up while it was still dark. We receive so much visual stimulation from our surroundings that darkness is foreign and frightening. Yet, how can we expect to focus on God’s presence when the seductive lure of visual distractions constantly bombards us? We may be better able to commune with God in the dark. Second, Jesus went to “a deserted place” to be alone with God. When was the last time we sat alone, longing only for God’s company? Jesus found solace and rejuvenation in his prayer life. Do we?  Perhaps we are not comfortable with prayer because we have not fully entered into it the way Jesus did. Following Jesus, I believe, begins with grounding ourselves in prayer.

In the context of Jesus saying, “Follow me,” it is important to remember he did not say, “Worship me.” Jesus worships God the Father, the one so far beyond our earthly comprehension that all we can do is fall on our knees in reverent submission. God is unknown and unknowable to the human mind. On the other hand, we can know and love Jesus as we would any other person. God came to earth in the person of Jesus, as one of us, so we could know God through him and follow. There is an important distinction between worshiping and following. We can only worship and/or fear that which we cannot comprehend. One appropriate response as we consider the vastness of God is astonishment and awe – like standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon or tracing the path of the Milky Way on a clear, dark night. God in Jesus, however, was comprehensible. Sometimes we act as if he were not in order to ignore the personal obligation to follow him, which can be uncomfortable and inconvenient. We are to worship God, but we are to follow Jesus. Following is an act of presence, dictated by the circumstances of the moment. The Gospels help us understand what Jesus did in his day and, through that understanding, to project how Jesus would likely act today.

Some Christian churches, my own included, spend a lot of time and energy on issues that Jesus apparently never addressed. To our knowledge, Jesus did not mention homosexuality, gay marriage, women in the priesthood, or practicing LGBTQ persons serving as clergy or being welcomed into Christian fellowship. Regardless, these issues define and divide many churches today, both between denominations and within congregations. I suspect these divisions in the church named for him make Jesus weep. Remember, there were no “Christian” churches in the time of Jesus, who was a Jew. The followers of Jesus formed the Christian church because they desired a new forum within which to more faithfully follow him. How far have we strayed from following our leader?

Most of what we know of Jesus’ actions on earth fall into the categories of loving, teaching, healing, or including. He brought acceptance and grace where there was judgement and condemnation. He gave knowledge where there was ignorance, and healing where there was illness. He reached out to those condemned to the outskirts of society and brought them in. What does it mean to follow Jesus? One thing it means is for us to provide love, knowledge, healing, and inclusion wherever we find hatred, ignorance, illness, and exclusion. To do so requires a centered presence with and attentiveness to the life around us. A regular practice of quiet time alone with God, as Jesus modeled, is a good place to begin.

This is the 35th in the series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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Do You Have Eyes?

Do You Have Eyes?

 “Do you have eyes and fail to see? Do you have ears and fail to hear? And do you not remember?” Then he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?” Mark 8:18,21

In this story, the disciples complain because they failed to bring enough bread with them. Jesus says, “Do you still not perceive or understand?” Although they have eyes and ears, they can neither see nor hear the reality he models for them. This deeper seeing looks beyond what is visible in any situation to the God-given power and creative possibility inherent in any given moment. He reminds them of the feeding of the 5,000 and the amount of food left over after feeding so many with so little. He says, “Do you not yet understand?” In essence, he says we should not trouble ourselves with issues that are so easily and reliably taken care of by God. With time and experience around Jesus, we should know better than to worry over such things as what we are to eat and what we are to wear.

Jesus uses blindness as a way to describe ignorance. In spite of accompanying Jesus on his daily travels, in spite of hearing his teachings and witnessing the miracles he works, the disciples still do not understand. They cannot wrap their heads around the reality Jesus lives for them, which is the uniting of matter and spirit. Because we are physically blind to the spirit, we naturally assume spirit and matter are separate. They are not. The disciples think Jesus’ work is like a magic show, that there must be some sort of obscure trickery involved. It is too much to believe that he is manifesting the power and presence of God before their eyes. They believe God’s personal presence is only for those specially chosen by God. They cannot believe that degree of love would ever be lavished upon common folk as unworthy as they. They cannot accept the incomprehensible and too-good-to-be-true truth emanating from Jesus. They are blind to the manifestation of unconditional love in their midst; and so are we.

