Chapter 37 "The Uprising of Partnership"

Scripture: Psalm 146; Matthew 10: 16-20; 11:28-30; 28:16-20; Acts 16:11-40

In McLaren’s book it is AD 51 and he again retells this story from Acts 16 in first person narrative to re-experience the occurrence from that account about the life of the Apostle Paul.  It’s that great experience of Paul and Silas, arrested for doing a good deed (delivering a young girl from a demonic spirit that was earning her owners a fast buck), thrown into prison, and put in stocks in an inner cell. These two don’t grovel but instead sing praises to God at midnight when God shakes the jail with an earthquake that instantly unlatches all the prisoners’ chains and unlocks the doors to their cells.  The jailer running to see what had happened, seeing the doors unlocked, imagines that all have escaped, takes out his sword to kill himself, but instead is stopped by Paul, who says they are all still there. The jailer falls to his knees before Paul and Silas then asking them for this life they have. He and his household are converted that night.

God is on the move liberating people and we are all his partners, McLaren says.  How true. He writes it in this manner: “We are partners in an earthquake of liberation!  As we move forward together in this partnership in mission for peace and freedom, injustice at every level of society will be confronted and people at every level of society will be set free” (p 190).  

Share a story about a time you felt like one character in this story.  Or, reflecting upon the fact that Paul and Silas were engaged in protest and civil disobedience in Philippi, under what circumstances would you risk arrest, imprisonment, or death (for the sake of the Gospel)?

The second question caused me to pause when I read it, for I think that I hesitate to share my faith for all kinds of reasons.  I hesitate to perhaps take a stand again for all kinds of reasons. NONE of those reasons are about the rise of arrest, imprisonment or death.  None. I don’t take my life into my hands EVER. This fact took me out the door today. It took me into a conversation with a neighbor I never would have entered had I not been challenged by this thought. It took me into conversation with a worker at Freddies while on her break, because I knew I was not risking ANYTHING by sharing my faith with her.  It took me into praying for a couple homeless guys on the street. Again, to encourage, and without risk to my life. So much of life is risk-free, especially in regard to actual risk. So, I’m grateful for this question. Two people heard the gospel and another two experienced the demonstration of that gospel because of it.

Go and Tell!


Chapter 36 "The Uprising of Worship"

Scripture: Psalm 103;  Acts 2: 41-47; 1Cor 14:26-31; Colossians 3: 12-17

Writing another first-person narrative, McLaren imagines what it might have been like about a year after the resurrection.  He observes that by then the disciples were convinced that what mattered was not so much for Christ to appear TO them as for Christ to appear IN them, AMONG them, and THROUGH them.  “Jesus wants us to be his hands, his feet, his face, his smile, his voice… his embodiment on Earth” (p182).

Here in this chapter he discusses the four main functions that early worship included.  First, teaching either through a letter from the apostles being read, or a reading from Psalter, Prophets or the Torah.  The early church was also in the practice of each person bringing with them a song or scripture to share in worship.

Second, bread.  The church met, whether in homes, public buildings or outdoor settings, and broke bread together, either as a full meal, or a simple meal, called a love feast, often incorporating the meal of communion.  One thing that the body of believers modeled early on was inclusion of everyone at this table, poor, slave, free, male, female, Jew and Greek, city-born or country-born, no matter, all were loved, “all welcome as equals. We even greet one another with a holy kiss.”  This would have been unheard of in any other part of society. McLaren observes, “we say the words Jesus said about the bread being his body given for us, and the wine being his blood shed for us and for our sins. Those words “for us” and “for our sins” are full of meaning for us. Just as we take medicine “for” an illness, we understand that Jesus’ death is curing us of our old habits and ways”  (184).

Third, Fellowship.  “We share our experiences, our sense of what God wants to tell us, our insights from the Scriptures. We also share our fears, our tears, our failures, and our joys.  There is a financial aspect to our sharing as well. … None of us are rich, but through our sharing, none of us are in need, either” (184).

Fourth, prayer.  The gathered community prayed giving God praise, thanksgiving, confession, bringing needs to God, praying for healing, seeing God move.  

“This is why, even when we are tired from long days of work, even when we are threatened with persecution, even when life is full of hardships and we feel discouraged or afraid, still we gather to rise up in worship” (185).

How do you respond to the four functions of gathered worship:  teaching, bread & wine, fellowship and prayer? or Share a story of a time when your heart was full of worship?

One experience of worship stands out to me occurred more than 25 years ago.  I was speaking at a Christian Ashram in the mountains of California. One of the mainstays of the Christian Ashram is the 24-hour prayer vigil.  All who attend sign up for various hours. I had signed up for one of the early morning hours, so I was in the prayer chapel, that stood in the middle of this redwood-tree filled property at around 2 in the morning. I had prayed through all the requests and was lost in praising God, worshiping, singing, and then began to sing in an unknown tongue.  Suddenly someone else, who had come in during my loud praise, and was sitting in the back of the chapel joined in praise as well, also singing in tongues, and as if she had been taught the unknown melody.

We joined in a harmony that was ethereal, beautiful and incredible, for neither of us knew the song.  We sang on, carried into praise by the Spirit, and worshiping God with a heaven-sent song. It was one of those prayer moments, and one of those moments in worship that I’ll never forget.  It was incredible. Eventually the song ended, both of us trailing off, and I turned to see who had come, greeted this stranger, not part of our camp, and gave thanks for her coming to share in worship.  Soon my hour was over, but the song, the praise, the sense of God’s presence in that prayer chapel stayed with me. I think every experience of worship seeks to echo that one from long ago.

