Tag Archives: #community

Moving past fake to authentic

If you’re reading this in the future, remember that time when we all had to stay indoors and separate ourselves from each other? Yeah, it was 2020 – the year of the pandemic that cost thousands of lives and caused untold upheaval to so many.

Initially there was a wave of bravado, then fear and then blaming. But there was also a wave of kindness. A kindness pandemic to chase away the global fear and uncertainty. And then these two things balanced in tension as we tried to work out how to do life in the new and temporary normal.

While working from home and home schooling our kids and trying to support our elderly and vulnerable family and friends from a distance, two critical things have happened – we started shaming the people who were organising themselves well and we have started wearing our gritty anti-coping realness as a badge of honour.

Now I say this on the basis of social media which is the worst kind of information-diet we can have, but the easiest source of connection. It’s the equivalent of junk food and we know we shouldn’t binge on it, but binge we do.

And as we do, the people coping (apparently) OK with the working from home and home schooling post pictures and comments that make us feel bad. They have organised school rooms and structured timetables and activities, they’re doing art and puppet shows and crafting – and running a spotless household and working.

What is that bundle of emotions it makes me feel? Is it jealousy? Is it shame because I am not doing nearly so well? Is it anger coming from the assumption that they’re doing it to show off? It could be all of those things and more, but what we can know for sure is it feels like a dull weight in our stomachs, giving us a slightly queasy feeling.

We don’t know why people are posting. Maybe they’re proud of themselves – and frankly from some that I’ve seen, they should be because they’re doing brilliantly. Maybe they’re proud of their kids for coping so well. Maybe they are showing off a bit, but maybe they are also reaching out because in this uncertain time, they feel off balance and they are seeking validation or connection.

But we feel bad because we think it makes us look bad. And so it has very little to do with the person posting, and far more to do with us personally. Because the act of comparison makes us feel like we look bad, it triggers negative emotions – anger, resentment, bitterness, even contempt.

First off, we project. If I am feeling bad, I’m going to make it your fault, so I am going to project onto you the reason that you’re posting those things – and I’m pretty sure it’s deliberately to make the rest of us look rubbish and know what insignificant failures we are. Of course, this is nonsense. We are making up all sorts of thoughts and motives for them and that’s just not fair. But it makes us feel better somehow.

Then, we start wearing our own perceived failings as a badge of honour – its almost a rebellion against the people/posts making us feel bad. We write, like and share posts about not getting dressed, drinking at breakfast, keeping our kids quiet with devices and chocolate, drinking at lunchtime, slacking off from work and so on. What are we saying when we do this? Are we trying to be self-effacing? Are we claiming a false modesty? Is it anti-virtue signalling by showing off our supreme ordinariness?

Of course being real and authentic is good. But I think we can be in danger of wallowing in our realness and even faking a gritty level of authenticity to make us look extra amaze-balls.

And you know why this is such a terrible trap to fall into? It’s all made up. We champion fake authenticity because we feel shamed by others posting their authenticity. We have no idea if that is authentic or not but because it made us feel bad, we needed to respond somehow to make ourselves feel better. Even if you didn’t respond, we’ve allowed ourselves to feel feelings about what we see on social media that then influences our heart, thoughts, attitudes and behaviours. All based on things we have thought and assumed that aren’t even real.

This is terrible for our mental health. It’s terrible for our connections during this time of social distancing. It impairs our relationships – most of all, potentially the one we have with God.

In the gospel of John, Jesus says to the believers, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)

When I read that, it feels like I’m breathing in cool fresh air. The bites I read on social media are garbage by comparison. The truth…..the truth….the truth that Jesus came to save us from our sins – the very sins we fall into when we take in too much social media (among everything else!).

The truth is, while we scroll through social media and huff and puff and get annoyed and make assumptions and judge people and ourselves, Jesus watches and waits. He watches and waits for us. He watches and waits for you. Let this be the reminder you need to switch off and breath in the clean air of the truth of the gospel.

We can look at social media, of course, we can stay connected and we can source interesting stories and information. But like all humans, we can take a good thing, and turn it into a bad thing.

Moderation.

But how do we do that? Its like trying to train yourself to have moderation with eating or shopping or anything – you can start off well and then it all goes……horribly wrong…. But Jesus gave us the key. “If you hold to my teaching” he said. Don’t focus on the problem, focus on the solution. Focus on him first and the rest will fall into perspective. We must seek the kingdom first.