Obviously, our eyes are not the problem. Most of us can see just fine, physically. Our blindness is in our inability to comprehend the depth of what we experience. We grab too quickly for and hold too tightly to limited understandings of a truth that is ungraspable. In the process, we settle for partial truths and misunderstand our lives according to them. In our obsession to feel in control of truth, we hold onto those partial truths long after they have proven themselves inadequate. They are simply stepping-stones on an endless journey that we mistake for the destination. Even as adults, we too often retain narcissistic, immature understandings, believing everything is for and about us. While it is true that everything is about us, it is not about us as individuals, but about us as a collective, as the entirety of creation, as the Body of Christ.

We find ignorance on display throughout the Bible. Thankfully, God responds differently to ignorance than we typically respond. For example, even while Jesus endured the agony of the cross, he had compassion for his executioners: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). God responds to our ignorance with compassion, not condemnation, inviting us into a deeper understanding that we are a work in progress. Parents know this type of love from the dumb things their young children often do. We find our kids endearing, innocent, and precious, and we respond with love and patience. At some point, however, we can no longer use a childish lack of understanding as an excuse. We can learn to open our spiritual eyes and experience the spiritual world embedded within the physical. Everything that lives and moves and has being has a physical presence that is animated and permeated by Spirit. Furthermore, the Spirit that is in the rock, in the sunrise, and in my neighbor, is the same Spirit that is in me. We are quite literally One in that Spirit. We are not the same, but we are inseparably interconnected. We will know our relatedness to all that is when we have eyes that truly see.

This, then, is the vision to which Christ calls us. We love ourselves by loving others. Why? Because we cannot be well when those around us are suffering.  Jesus’ words remind us: “Do you have eyes and fail to see? Do you have ears and fail to hear? Do you not yet understand?” Like the disciples, we are a work in progress.

This is the 34th in the series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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You Give Them Something to Eat

You Give Them Something to Eat


When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.”  Mark 6:35-37b

The feeding of a large crowd is one of the miracle stories of Jesus that appears in all four Gospels, albeit in slightly different variations. The core of the story has Jesus teaching to a crowd of about 5,000 men, plus women and children. The hour is getting late, and the disciples are concerned that the people will need something to eat. They ask around and find only a paltry amount of available food – five loaves of bread and two fish, in Mark’s version. It was far too little for so many. Jesus takes the meager offering, raises it to heaven in blessing, and tells the disciples to distribute it to the crowd. Everyone in the crowd eats their fill, and the disciples collect the leftovers, filling 12 baskets.

God miraculously multiplied the small amount of food into an abundance to feed the hungry crowd. The question is this: How did God do it? Did God take a little, apply the Word, and magically transform it into a lot? Perhaps. I do not question God’s ability to accomplish such a feat. My life experience, however, makes me think God may have worked in a different way. Imagine that the disciples had asked people in the crowd what they could contribute to feed the masses, but only a few were willing to contribute a small bit of what they had – five loaves and two fish. Once others saw that some people were contributing, however, their hearts opened and more became willing to offer what they had with them. When the little, which was first offered, was combined with the abundance that was actually in the crowd, there was more than enough for everyone to have their fill. Is this telling of the story any less miraculous than if God alone had created the abundance? I think not. In fact, I find it more compelling.

We see this at church with potluck dinners. The church provides a little and everyone else brings something to contribute to the common meal. The amount of food always exceeds the hunger. Perhaps the feeding of the 5,000 is the biblical version of the story of Stone Soup. In that story, a traveler stops in a town at dinnertime, but can find no one willing to feed him. He takes his pot to the river, fills it with water, and places one round stone in the bottom. He builds a fire in the town square and starts heating the water. Curious townsfolk stop by to see what he is making. He says, “Stone Soup. It’s delicious!” He tells one person it would be better if only he had a few carrots. She says, “I have a few carrots I could bring.” He tells another that onions would be nice. Another person offers seasoning, and others bring potatoes and meat. In the end, they share a delicious and abundant community meal to which everyone contributed, in spite of their initial reluctance.