Chapter 35 "The Uprising of Discipleship"

Scripture: Psalm 25; Luke 10: 1-11, 17-20; John 21: 1-15

McLaren pictures the scene from John 21 of Jesus with his disciples at breakfast on the shore of the Sea of Galilee as a transformative experience, a reminder of the fact that Jesus discipled these first followers firsthand, in daily relationships, not unlike this picnic scene.  McLaren notes that to be a disciple meant to be a learner, a follower, a student, an apprentice, and one who learned by imitating the Master.

“You can imagine the honor, for uneducated fishermen like us, to sit at the feet of the greatest teacher imaginable.  And now, we feel it is an even greater honor to be sent out to teach others, who will in turn teach and train others in this new way of life. This revolutionary plan of discipleship means that we must first and foremost be examples. We must embody the message and values of our movement. That doesn’t mean we are perfect -- just look at Peter. But it does mean we are growing and learning, always humble and willing to get up again after we fall, always moving forward on the road we are walking.  As Jesus modeled never-ending learning and growth for us, we will model it for others, who will model it for still others. If each new generation of disciples follows this example, centuries from now, apprentices will still be learning the way of Jesus from mentors, so they can become mentors for the following generation” (p. 179).

This summarizes what he is speaking of in this chapter, and what a great picture of Jesus and his method of working with 11 guys who in turn would lead a movement to reach the world.  Here we are centuries later still doing the same thing -- modeling, praying, learning, leading, reaching.

Questions from the book:

  1. Share a story about how you have been drawn toward discipleship through another person.   

  2. How do you relate to the story of Peter with its dramatic ups and downs?  

I know that my own story of discipleship is manifold.  I admired Karen, when we first married, for she seemed to have a pattern to her devotional life which I lacked.  I tried to adopt what she did, and learned from her. But I also felt that it was not enough, so I expanded it out.  I pursued others to see what they did to grow in Christ, and imitated them too. At one time I had overloaded myself with too many things, too many directions, too many distractions.  Then another friend advised me in reading the Bible through once a year, and his witness took hold in my heart. I began that pattern of reading the Bible through more than once in a year and held to it for many years.  

I didn’t have any single person who was a constant mentor in my life along the way, but have had many, many people God has used to raise me up. Beginning in 1978 my friend David Luce became one such mentor.

It seems God has been determined to grow me up using many, many people along the way to help me grow.  I can totally relate to Peter with his fitful stops and starts, his solitary boldness to call to Jesus, “Lord, just say the word and I will walk to you on the water!”  And his thorough defeat with denying he knew the Lord at all. I have found comfort over the years in Proverb 24:16 that says, “For though the righteous man falls seven times a day, he gets up again.” I have needed this encouragement.  I think discipleship then for me hasn’t had one shape or form, nor does it take only one form through my life. And Jesus is constant in his desire to use every circumstance to grow me up.

How about you?  How do you respond to one or both of these questions?  


Chapter 34 "The Uprising of Fellowship"

Scripture: Psalm 133, John 20:1-31; Acts 8: 26-40

This was a total Holy Spirit thing that this chapter, this particular focus should follow Easter and land on the Day of Action -- our day of community service, a beautiful picture of fellowship.

McLaren begins by observing that the account of the resurrection differs slightly between the gospel accounts.  Actually, when looking for witnesses, if police found that several people had exactly the same account of something witnessed, they would be less likely to believe them. It is the slight differences in story between the evangelists which brings out the veracity of what they say all the more. These stories were kept orally first before being written, however, do not mistake this as the modern game of “telephone.”  For in the times of Jesus, storytelling was an art form that demanded accuracy.

Focusing on John’s account, in John 20, McLaren tells how the disciples might have connected the events with Jesus in the upper room, following the resurrection with other events in Scripture.  He calls the whole resurrection event an “uprising” -- as in a movement that began at this point in time. And it is such an event. In those upper room encounters with the risen Christ the disciples received the Holy Spirit, and their commission to take this gospel out to others.  Beginning that night the disciples realized they had entered a movement, an experience of fellowship unlike previously experienced-- one that was “not based on status, achievement, or gender, but instead is based on a deep belief that everyone matters, everyone is welcome, and everyone is loved, no conditions, no exceptions… a community where anyone who wants to be part of us will be welcome.  Jesus showed us his scars, so we don’t have to hide ours.” (175). This fellowship, this new community was based around the real, living person of Jesus-- it was in him they believed, and He created this unity they experienced.

Questions:   

Share a story about an experience of true fellowship.  

How do you respond to the idea that Christian fellowship is for scarred and scared people-- without regard to gender, status or achievement?  

In my life, I have had many experiences with what I would call true fellowship.  Many of you know I have been part of an accountability group with the same guys since 1997.  Another dear friend, Mike, whom I met in 2002 has been an extension of this group, another brother with whom I have deep fellowship and honesty.  Some of these accountability group times, and some of the times Mike and I have shared talking across the nation by phone rank highest to me in my experience of fellowship.  There have been times when the presence of God is so thick in those small group times and those phone conversations, that the presence of Jesus is tangible. For years the guys and I in our accountability times began with prayer and worship and a time of listening for God to bring words for the members of the group before that person shared.  What we heard which spoke beneath the surface of what a brother planned to share, and often proved powerful. Sometimes Mike has called at just the right moment to help upright my thinking and my heart. These conversations are gifts. For me fellowship means a deep communion with others. So, it can happen anywhere as we are together with others in the Body of Christ.  

How about you? When have you experienced fellowship?  