So, in this time of social distancing, are you reading your Bible still? Have you got out of the habit of praying? How are you finding online church and Bible study? There are lots of little anchor points that we’ve lost. In some ways, this should be easier for us, but its not. I used to pray in the car – well, I’m not driving anywhere now so I have no markers in my day to do it. I’m finding I have to re-train myself in some things and actively look for anchor points in areas where I can feel myself slipping further away.

Let this be the reminder to look again – even among the chaos – how are you going? How is your faith? How is your prayer life? Do you feel close to God? Get a Skype or Zoom room or Facebook chat happening with some Christian friends. How are all of you going?

If we can take a moment to correct our course, we will be the kind of authentic that is good and godly and healthy. Because we will be authentically following Jesus and living in his truth – not in the “truth” of what we scroll through on our phones and ipads.

We are not in stasis while in isolation – we can grow and thrive despite our circumstances

OK we’re into the second or third week of working from home, home schooling, online church and gatherings limited to 2 people. It seems a bit surreal. We got all geared up like we were preparing for a couple of weeks of weird holiday and now things are starting to settle, the reality that this is our normal for the foreseeable future is setting in. That means that the current “survival mode” is how things will be for maybe 6 months.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be in survival mode for months on end. That means treading water. That means just existing.

No. There has to be more to this time than that. If nothing else, so we can keep our mental health strong, there has to be more than just existing.

So what to do?

I’m about to mention 3 people who we are definitely NOT, but they serve to illustrate a point.

William Shakespeare is thought to have written King Lear while in some form of quarantine from the plague. We don’t know if that’s true or not but its plausible and certainly possible. Between 1603 and 1613, because of plagues and sickness, Shakespeare’s theatre (the Globe) and other theatres in London were shut for more than 60% of the time. So it’s not unrealistic to say he did a lot of writing while in some form of lock-down.

The reconstruction of the Globe Theatre in London. Source: https://teach.shakespearesglobe.com/fact-sheet-third-globe

In 1665, there was more plague and Sir Isaac Newton went to Woolsthorpe Manor to get away from it. He was there for 18 months and he started to develop his theory of gravity there, as well as working on his revolutionary theories in calculus.

Woolsthorpe Manor - west facade.jpg
Woolsthorpe Manor. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woolsthorpe_Manor#/media/File:Woolsthorpe_Manor_-_west_facade.jpg

Paul wrote Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon while in prison. We know these as canon, of course, but for Paul, these were just letters. Legend surrounding Paul’s time in prison says he performed a miracle there which suggests that he was active in his evangelism as well as his written pastoral guidance.

Ancient prison which housed St Peter re-opens in Rome
Carcer Tullianum, Rome’s oldest prison (3,000 years old) where Peter and Paul are said to have been held. Source: https://www.thelocal.it/20160714/ancient-prison-which-housed-st-peter-re-opens-in-rome

Now I don’t know about you, but I am not going to invent some mathematical theorem – I can’t even help my 8-year old son with his year 3 homework. And very few of us are Shakespeare. Even less of us are Peter and Paul.

But what these people show us is:

  1. They went from existing to living life and even thriving. I’m sure that going to Woolsthorpe Manor or hunkering down somewhere in London required some modification of behaviour given what they couldn’t do. But then they clearly then moved onto what they could do.
  2. They used their skills. Shakespeare wrote. Newton did deep thinky brain work. Paul guided. These were all skills that they took into quarantine with them and they allowed to breathe within those confined spaces.
  3. They used their brains. They thought, they worked, they stretched themselves which takes people beyond existing and into thriving.
  4. It involved new things. In so doing, they created new things, even learned to do new things. This is so key in mental health. It keeps our view on things bigger than our current situation. It gives us a focus on possibility, hope, a larger world.
  5. They saw opportunities. When in quarantine or prison, if you can’t do this, then maybe I can do that. Paul couldn’t visit the churches so he wrote to them. Charles Benson Barnett was a missionary with the famous James Hudson Taylor. When he was forced to return to Australia because of ill-health, he founded Sydney Missionary and Bible College. He couldn’t go, so he trained others.

Jesus himself told us that he came so that we might have life to the full. There is no caveat to that – he didn’t say “unless there’s a pandemic and you’re in lock-down”. He came so we could have life to the full all the time. That is what is available to us no matter where we are.

So how can we use our brains? Where can we see opportunities? In saying this I recognise that Shakespeare, Newton and Paul either didn’t have children or had someone else taking care of them – and they didn’t have another day job that they were working-from-home on. But within the restrictions that we have, how can we look upwards and outwards? How can we do something new?