Here is why I believe the story seems more plausible along the lines of the Stone Soup legend than that God performed a miracle alone: I believe God works through us as much or more than God works for us. God provides the inspiration and the nudging for us to perform generous acts we might not otherwise perform. In the current example, one clue lies in Jesus’ words: “You give them something to eat.” It is a directive to personal action. It reminds me of Jesus’ parting instructions to Peter in the Gospel of John (21:15-19). Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, and Peter assures him he does. Jesus responds, “(You) Feed my sheep.” God relies on our hands and hearts to do the physical work of God’s will on earth. Very often, as in the case of the feeding of the 5,000, that work requires a handful of people to begin contributing something, inspiring others to follow suit. There is plenty for everyone when faithful people trust God’s abundant provision and share what they have.

Who should feed the hungry? You (and I) should. God reveals the need and gives us the opportunity to take it from there. God, acting through and with us, is the initiator of miracles.

This is the 33rd in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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Forgive Seventy-Seven Times

Forgive Seventy-Seven Times

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Matthew 18:21-22

The context for this passage of scripture is that Jesus is teaching his disciples about sin and the separation it creates. He begins chapter 18 by saying we must become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven. He warns against putting “stumbling block(s)” before others. He goes on to illustrate how important each of us is to God, with the parable of the lost sheep. Handling members of the community who sin against each other is next, followed by this passage where Peter asks how many times we should forgive a community member who sins against us. Jesus says, in essence, that we should always forgive.

What does it mean, exactly, to forgive? Certainly, it does not mean to forget. An abusive spouse may be forgiven, but the abused partner should never forget the warning signs of impending abuse, nor the ways to best protect her or himself in the event of a reoccurrence. When a lender forgives a debt, the principal and interest of the loan are both wiped off the books so nothing is owed. The incurring of the debt still happened, but it no longer impacts life going forward. To forgive does not erase the offending event from our memory or from our past. Rather, to forgive is to release the tyranny the sin holds over us and others. It is a very personal and often difficult decision, and it is not necessarily the act of forgiving another as much as it is giving ourselves permission to let go of our attachment to the lasting physical, emotional, or psychological injury. There are two distinct impacts of sin of which we need to be aware, both very real. The first is the sin itself and what it did to us – the actual physical or emotional injury. The second is the aftermath of the sin, which is primarily our response. This secondary insult is a result of the power we grant the sin over us. It is this, too, that must be forgiven and healed for us to be able to move on with our lives.

Our emotional reaction, the secondary injury, is what tortures us long after the event and keeps it alive as an active, negative influence over our being. We may need to first forgive our seeming inability to let it go, before we can effectively release it. This may require professional therapy. How can we avoid finding ourselves in a similar situation in the future? How can we better recognize when circumstances are arranging themselves for a possible reoccurrence? What are strategies to minimize the damage of the original sinful act, should it be done to us again, and forgo the tyranny of the emotional aftermath?

The fact that it for our own benefit that we are encouraged to forgive is one lesson in Jesus’ words. Another is that our reaction to a sin against us is often much worse and longer lasting than the initial sin. Finally, and most revealing, is that many times, what offends us in or by another is something that triggers a deeply repressed, painful memory or feeling in our own self that we are reluctant to acknowledge. This is why our reaction to a perceived sin against us may be disproportionate to the actual sin. It is also why someone may sin against us and never know he or she hurt us. The place needing forgiveness in cases such as these is the place deep within that longs to be brought to conscious awareness where it can be acknowledged and brought to completion. Again, this may require therapy. Often, these hurting places have their origins in our childhood. In order to develop as whole persons we must “forgive” ourselves over and over again.

None of this is to say we should not forgive the other person, too. Jesus makes that clear. We should make every effort to also release them from the tyranny of the event. Forgiveness must begin within, however, or it will not be a lasting forgiveness. If, when someone sins against us, we discover a hidden and hurting part of ourselves that can now be healed, we will have turned an unfortunate occurrence into a personal blessing. How often should we forgive? Always.

This is the 32nd in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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