Chapter 33 "The Uprising Begins"

Scripture: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Luke 24:1-32; Colossians 1: 9-29

If you want to experience this chapter, read Luke 24 in its entirety.  For McLaren this week relives that passage, tells it again as if one of the disciples.  The experience of the resurrection by the women, the disciples and then the two on the road to Emmaus.  These experiences and how those two disciples may have viewed the meal of communion thereafter form the content of the chapter. In wondering how the two disciples may have unpacked their experience of recognizing Jesus in the broken bread, McLaren writes,

“We recall Jesus’ words from Thursday night about his body and blood. We remember what happened on Friday when his body and his blood were separated from one another on the cross.  That’s what crucifixion is, we realize: the slow, excruciating, public separation of body and blood. So, we wonder, could it be that in the holy meal, when we remember Jesus, we are making space for his body and blood to be reunited and reconstituted in us?  Could our remembering him actually re-member and resurrect him in our hearts, our bodies, our lives? Could his body and blood be reunited in us, so that we become his new embodiment? Is that why we saw him and then didn’t see him --because the place he most wants to be seen is in our bodies, among us, in us?” (p. 169-170).

How do you respond to this kind of idea around the meal of communion, that it is transforming us into a community of resurrection?  

I live this reality. I believe that communion is just such a holy reality, a beautiful meal, a gift.  It is the taking into ourselves the reality of Jesus’ work on our behalf. It does re-member us to His holy person, and re-attaches us to his might gift.  This is what I experience. It is not just memorial. It is real presence. Come to the table and meet Jesus. Receive God’s kiss. There is powerful transformation available in the meal.  Come and sup.

Chapter 32 "Peace March"

Scripture: Zechariah 9: 9-10; Psalm 122; Luke 19: 29-46

Asking what this might have been like, that day, to experience Jesus directing disciples to get a donkey, a colt, for this triumphant ride, experiencing the celebration, the shouts, hearing Jesus say that were people not to celebrate him, that rocks would shout instead!  What might it have been like to hear him begin to weep, sob over the city of Jerusalem, with that picture of intimacy and a desire to offer mercy, but unable to do so because the people did not recognize the day God visited them? What might we learn of Jesus’ own awareness of Himself, his mission, by this very reference of comparison between His visit and God’s? What might it have been like to enter the temple with Jesus and see him heal, the pharisees reject, and the people celebrate him again?  There Jesus declared it a house of prayer and lamented that the religious leaders had made it a den of robbers. What might that have felt like to these followers? Here McLaren asks what were those things that made for peace that day? And how had the people rejected and missed these things?

All this.  

McLaren observes:  “It’s not more weapons, more threats, more fear that makes for peace. It’s more faith, more freedom, more hope, more love, more joy.  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

war quote.jpg

How might we be purveyors of hope and peace in this world that leans toward warfare?  

Clearly this day is a day which exalts that Jesus is king, The King, the long awaited King. But a different king.  A king who makes for peace.  As McLaren wrote, “It’s not more weapons, more threats, more fear. It’s more faith, more freedom, more hope, more love, more joy,” that is needed.  And I would add, “Peace. we need more peace.” And Jesus is the way to such peace.

As you ponder this -- Palm Sunday is a peace march, and also a day of celebration and a day of intense sadness as Jesus weeps over the city that stones those sent to her.  Indeed as Jesus entered the city that day, he rebuked those in the temple for taking “My Father’s House,” and making it into a den of thieves not a house of prayer for all nations.  So, what a day of contrasts.

McLaren invites readers to reflect:

Share a time when you were a part of a parade or public demonstration. What did you experience?

This week, look for moments when you, like Jesus, can see with grief that people are choosing a way of conflict or violence instead of peace.

What’s a thought or idea from today’s chapter that intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

This day continually is a surprise to me for I don’t expect it to be anything but a great, happy parade.  It starts out that way, and somehow, I expect it to always end that way, but it doesn’t. It does end with healings in the temple, and a cleansing there, but it is filled with rebukes -- the pharisees’ rebuke of Jesus, and Jesus’ rebuke of the religious system in Jerusalem.  It is filled with sadness and rejoicing. Children are celebrating Jesus, yet some adults are not. So for me, this day is a surprising one, and one that continually reminds me that nothing in life is all one texture. That joy and sadness do get mixed together. That peace is accompanied by times of violence.  That people will always have varying opinions about God and how God interacts with humanity. In the season of the church with the battles coming out of the General Conference Decision in February, this seems poignant. We still serve the same God, the same Jesus as then. And that God is as active now as then.  And still today there are strong opinions on all sides of this and every disagreement. The question is whether we will see the day of God’s coming to us. The question is whether we will be able to witness and celebrate God’s coming to us, into our lives and embrace God that day or not. That’s the question. I hope that I am able to see and embrace God’s coming.    

Chapter 31 "The Choice is Yours"

Scripture: Matthew 7: 13-29

McLaren observes there are Two paths, Two vines (or kinds of fruit), Two groups and Two types of builders -- each contrasted to the other, each challenged to not just listen to Jesus but to be people who take everything He said and translate it into a way of living a new life, a way of being alive.  

We have long heard of the narrow and the wide ways, those contrasting types of life, like roads that are supposed to be ways to get through a mountain pass, but only One Road goes the whole way.  It is not the wide highway, for that one actually cuts north, and is yet unfinished, ending in a cliff, but the two-lane, winding, narrow, treacherous looking road. That’s the Way.

He warns us against believing everyone who claims to speak for Him, saying, we need to look for the fruit of the proclamation.  Not their words but their lives are the litmus test of the message. And what of those who claim to belong to Jesus, who again may use the right words but have no relationship?  Jesus says they will be surprised on that last day when Jesus tells them:

‘You missed the boat. All you did was use me to make yourselves important. You don’t impress me one bit. You’re out of here’ (Matthew 7:23, The Message).

Jesus tells us “Do what you hear,” in other words, “practice this message.”  Put into practice what you hear. We have heard to love enemies, pray for those who persecute us, give, fast, pray secretly in order to change the world.  It is not a message of applause but of deep relationship.