Here’s some ideas:

  • Decide on a goal that you have for your isolation time, for example:
    • I want to grow as a disciple
    • I want to learn a new skill
    • I want to expand my brain
    • I want to build community
    • I want to strengthen others
    • I want to spread God’s word
  • Then, depending on what goal you have identified, you can set out some tasks you want to commit to, like:
    • Commit to listening to a podcast series that is edifying and will expand your thinking and your faith. Try Lionel Windsor’s Lift Your Eyes or Risen Motherhood. I listen to these on Spotify but they’re available wherever you get your podcasts
    • Start looking at YouTube videos if you want to learn how to knit or crochet or learn the rules of cricket or how to draw cartoons
    • Get online books to work through an author or series (I’m currently working through the Narnia books)
    • Work through a devotional book with your family and/or an online group who you’ve never met with before
    • Write letters of encouragement (on your own or with your kids) and post them to your neighbours
    • Meet online with someone who’s on the church periphery to read the Bible and pray together
    • Start a blog or a journal to map your life during this time – it may make for a pretty interesting record in a couple of decades!
    • Look for ways to support others who are less self-sufficient. These are strange times and these are scary times. For some of us, it’s trying to do normal work and life from home. For others it is losing our jobs and potentially a lot more. If you are in the former group, what can we do for the latter? Even if its making an extra meal once a week, sending notes to those who live alone, or committing to buy a few extra groceries for someone every week, or forming a prayer triplet to pray for those you know in your church doing it tough – all these are good. What else might there be?

There are lots of ways we can use our brains and thrive as individuals, as families and as a community so that during this time we aren’t just treading water. We want to come out of this stronger, not having just existed. Not exhausted from the work and the home schooling and the parenting in isolation (although many of us will be), but having found opportunities to thrive. Not beaten down from the fear and the worry (although that is a definite factor), but finding ways to live life in the kind of abundance that Jesus talks about. Being in him. Growing in him. Reaching our families, reaching our communities, thinking bigger than ourselves.

Lets do what we need to do. But then lets use our brains, and our skills. Lets learn new things and look for opportunities. Lets set goals – even small ones. Lets keep our eyes upwards an outwards so we take care of ourselves and our families, but always look for ways to look beyond ourselves.

In Christ, well that is thinking bigger. It would be easy, in a time of uncertainty, to keep our eyes down and do what needs to be done. But lets make sure we keep our eyes on him. If we look to him first, we can live and survive, but we can grow and thrive too.

“I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:9-11)

The diagnostic question to ground you when you feel the fear rising

Fear is both rational and irrational. It is a rational response to a perceived or actual threat. When there is a threat that requires a response, fear is the trigger that floods our body with the right biological chemicals for us to meet it. It gives us the energy to fight or flee (if we think in prehistoric terms).

It is also an irrational response though when we put that energy into circular thinking, leading to amplified fears. Fear becomes panic. No matter how we channel that panic, it is unhealthy. Especially when we are working at home, we can be in our heads too much. Unchecked, we can’t help but think of more things to worry about. Fear flourishes when it finds fertile ground. It’s like cancer. And if we let it metastasize, it can have serious negative consequences.

Now, I am a mad fan of connecting with friends and, when need be, psychologists and therapists. Outside of that though, there is a simple diagnostic question that we can use to ground ourselves and stay focused on the positive and the real.

Write down on one piece of paper:

What I believe

Then jot down everything that you currently believe that your fear is feeding – such as:

  • I will not be able to get food for my kids with all the panic buying
  • My parents will get sick
  • I’m going to face financial hardship

There is power in writing it down. It takes it out of your head. It makes it concrete – not just a half shadowy thought. It makes it something to be acknowledged.

So then, write down on another page:

WHAT DO I KNOW TO BE TRUE?

This is where we can write down everything that is a solid truth, like:

  • I have enough food for the next week
  • My parents are in as safe a possible space as we can make for them
  • I don’t have any savings, but I have a job this week, I am surrounded by friends/family who may be able to help, I am a problem solver and I am resourceful IF I face financial hardship – but that has not happened today.

AND because we are Christian, we can also add so many more things we know to be true:

  • God is in control
  • Jesus is my Lord and savior
  • God is faithful
  • God works for the good of those who love him
  • I am a child of God

Write these down. See them in black and white on the page. Know them to be true.

This exercise can be done as many times as you need to and can be done with a friend or trusted colleague. Hopefully this will be grounding enough to help get you through the day. And since one of the things we know to be true is that God communicates with us in the Bible we can meet him there whenever we want.