Rather than being in any way overwhelmed by this powerful, life-challenging message, the crowds were delighted. Here at last was someone who taught as one having authority.  He was saying: this is the way it is. Live it. And they were delighted.

As you ponder this message, this “Sermon on the Mount,” what images or impressions are you left with?  

How do you think that you are “doing the Word” with how you live your life?

Where do you need to step up your obedience, or, where do you need to engage more fully in relationship with Jesus?  

For me, this message keeps going deeper. I don’t really think a summary captures all Jesus accomplished. The structure of the message beginning with the “Blesseds” and contrasting the lives we will live in Him with what was lived by the religious authorities was simple yet immense.  This was not your average, do this and you will live, message. Instead, Jesus says, “With me, here is what you look like, here is how you live, here is how you will stand out, and here is what is required.” Wait, Jesus, What? You are making OF me what I cannot make of myself? I guess I get to the end and just say:  “Wow. Ok. I submit to you, Lord.”

Chapter 30 "Why We Worry, Why We Judge"

Scripture: Matthew 6: 19-7:12

McLaren unpacks the three core problems we encounter as people.  These can turn us into dismal grouches and keep us from enjoying the life God has given us.  In unpacking Jesus’ teaching, McLaren sees these as

1.  Anxiety:  This unchecked worry about our bodies, our need for food, clothing and security can lead us into grasping, dissatisfied kind of life missing the very abundance God has placed around us.  Jesus points out how nature alone could teach us this is unnecessary -- if God cares for the birds of the air and the grass of the fields granting them abundant provision, won’t he likewise care for you?  

When we worry we miss out on what is available for us to receive.  Our hearts are focused on what we believe we lack. McLaren says Jesus’ antidote to worry is to seek God’s Kingdom and His justice (right living), and reminds us of his startling promise.  That everything we need -- food, clothing, provision, security -- will be given us.

However, when we fail to check worry, that kind of anxious living creates a heart worried that someone is judging them, will constantly be judging others.  And that’s the second core problem:

2.  Judgment:  “Anxious people are judgmental people” (142). McLaren takes us in this discussion to the two trees in the garden. One the tree of Life, of abundance, a place of trusting in all God has given.  And the other the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, “whose fruit we grasp to know and judge everything and everyone around us as good or evil. ...we constantly judge us as good and condemn them as evil.”  

Haven’t you experienced this kind of judgment -- when we want to clean someone else up, but don’t want to look at ourselves?  The antidote to judgment is self examination. Just as when dealing with adultery, Jesus pointed out that we need to deal with our own tendency toward this-- if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off, etc, here Jesus says, to take the “plank out of your own eye.”  The picture is that something inside you is hindering your ability to see, that your judgment flows from your own brokenness. So, clear up your sight.

McLaren says this all comes back to how we see -- looking at others to judge them is a kind of “seeing” which makes us blind to anything else.  It is like when people wanted to break relationships with former close friends after the 2016 election, when they discovered how their friend had voted.  Their judgment -- making this person all one color because of a decision that the other person disliked -- blinded them to all the good qualities in that person they’d previously appreciated.  I was in many conversations encouraging people to simply be open to curiosity and ask questions to learn what else they thought and believed.

We need to deal with how we see, we need to take the step with our own eyes.  Like when Jesus told his listeners that if they are at the altar bringing their gift and there remember that a brother has something against them, he said to leave the gift and go first be reconciled, then return to give.  The call for us to act not to wait upon another. Get the plank out of our own eyes first, then we will be able to see to remove the splinter. Interesting that in Jesus’ hyperbole, when we judge we are noticing what is a splinter in comparison to the plank of judgment in our own eyes.  Clearly-- dealing with our own stuff is essential.

The posture of life is to continue to seek God -- asking, knocking, seeking -- for God will always respond.  This is the posture that underscores the third core problem for us people.

3.  We do not realize how deeply we are loved:  For if we did, we would consistently seek God in this life.  That we don’t says we don’t really, deeply understand how deeply God loves us, and will respond to us with the good that we seek, as any human father or mother would only give the best to their child.  

This passage ends with the ultimate advice from Jesus -- to simply do for others what you would like them to do for you. This can flow from a heart free from anxiety and judgment, a heart that knows, bottom line, he or she is deeply loved.  Then we can give. In giving we will obviously receive.

McLaren says, “next time you’re grouchy, angry, anxious and uptight, here is some wisdom to help you come back from being ‘out of your mind’ to being ‘in your right mind’ again.  Try telling yourself, My own anxiety is more dangerous to me than whatever I am anxious about.  My own habit of condemning is more dangerous to me than what I condemn in others. My misery is unnecessary because I am truly, truly, truly loved.  From that wisdom, unworried, unhurried, unpressured aliveness will flow again” (143).  Good advice.

McLaren asks us to respond to this chapter by asking several questions.  Here are a couple for you to ponder:

  1. Share a story about a time you felt anxious, judgmental or both.  We all have that kind of story, probably from this week!  

  2. How do you respond to the idea that our deepest problem is we don’t know we are loved?  In what ways does it help you to think of God’s love as fatherly, and in what ways does it help to think of God’s love as motherly? Are there ways that imagining God as a loving friend helps you in ways that parental images for God don’t?

  3. What is special for little children about having their parents around?

Anxiety-- although I missed that word in my 8th grade spelling bee and lost to Bonnie Hubbard because of it -- I’ve been good at anxiety all my life. I don’t practice worry, nowadays, and have grown so that I don’t dwell there. But I have come from a place of feeling anxious about many things.  What will they think? How will they respond? Will I be liked? Will I be chosen for the team? Will I get the scholarship? Are they ok? Have they all died in a crash somewhere, that’s why there is no word? I’ve been through all these and more. The curious thing about feeling anxious is simply this:  in the end nothing was impacted except me. It did not impact the scholarship committee, nor the team captain, nor the people around me. It only impacted me. We can kid ourselves, however, saying: “Think of how much worse this might have been had I not fretted about it?” The truth is like I said, anxiety and worry impact only me, only us experiencing them.  They impact our health, our mental state, our spiritual lives. Someone wiser than me said to worry is to pray to ourselves. Phew. Is it any wonder Jesus taught so plainly about it, or that it is approached frequently in scripture from Psalm 37 and 73, Proverbs 3 (especially 3:25ff), to Philippians 4. Just do not do it!

Chapter 29 "Your Secret Life"

Scripture: Matthew 6: 1-18

McLaren takes us into these verses with the observation that Jesus is inviting us into practices, “disciplines,” which may feel beyond our ability. However, he observes, that not many of us without training could walk a marathon, however with training, and enough time, we could master it, as many people have proven.  So, practice makes a habit that can change our lives. Once we are changed, the world can be changed.

“Jesus shows us how to be the change we want to see in the world,” McLaren notes (p 136).  

These disciplines in the area of giving, fasting and praying are to be practiced in secret, in other words practiced not in order to be seen by others but to be seen by God, so that the blessing may be experienced in the open.  Jesus is all about changing us. What he sees being done are “spiritual practices” which are more for show and for applause than they are for connection with God.

He summarizes the Lord’s Prayer as four movements like this:  First, we orient ourselves toward God. Second, we align our greatest desire with God’s greatest desire. Third, we bring to God our needs and concerns.  Finally, we prepare ourselves for the public world into which we will soon re-enter.

As you think of the Lord’s Prayer can you see these movements in it?  How do you respond to this summary?

McLaren ends this chapter with this observation:  “The world won’t change unless we change, and we won’t change unless we pull away from the world’s games and pressures.  In secrecy, in solitude, in God’s presence, a new aliveness can, like a seed, begin to take root. And if that life takes root in us, we can be sure it will bear fruit through us...fruit that can change the world ” (p. 139).  

This last line:  “The world won’t change unless we change, and we won’t change unless we pull away…” for me really states the reality of the calling upon us here.  It is a necessity to draw away. This morning even I was feeling a need for more of God’s Word flowing through my life so I listened to the first 10 psalms en route for a meeting. By the time I arrived, a new perspective had dawned upon me.  It was like the Word itself had washed over me. It is incredible to me that change actually happens in secret, within, in our hearts as we open up and allow God to impact us through Word, song, silence, prayer, action. God works within us.  Sometimes what I know is the toughest thing to actually “do.” This week, how about if you simply open up and let God’s Word flow over and through you. This week, how about if you pull away and practice silence for a season. This week, give in secret to some need and watch what God does.

This happened decades ago, but we received $50 in the mail.  The enclosed note simply said, “God told me to send this to you, but not tell you who it was from.  Love, Jesus.” It was a typed note. No chance to recognize the handwriting. But the gift, the surprise, the $50 in an era when that would buy two week’s worth of groceries was immense.  And we had need. And God had prompted a friend (we eventually discovered the angel in disguise) to touch our lives with a gift in secret. It was such a blessing. Be the change.

Share a story about a time you did something good -- but for a less-than-ideal motive.  What happened?

Decide whether you’d like to experiment with giving to the poor, fasting or praying in secret.  But don’t tell anyone!

Chapter 29 "Your Secret Life"

Scripture: Matthew 6: 1-18

McLaren takes us into these verses with the observation that Jesus is inviting us into practices, “disciplines,” which may feel beyond our ability. However, he observes, that not many of us without training could walk a marathon, however with training, and enough time, we could master it, as many people have proven.  So, practice makes a habit that can change our lives. Once we are changed, the world can be changed.

“Jesus shows us how to be the change we want to see in the world,” McLaren notes (p 136).  

These disciplines in the area of giving, fasting and praying are to be practiced in secret, in other words practiced not in order to be seen by others but to be seen by God, so that the blessing may be experienced in the open.  Jesus is all about changing us. What he sees being done are “spiritual practices” which are more for show and for applause than they are for connection with God.

He summarizes the Lord’s Prayer as four movements like this:  First, we orient ourselves toward God. Second, we align our greatest desire with God’s greatest desire. Third, we bring to God our needs and concerns.  Finally, we prepare ourselves for the public world into which we will soon re-enter.

As you think of the Lord’s Prayer can you see these movements in it?  How do you respond to this summary?

McLaren ends this chapter with this observation:  “The world won’t change unless we change, and we won’t change unless we pull away from the world’s games and pressures.  In secrecy, in solitude, in God’s presence, a new aliveness can, like a seed, begin to take root. And if that life takes root in us, we can be sure it will bear fruit through us...fruit that can change the world ” (p. 139).  

This last line:  “The world won’t change unless we change, and we won’t change unless we pull away…” for me really states the reality of the calling upon us here.  It is a necessity to draw away. This morning even I was feeling a need for more of God’s Word flowing through my life so I listened to the first 10 psalms en route for a meeting. By the time I arrived, a new perspective had dawned upon me.  It was like the Word itself had washed over me. It is incredible to me that change actually happens in secret, within, in our hearts as we open up and allow God to impact us through Word, song, silence, prayer, action. God works within us.  Sometimes what I know is the toughest thing to actually “do.” This week, how about if you simply open up and let God’s Word flow over and through you. This week, how about if you pull away and practice silence for a season. This week, give in secret to some need and watch what God does.