I’ll admit, in these times of uncertainty, I have felt fear and worry on various days – sometimes rational fears and sometimes irrational. But I have my Bible open on the desk in front of me so at any time I feel wobbly, I can meet God in those pages.

This grounding exercise doesn’t make the fears go away, but it can re-anchor us when negative emotions are starting to rise up.

If the fears are flourishing though, please seek help. Reach out. We need to support each other and we want to as well – reaching out is not a weakness. It is allowing others to support you and, given strength and support, you can then strengthen and support others.

Do not be terrified, do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:9)

We must be a life-line for those in self-isolation

Whether you’re in Australia, the US, Italy, China, Singapore or Timbuktu, we are all facing the realities of the COVID-19, or corona virus, pandemic. I’m not going to go into the panic buying (although that is shocking) and I’m not going to post prayers as I hope that’s a feature of all our responses as Christians.

What I want to talk about is how we support people in isolation. At the moment that might not be so many, but the number may increase, and potentially quite dramatically.

Parents with kids may look on this with a heavy heart. Some who will be working from home might initially jump at the idea. Some introverts might even look forward to the idea of being able to catch up on all that reading.

But there’s a hidden risk in self-isolation that may only become apparent when we’re in it – and that is an impact to our emotional health and mental well-being.

There are four aspects of this:

  1. We need interaction. Humans are social creatures. Even for us introverts and ambiverts, we need contact and communication. For extroverts, who are energised by being around other people, being stuck in the home can be especially difficult. We can go about our daily routine, work-from-homers can hold our meetings and so on via connective technology, but we’re missing the communication that we get in church, at the play group or at the office that is of vital importance to emotional health and mental well-being. We miss the water-cooler talk, the chats over lunch, the side comments after something funny or annoying happens, the coffee runs, the post-weekend catch ups. In other words, the day-to-day nothingness that enriches our day in community with others. Without it for prolonged periods of time, this can become a slow track into adverse mental health. It provides fertile ground for people being in their own heads too much – unproductive and circular negative thinking – which can lead downwards into depression.
  2. We need a pressure valve. We work in industries and live lives that can involve high pressure situations, whether that means deadlines and aggressive project timeframes, or relentless energy being poured into aging parents or multiple children. One of our coping mechanisms can be the interaction with others in the same situation. It helps us to talk and laugh and blow off steam. Being in isolation can mean that coping mechanism is removed.
  3. People are experiencing fear on top of fear. There have been a lot of scary things happening in the last few months. There’s been the Amazonian and Australian bushfires, floods in Australia and the UK – and now this. These are real life events that we’re used to seeing in disaster movies. Except this is not Hollywood. This is real. This can cause very real feelings of fear and uncertainty. When people are dealing with this on top of their day-to-day real life, this can very quickly become hopelessness. And when people feel hopeless and helpless, they can begin to despair.
  4. The home may represent additional pressure. People’s home lives can come with extra stresses on a normal day, and more so if working/existing in isolation. There could be elderly parents to take care of and kids that becomes extra pressured if fixed within four walls. The home situation might not even be a safe one for them. The world outside the home could be the place that they go to every day that represents safety and security and fellowship. These people could be facing compounded pressures at home during this time that reduces their coping mechanisms. In a time of additional stress and pressure, it could even be a potentially more dangerous place for them.

This sounds very dramatic, but even a fraction of what I’m talking about can mean that we have people working and living in isolation in a way that can have long reaching effects.

As Christians, I would hope that we have a better handle on this supporting people even under normal conditions, let alone a crazy scary time like this. But even we might have to get more creative as we have to limit personal contact and practice social distancing.

What can we do? We need to check in with each other for no reason – create opportunities for that water-cooler talk. Think about doing that over facetime or Skype so you can have a cuppa and see each others faces.

Host a watch party so you can gather as people for something fun and people don’t feel alone. (Even, as a worker from home, host a watch party with you work team of a TED talk or something).

Go back to Old School days and send cards in the mail. Leave notes or flowers or small gifts at people’s doors. Call and pray with people over the phone. Maybe even link everyone in via Skype to have a Bible study – the point is to not just stay connected personally but to stay connected spiritually. When we are under pressure, when there is fear and uncertainty, our faith can take a battering. Remember in the Garden – “Did God really say….?”. All it takes is a shadow of doubt and our faith can fade into the noise of panic. Let God’s light shine in the darkness, even when we are hard pressed on all sides – and help each other to do it. Lets get creative in our care.

There are a lot of ways we can stay connected even when we are far apart. As a community of believers, this is an area we can excel. We are called to have mercy and compassion. Lets get creative with our application so in these uncertain times, we can glorify God and express His character through our outstanding and visible kindness and thoughtfulness.

If God is real, why hasn’t he shown himself? (Mark 9:1-13)

This is an enduring question – for both Christians and non-Christians. For Christians, this can be a question spoken in pain and grief as we seek God’s presence among our trauma. For non-Christians this can be a logical question – if he is real, why doesn’t he just show himself and then we can dispense with all the doubt?

The thing is though, he did show himself. I mean, God was actually with his people in the wilderness and they still grumbled and complained. In that sense, how much evidence is enough? I get that non-believers dismiss the evidence of the Bible. It’s not an unbiased view. But it is the view of the people who believe they saw God. So I understand that people wouldn’t believe unless they themselves had been the witness, but we must allow for the validity of other people’s own experience. We believe things people tell us without witnessing it ourselves all the time. A friend of mine told me about a terrible week she’d had. I believe her, even though I wasn’t a fly on the wall.

Of course, I’m not saying that we should believe everything blindly. That would be unwise. If a biased media tells us something, we should question. If a corrupt authority tells us something, we should fact check. But in checking these things out for ourselves, we must allow for the possibility that its true. We are a very cynical generation. We tend to jump to a conclusion of falsehood almost as a faith position. If we hear something from [insert political leader’s name of your choice here] we may believe or disbelieve them on principle – because we have faith in our position. Its something we believe without any particular evidence either way.

In the same way, some people believe what is in the Bible because it is the eye witness testimony of people who were there. Others won’t believe even if God was travelling with them in the wilderness. That’s to be expected – it’s been the case for thousands of years.

What we see in Mark’s gospel in Chapter 9 is a famous episode called “The Transfiguration”. It’s where Jesus is transformed:

There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus. (Mark 9:2-4). In Luke, this is expanded to “as he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.” (Luke 9:29) and in Matthew’s gospel he says “There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.” (Matthew 17:2).

On first reading this episode sounds like Jesus and Elijah and Moses are having a bit of a group meeting before the move towards Jerusalem and the cross. Perhaps they’re chatting about how things are going or if everything is going according to plan.

Don’t believe it. Nothing here is by accident. The transformation is deliberate. It is a deeply profound episode because people needed to understand three things:

  1. Jesus was not just a man but something else as well. The transformation to this shining being shows the supernatural nature of his humanity.
  2. People needed to see more clearly who he was and who he wasn’t. If he is in the presence of Elijah and Moses here, then he is neither of those people. We have seen in previous passages that there was much conjecture over Jesus’s identity. This shows us clearly that he is someone and something else.
  3. Jesus is in the presence of God. The references to Jesus’ face shining is a reference to Moses’ radiance after his meetings with God (cf. Exodus 34:29-35). Jesus is speaking to God, in person.

Just after this short episode, “Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (Mark 9:7). God himself! And this takes us back to Mark 1:11 where God, during Jesus’ baptism had said “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

Why repeat this? Because something new is happening. He spoke these words at the baptism as Jesus’ ministry began. He speaks the words here as we begin the journey to Jerusalem. And the witness is to Peter, James and John who are with Jesus at this episode. Something special is being disclosed to these three.

But Jesus tells them not to say anything until after he has died and risen again. They don’t really understand so instead ask Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” (Mark 9:11). This might seem random but Elijah had been mentioned in Malachi’s prophecies. Malachi had said that God “will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.” (Malachi 4:5). And if they had just seen Elijah…..what did that mean…..?

Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah does come first, and restores all things. Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected? But I tell you, Elijah has come, and they have done to him everything they wished, just as it is written about him.” (Mark 9:12-13)

This passage is difficult, but can be simply put as the restoration predicted as coming from Elijah’s return will be achieved via the suffering of the Son of Man. The reason it is difficult it because Peter and the rest of the Jews were expecting “restoration” to mean something awesome and celebratory and politically liberating. The truth is much harder to swallow.

So not only did God the Father show himself in this passage, we see God the Son here too. God, with Peter – poor dim-witted Peter and the disciples who could not possibly understand what everything meant until they had seen the cross and the resurrection. But blessed Peter who tried and failed and tried again and followed faithfully. God in person with Peter – and Mark writing Peter’s eye witness account.

God was there. He did show himself.