This happened decades ago, but we received $50 in the mail.  The enclosed note simply said, “God told me to send this to you, but not tell you who it was from.  Love, Jesus.” It was a typed note. No chance to recognize the handwriting. But the gift, the surprise, the $50 in an era when that would buy two week’s worth of groceries was immense.  And we had need. And God had prompted a friend (we eventually discovered the angel in disguise) to touch our lives with a gift in secret. It was such a blessing. Be the change.

Share a story about a time you did something good -- but for a less-than-ideal motive.  What happened?

Decide whether you’d like to experiment with giving to the poor, fasting or praying in secret.  But don’t tell anyone!

Chapter 28 "A New Path to Aliveness"

Scripture: Matthew 5: 17-48

Especially coming out of the recent General Conference choice of the Traditional Plan, this chapter seems especially powerful.  Jesus mapped a way that was not like the rebel, throwing off all constraints, nor like the traditionalist, simply holding to the law, the line in the sand. In his view, the traditionalist while holding to the letter of the law missed the real point - Him!  He was coming to fulfill all the law and the prophets.

In this chapter McLaren illustrates how Jesus wants us to fulfill the law, by what McLaren says is to extend tradition to its full potential. Then Jesus illustrates what he means, which he does with a series of statements: “You have heard it said...but I say to you.”  And therein begins to construct a new “way” for the people -- a way that was to take them far beneath the well-known command to the deep, heart-level desire of God for the people to begin to change the world. “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Scribes and Pharisees,” he tells his listeners, “you will not enter the Kingdom of God.”  Jesus would be shocking his hearers with this statement, for in their minds, no one could ever “adhere to the law” like those groups!

As the listeners heard his contrasts of “you have heard, but I say,” what might have been going through their heads as Jesus unpacked violence, sexuality, marriage, oaths, revenge and finally love that is not just for those in our sphere of affection but for those hated outsiders?  McLaren unpacks a degree of this and asks how this might impact how we live with others around us.

For those in Jesus’ audience, they would have known that Jesus was encouraging them to break the law, to challenge the oppressors in their midst (the Romans) by doing good, by going the second mile.  The Roman soldier had strict oversight. The backhanded slap was allowed, but the fronthanded was not allowed. To “turn the other cheek” the offended would be inviting the soldier to break the law. The soldiers were allowed to force someone that first mile, but the second mile was not allowed, it was against the law, and might have the soldier begging the one who had carried the gear one mile to stop before he got in trouble.   Jesus is challenging people to live in such a way that upturns wrong authority not by evil but by going good.

Go to the heart.  Change from the inside.  And all that Jesus is writing falls back under the category also of his first sermon:  “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Here it is a turn away from simply obeying the letter of the law to obeying the deep, underlying intentions.  It was taking the law from drawing a “line in the sand” I’ll go this far and no further, to not drawing a line at all for anything would fall short of the intention of the kind of care for another demanded by loving your enemies, by turning from anger, by turning the other cheek.  

As McLaren wrote:  “For us today, as for the disciples on that Galilean hillside, this is our better option -- better than mere technical compliance to tradition, better than defiance of tradition.  This is our third way. God is out ahead of us, calling us forward -- … to fulfill the highest and best intent of tradition, to make the road by walking forward together” (p. 134-135).

McLaren invites us this week to “share a story of a time when someone knew you had done wrong but loved you anyway.”   

Immediately the small ball from Sprouse Ritz came to mind.  There I am standing by my dresser in my room and my mom is standing next to me and asking me the toughest question ever:  “Where did you get this ball? I was putting away your socks today, and discovered it.” She knew all the toys I had. She knew the limits on my spending money. She knew where I went.  She knew it all. I didn't have a way to weasel out. There was no creating some story. I knew my only option was the truth. The bare, honest, “oh no, I’ve been caught,” truth. I began to cry, for I was overwhelmed with the reality of what might follow, and said:

“When I was walking with Caroline (an older girl from church) in Sprouse Ritz, she dared me to take something from the store.  She took something and I took the ball. Then we snuck out. But then when I got it home I didn’t know what to do with it. You’d know that I didn’t own a ball like it, so couldn’t play with it, so I hid it in my drawer.”

She loved me for the truth.

And said the worst possible punishment I could ever have imagined.  “Bring the ball, Brian, for you and I are going for a little drive down to Sprouse Ritz and you are going to talk to Mr. Richland and tell him what you did and we will see what he would like to do as a consequence.  He may want to call the police to report you.” As she said this fear cascaded over me, I froze, sobbed more, begged for alternatives to this action, but was marched to the car and driven to the store and was walked in with her beside me.  Through my tears I handed the ball to Mr Richland and told him I was so sorry I had taken it without paying, and I would like to return it.

Mr Richland, who was this big, round, usually jolly man, looked gravely and seriously at me and said, “Brian, shoplifting is a crime, you know.  I could call the police and report you.” He paused. I died a 1000 deaths inside. “But since you have seen fit to be honest, to return the ball I am going to ask you to make me a promise that you will never steal anything from a store ever again. Not just this store, but any store in the future.”  

I nodded and said, “I promise.”  I imagine that he and my mom probably had communicated volumes over my head while I was dying from fear.  But through that experience of boundaries and love, I’ve never even desired to steal anything, no matter what the “Carolines” of the world have said.

What about you?  Do you have a story of love shown to you when you had done wrong?  Send in your story to office@westsidejourney.org or write it in a comment on our Facebook page, Westside UMC.      

Chapter 27 "A New Identity"

Scripture:  Matthew 5: 1-16

Imagining the scene, McLaren invites the reader to realize just how revolutionary Jesus’ words would have sounded and felt as he declared not a new religious movement, but a whole new way to looking at others and a new identity.  In a few seconds, Jesus turned “our normal status ladders and social pyramids upside down” (128). It is an abruptly different way of seeing life and others.