Do we believe blindly? Partially I suppose. I wasn’t there. But there is enough evidence within the gospel as a historical document to show that it is an eye witness account and not a fable or a story. And there is enough evidence of the resurrection to make me stop and look at what happened in the lead up to it. You see, after the resurrection, hundreds of believers were persecuted, exiled, tortured and executed in the most horrific ways – and not a single one said that their accounts weren’t true. If this wasn’t true, I just don’t believe that so many would suffer for the sake of a lie. And these were eye witnesses – not later converts who died for faith. These were followers of Jesus dying over their very memories.

So I believe that God showed himself to Peter and the others. I believe that God walked the earth with his disciples. I believe that he went to the cross for me. I believe that he rose again and now reigns in heaven and walks with me every day.

And while non-believers are still looking for proof, I am content that there is enough evidence to base my faith on. On days when I am seeking his face in my circumstances, I don’t have to go far to remember that God is with us.

This is a stand alone blog but is also part of a series working through the Gospel of Mark. You can dip into any you have missed here: Studies in the Gospel of Mark

 

The choice that affects your life here and your eternity. I know what I choose. (Mark 8:27-9:1)

There comes a crossroads in all stories. In real life, they happen all the time – points where we make decisions that change the course of the rest of our lives. This could be a new job, a new relationship, a new house or a new course of study. It could even be a new mind set or making a resolution to do things differently.

Each choice is a change. Some are small. Some are seismic.

The point we reach in Mark 8:27-9:1 is earth shattering. Up to now, Jesus’ identity has been a key theme. Who is he? And what is his mission? Here, is where Jesus begins to reveal the full weight of both those questions.

He asks Peter, “Who do people say I am?” It’s clear there are a variety of opinions. Jesus is only interested in one. “Who do you say I am?” Peter does not hesitate. “You are the Christ” he says. The answer seems to satisfy Jesus – for the moment.

Because it’s only half the story. But half the story is all they can cope with for now. The “Christ” or “Messiah” means merely “anointed”. The people were expecting someone who was anointed by God to come and do his work and save his people. They weren’t expecting the Messiah to also be God’s son, to be God himself. And they weren’t expecting what he had come to do.

So understanding that he was the Christ was a start. But it was not all. So Jesus now begins to teach them that he is here to die. And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. (Mark 8:31)

Here is the hinge moment. Jesus has not yet divulged this to his disciples. But now they know he is Christ, it is time to begin to teach them the rest. He is Christ and Lord – and lamb.

This simple death prediction takes us to Isaiah 52:13-53:12 which, for the people at the time, was truly earth shattering. Never before, had the Messiah, the new king David, been associated with the suffering servant. This would take some time to digest. What does it mean? How is this person – this Jesus – to take the iniquities of all? There must have been so many questions. How is this supposed to work?

Which is why Jesus “began” to teach them and predicts his death another two times in this gospel. This is such big information, it will take time for it to sink in, and not be fully understood until after the fact.

But Jesus’ pending death isn’t the only death. It’s us too.

When Jesus rebukes Peter he calls him Satan “because you are not thinking about God’s concerns but about merely human ones!” (Mark 8:33) What are these human concerns? We should know. They preoccupy us even now. For clarity, let’s look at the next bit:

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (8:34-38)

Everything in this speech is anchored in change. We must change our direction. We must change our mind. We must change the way we think. We must change how we look at things.

Our human concerns are:

  • Not denying ourselves (wanting what we want without hinderance)
  • Gaining the world (money, things, holidays…..)
  • Shame of the gospel (of standing out for something unpopular)
  • “Adultery” (ie not being faithful to God but faithful to ourselves and what we want)
  • Sinful (insert your personal sins here…..)

This is not just following a groovy teacher. This is following our Lord. This is treasuring what he says so deeply that we would change our lives. That we would consider God first in all things before we make choices based on our own will.

I like to think I’m an OK Christian, but I look at that list and I know I still think of myself first before Him. It’s my default position.

So I need to look again at what Jesus is teaching me. We slip into Christian laziness so quickly and so easily. I need to practice my focus on God first. It’s not easy, but I need to practice – because with practice we always get better at things.

And the reward! Even though Jesus makes clear that there is a cost to following him, the reward is glory in heaven. Even though we must choose death of our sins (our most comfortable and pleasant idolatries) we gain the world. We gain him.

He says himself that those who are ashamed of him in this world, he will be ashamed of as we stand before the throne. The opposite must also hold true – those who love and exalt him in this world, he will love and exalt before God as we stand before the throne.

I know which one I choose.

This is a stand alone blog but is also part of a series working through the Gospel of Mark. You can dip into any you have missed here: Studies in the Gospel of Mark

I am the most unlikely Christian. But aren’t we all? Mark 8:22-26)

I became a Christian 12 years ago. I was completely fine at the time. By that I mean I had no need of religion. I had a great life and a great job with lots of prospects. I had no real responsibilities, I didn’t have to worry too much what the price tags said, I could go on holiday whenever I wanted and spent most weekends out for brunch, lunch and dinner.

When I met Jesus though, it was like someone had switched a light on and I didn’t realise until that moment that I’d been stumbling about in the dark.

For me, it was a two-stage conversion. A friend of mine who had a similar experience says that she was “a Christian before she became a Christian”. I became a Christian in my head first and about a year later, in my heart as well.

I became a believer because the more I learned, the more I realised it was more probably true than not. When I learned the evidence around the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I became a Christian. The evidence was too compelling for it to not be true. And if that was true, well….the only thing you can do is give your life to Jesus.

About a year later, I was at a large conference and with hundreds of women’s voices raised in song, I suddenly got it. What had happened in my head the year before, suddenly happened in my heart too. I got it. I suddenly understood the very depth of my sin and therefore the extent of gratitude I owed to God.

Both stages were life changing. Both stages felt like a progressive healing of what had been complete blindness.

There is a man in Mark 8:22-26 who’s experience resonates deeply with me. It’s a short story, but profound.

They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”

He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”

Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Jesus sent him home, saying, “Don’t even go into the village.”

In the first stage, he begins to see – there’s light and colour and shape but it’s still indistinct. With the second stage, he sees clearly. And his life is changed.

But there is more to be said here that resonates with me. I am blessed with full sight, but I can imagine that someone with impaired vision would need to trust someone deeply to allow them to lead them, especially as far away as somewhere outside the village. Jesus was someone to be trusted. And he must have proved his trustworthiness in how he led the man – gently but sure footed, reaching their destination safely.

This is something I remember. Becoming a Christian and not knowing what on earth I was supposed to do, but just trusting Jesus and allowing him to lead me as though I was a child. And that sense of seeing, but seeing things indistinctly until things started coming into focus.

I look back now and wonder that I ever became a Christian. I had no history with the church. I didn’t grow up knowing anyone who went to church. And like I said, as a grown up, life was peachy. I was the most unlikely person to become a Christian.

But really, aren’t we all? Only an encounter with Jesus brings us to the truth. Without him none of us would be Christians.

And look how far we’ve come. I look back sometimes and my only regret is that I didn’t become a Christian sooner. But just like the blind man, the stage was set for an encounter with Jesus and it happened when it was supposed to happen. So the timing cannot be regretted.

Look back at your own story. We have so much further to go – growing in Christlikeness is a life long pursuit for us. And even if you think you’re not “nailing it” right now and that your life is messy, that’s ok. Because life is always messy. But look back and see how far you’ve come. And look forward with a renewed sense of hope because we will make more progress in the months and years to come.

Just remember that we were blind, but now we see. And Jesus leads us tenderly, gently. He changed our lives. He has changed our eternity. And while we are still here on earth, we will grow in him. Because all of us are unlikely Christians, and none of us are able to do this without him.

This is a stand alone blog but is also part of a series working through the Gospel of Mark. You can dip into any you have missed here: Studies in the Gospel of Mark

Sometimes the disciples remind me of my kids when they’re being really annoying (Mark 8:11-21)

As a mum, there are several things that can get really annoying.

The first is when me and my kids have had a great day filled with lots of treats – a breaky out, ice cream at the park and a trip to the cinema. And then, after lavishing my hard earned dollars on having a really special day, there begins the incessant whining about the one thing that they don’t have. A gum ball or a pack of stickers or a $700 gaming console – it doesn’t matter what it is, and it doesn’t seem to matter about all the other amazing things we just did and had – now we want that thing.

The second thing is when they start arguing with each other in that “I’m not touching you, I’m not touching you!!” kind of way. It grates in the nerves. It’s like nails down a blackboard. You know you’re going to have to step in like the UN to make peace and there’ll be no “peace keeping” other than separating them and making them be quiet.

The third thing is when they ask you a question, you answer them and they say “yes, but how do you know” a million times as you keep explaining the same thing. For example, “Mummy, do dinosaurs still live on earth.” “No honey, the dinosaurs died out a long time ago.” “How do you know.” “Because I do.” “Yes, but how do you know?” “Because scientists have found their bones and they are millions of years old and nobody has seen a dinosaur since.” “Yes but how can you be sure.” Etc etc until you feel like you could literally die of the whole conversation.

WELL, this passage in Mark (8:11-21) reminds of all three of these.