McLaren says that Jesus intends for us to “stand apart from the status quo, stand up for what matters, and to stand out as part of the solution rather than part of the problem” (129).  

I think this is great language.  In a few sentences Jesus has painted a picture of who we will “become” as we follow Him.  It is the opposite of what the disciples may have been expecting for Jesus, rather than using this moment in the sun to declare who He was, he instead declared who THEY were to become with him; indeed, He declared who they WERE, right then.  It must have been staggering to them and impossible. It was something new and incredible. This is what we are invited into with Jesus.

As you re-read this passage today, ponder. Share a story about someone who has impressed you with being the kind of salt and light Jesus spoke of.  Or share, how you respond to the reversal of status ladders and social pyramids described by Jesus’ words?

When I think of light, and a person being the light of the world I think of Jeanne Cochrane, a woman who was a member at the Banks Community UMC.  She has always seemed the same age to me although I have known her for 25 years. She was dear, sweet and precious then and still is now. She was a Sunday School teacher there when we arrived and all the girls longed to be in her class.  No one was like Jeanne, and she loved Jesus immensely. She was and still is a person of such glorious light. She shines, and yet has always named me and my family the “Shining Shimers.”  That’s just the kind of person she is.

Second Quarter Queries

Opportunities to answer with others or in your journal:

Here is the meaning I find in the stories of John the Baptist, the virgin birth, Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, the ancestor lists, the coming of the Magi, and Jesus in the temple at age 12…  

Here is why Jesus’ parables, miracles, and teaching about hell are important to me…  

Here is how I respond to Jesus’ care for the multitudes and Jesus’ attitudes toward Caesar…  

Here is my understanding of the Kingdom of God…  

I believe in Jesus. I have confidence in Jesus. Here is what that means to me…  

What does baptism mean to you?  If you have not been baptized, would you like to be?  


One thing I appreciate the most about the teaching about hell that Jesus gives, is the clarity with which he has dealt with a topic that had been kicked around through all kinds of belief systems.  He gives it clarity. There is judgment. And as we discussed 2/10 -- God is intent to get the hell out of people and the hell out of earth, as well. There is judgment because God is good, but God does not want anyone to choose the path of rejecting Him.  

On 2/10 we shared the CS Lewis quote from The Great Divorce:  “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, in the end, "Thy will be done." All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock, it is opened.”  I love that quote.  I love the character of God I meet within it.  

As I have dealt with many, many people who have been subjected to evil of all kinds, it helps immensely to know God will judge people who have lost touch with what it can mean to be human and have used their power for evil.  God will repay. We can count on that. Therefore, we need not carry their wrongs, but can forgive. God will take care of judgment.

Chapter 26 "Making It Real"

Scripture: Mark 2: 1-19; Hebrews 11: 1-10; 1 John 1:1-2:6

In this chapter McLaren walks us into Mark’s story of the paralytic being lowered on his mat through the roof by his friends to be brought to Jesus for healing. He does this as if we are one of the ones at the house that day.  

This is the only story where Jesus is said to have seen the “friends’ faith” and therefore healed the paralytic, after forgiving his sins.  This is one of those remarkable stories too -- for here Jesus underlines his authority, God-like authority, to forgive sins. Indeed in this passage the religious leaders are flummoxed by Jesus’ words saying that very thing, “Who but God has authority to forgive sins?”  The answer: Jesus. And the greater answer: the church -- you and me.

And all that authority begins with faith -- trust placed in Jesus.  The story McLaren tells here has this line, “With Jesus, faith is where it all begins.  When you believe, you make it real.” She continued, “‘You change this,’ -- she points to her head--’and this’-- she points to her heart-- ‘and you change all this.’ She gestures to indicate the whole world.”  

Faith is where we “make it real,” for certain.  How do you respond to that idea? How have you believed in Jesus in such a way or through some situation that it made “it real,” made “Jesus real” for you?  Would you like to share? Email office@westsidejourney.org and tell us your story.

Read the whole of Hebrews 11 this week, such a great chapter, the faith “hall of fame,” but actually, those are not the only names told therein, but every believer who has believed and run the race is there as well, yet untold.   


Chapter 25 "Jesus, Violence and Power"

Scripture:  Isaiah 42: 1-9; 53: 1-12; and Matthew 16: 13-17:9

Once Jesus took his disciples on two field trips, one right after the other.

The first was to a place called Caesarea Philippi, whom the son of Herod the Great, Herod Philip, had named after himself and the emperor, but previously, it was a place that had been a site of worship for the Canaanites, as a place to worship Baal, for the Greeks as the place to worship the god Pan, and then for the Romans as a place to worship Caesar, the “son of the gods,” the “lord.”  In this way, it marked a site of worship, with many statues to many deities. There Jesus took his disciples and asked what the people said of Him.

After a few responses, he narrowed his question to what the disciples said of Him and there, in this place of many gods, Peter declared that Jesus was “the Christ, the Messiah.”  This was not a religious statement, solely, but a political one. Peter thus was saying that Jesus was the true and anointed liberating king over and against Caesar. Not only that, but Peter said Jesus was “The Son of the Living God,” raising Jesus far above Caesar who claimed to be the son of the gods.  Saying Jesus is Lord was a political and revolutionary thing to say.

Immediately this revelation was called into question for the manner in which Jesus would fulfill it was at cross purposes with how Peter thought it ought to be fulfilled.  Only violence could overthrow the violence of Rome, would have been Peter’s logic. That’s what he thought the Messiah would do. But Jesus would demonstrate that violence cannot defeat violence, nor hate defeat hate, nor domination defeat domination.  God’s ways were different.