In our previous passage (you can read it here), Jesus had performed yet another miracle. And yet here we are, again, with the Pharisees asking for a sign.

To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven. He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.”

This feels just like the dinosaur scenario. “Are you the Messiah?” “Yes” “But how do you know?” “Because I know who I am and I’ve been doing miracles for a while now.” “Yes but can you show us another one so we can be double triple sure?”

What they want is authentication. This is more than a miracle, they want some kind of sign of divine intervention since even false prophets can do miracles (see for example Deuteronomy 13:1-2). However, God isn’t a performing monkey and while sometimes he grants the request, generally people asking for that kind of sign get a pretty big slap down (like the devil when Jesus was tempted in the desert).

Why? Wouldn’t it be easier to just show people? I think there are several reasons. But one of them is that at some point, you just have to display faith. Faith is built intellectually on various proofs but the final step is allowing yourself to fall and trusting that a God will catch you. A relationship with God cannot be built on forever providing authentication – it would never end. And that, I think is the other reason. These people have seen Jesus’ signs and wonders. They have heard his teaching. They have experienced him face to face. They know the prophecies. And yet they do not or will not believe. If they will not believe on the basis of what they’ve already seen, will there be anything that convinces them? In Luke 16:31 Jesus says If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.

In this way, Jesus isn’t just the son of God, God incarnate, he is a also a prophet and watchman – he has told them what is happening. He has warned them. He has shown them that the kingdom is near and they must repent. Now they must believe the good news and accept the salvation that is being offered.

The disciples are not much better at this point frankly. They are in the boat after the feeding of the 4,000 and only brought one loaf. They start arguing.

Jesus, never one to miss a teaching opportunity, says Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod (Mark 8:15). Very deep. Very profound. He is warning them. Yeast is the thing that makes the whole dough rise. A very little bit effects the whole batch. It doesn’t take much to be contaminated. They need to beware.

And what do the disciples say? Thank you, Lord? Good pick up, saviour? Cheers for the tip, Messiah? No. They argue about not having bread.

Not just totally ignoring him, but also arguing about the most trivial thing. This is so reminiscent of being grabby after a day of treats and the “I’m not touching you” arguments! Jesus has done this amazing thing and has tried to impart his wisdom, and all they can do is squabble because they’re hungry-angry.

Jesus asks them if their hearts are hard. Have they seen but not seen? Do they have ears but are not hearing? They are just like the Pharisees.

Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? (Mark 8:17-18)

Jesus reminds them what he just did and then says “Do you not yet understand?” (Verse 21).

This ends the scene. We don’t know what their reaction is – if any.

It could be that the disciples were like my kids. In the face of a question like that, my kids just look at me. They would exchange glances like “just say yes so we won’t get into trouble” – “Yes Mum, of course we understand” even though they blatantly don’t. They’ll just say anything to make the conversation stop.

It could be another great literary device that Mark is using. When he ends the conversation here, he is inviting the reader to answer the question for them. At this point, the reader – whether now or 1900 years ago – is screaming at the book “Oh come on!!! How much evidence do you need??? How are you squabbling when he is right there!!!”

And that is the point of this whole gospel. Mark wants his readers to read themselves into this narrative. He is telling a story faithfully, but he’s doing it in a way that draws the reader in, engages them in the story, compels them to feel the frustration, but also feel confident in the truth that the Pharisees and the disciples should be seeing so clearly.

This gospel was written for us. It transcends the ages. Jesus spoke words of truth. He performed mighty signs. He demonstrated his knowledge of God’s plans and purposes – and then he died for us. And when he rose from the dead (with enough evidence around the event to allow us intellectually to believe it is probable rather than possible) we can fall, knowing he is there. We can trust. We can take that step of faith.

We are the Pharisees sometimes. And when times are tough, which they are and will be again, we will ask for signs and authentication that God is there. We will seek worldly certainty when we should just seek Him. Because we can be certain in Him.

We are all the disciples sometimes too. We have ears and eyes but we don’t see or hear properly. We get distracted. We get the spiritual version of hungry-angry. We need to be corrected. We need Jesus to remind us again – do we not yet understand?

Being the Pharisees and the disciples is kind of like us being like my kids, except to God. We squabble. We fight. We keep asking and asking and asking – without stopping to simply have faith.

Remember. Understand. Be certain in Him. Let yourself fall again – because he is there to catch you.

This is a stand alone blog but is also part of a series working through the Gospel of Mark. You can dip into any you have missed here: Studies in the Gospel of Mark