“God must achieve victory through defeat, glory through shame, strength through weakness, leadership through servanthood, and life through death” (p 119).  

The second field trip, less than a week later was to the top of a mountain with three of his disciples where they would experience, as Peter later wrote, “the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; listen to Him.’  We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain” (2 Peter 1: 17-18).

We are all a bit like Peter, McLaren observes, brilliant one minute and making fools of ourselves the next.  We understand Jesus with the right terminology, perhaps, but don’t always get his heart. But like Peter, we are still learning, and like him, “we also are on one big field trip with him that we are taking together.”

This new way inaugurated by Jesus -- a way to make a difference without violence, shunning power -- this is a way that is counter cultural. It is a new way.

McLaren invites us to share into this thought through these responses:

Share a story about a time when you were completely certain about something, and then you realized you were completely (or at least partly) wrong.  For me - that has been in relationship to an opinion I had about something in my wife, Karen’s, life.  I was so certain and dogmatic that I was write, yet I was sincerely wrong and it was painful for her and for me.  I have not always been the easiest person to live life with.

Look for situations this week when your initial reaction should be questioned, especially in relation to power dynamics.

Where in your life is your thinking out of alignment with God’s ways? What might Jesus tell you to shift or change?  

Chapter 24 "Jesus and Hell"

Scripture: Jonah 4: 1-11; Luke 16: 19-31; Matthew 25:31-40

This is a great chapter dealing with some possible developments in Jewish thought against which Jesus was teaching.  In many ways, as McLaren said, Jesus may not have been teaching about hell as much as he sought to “un-teach” the bad theology that was prevalent.  

McLaren illustrates the degree to which the Persian and Greek version of the afterlife had impacted Jewish thinking, after having been exposed to it for hundreds of years, so that by the time of Jesus the heaven-bound were easily identified.  “They were religiously knowledgeable and observant, socially respected, economically prosperous, and healthy in body...all signs of an upright life today that would be rewarded after death. The hell-bound were just as easily identified: uninformed about religious lore, careless about religious rules, socially suspect, economically poor, and physically sick or disabled...signs of a sinful and undisciplined life now that would be further punished later”  (112).

In the Gospels we see on display time and again the attitude of the religious leaders toward anyone sick, economically depressed or suffering, that that meant they were sinners, separated from God, etc.  

Jesus in his teaching and preaching reversed this.  The heaven-bound were the marginalized, the very people the religious elite despised, deprived, avoided, excluded and condemned.  The sinners, the sick, the outcasts, the nobodies were the ones invited to the heavenly banquet.  And those who were condemned by Jesus were the religious elite, the rich, the well off. These religious leaders were hell bound, who made their converts twice as fit for hell as they themselves were.  

For me, this thinking struck as accurate.  This does not mean heaven and hell don’t exist, not at all, but he exposes how teaching had been misused.  McLaren quoted how even the Pharisees in the era of the Zealots fighting against Rome in AD 67 used heaven as a promise for the warrior who fought and died in that holy war, similar to how this is used of the Muslim Jihad now, and how it was used for the Crusades of the 11th century.  McLaren ends saying how Jesus sought to wake people up from their complacent paths to warn them to return to the grace of God, in a similar way as the people of Nineveh turned back at the preaching of Jonah, so that, “Neither a big fish or a great big fire gets the last word, but rather God’s great big love and grace” (114).  Indeed Jesus was a “courageous, subversive and fascinating leader… pointing us to a radically different way of seeing god, life and being alive” (114).

Engage:

Share a story about a time someone confronted you with a mistake or fault and you didn’t respond well?

How do you respond to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus?

Look for people like Lazarus in the parable and refuse to imitate the rich man in your response to them.

In my life I have experienced immense evil of the demonic type.  This type of evil, also experienced through people, has convinced me that evil is a real thing, personal, powerful and not something to trifle with.  Jesus’ language about hell, while turning popular belief on its head also is language that says, there is something to this that is yet true. I believe that there is punishment, a Day of Judgment as the Old and New Testaments teach.  I don’t know how long or what it is, exactly, nor how it works, but there is a means by which God will show recompense for gross evil -- the murder of innocents, the destruction of lives, the obliteration of hope, the annihilation of identity.  God will judge. “‘Vengeance is Mine,’ declares the Lord.” I think that we are too quick to judge others and throw them into hell in our thinking, just as the people of Jesus’ day. Truly if Jesus is the judge and King of such matters, only He can do so rightly. Then that leaves us with the action of God in the book of Jonah -- sending his prophet to pronounce judgement in order to assist the people with entering repentance and grace and the love of God.  Jonah hated this, as we sometimes do as well, but this is the character of God -- not wanting that any should perish but all come to repentance. So, for people, this is what God desires. And this is where we find our own calling to continue to preach and teach and call people to repentance and to meeting the Savior.


Chapter 23 "Jesus and the Multitudes"

Scripture: Ez 34: 1-31; Luke 5: 17-32; Luke 18: 15-19:9

Powerful chapter on how Jesus continued to focus his attention on those who were known to be at the bottom of human society, the masses, the multitudes, the underprivileged, the economically disadvantaged.  Whereas most people were focused (and still are focused) on getting to the top of this social ladder, of being part of the elite, the privileged, the renowned folk, Jesus put the spotlight on these whom most people forgot.  His heroes and heroines were the ones rejected, outcast, ignored, marginalized.

Once when Jesus’ disciples had gone into town to buy food outside a Samaritan city, Jesus remained behind and when the disciples returned they found him deep in spiritual and theological with a Samaritan woman and one with a “sketchy reputation at that.  The sight of Jesus and this woman talking respectfully was a triple shock to the disciples: men didn’t normally speak with women as peers. Jews didn’t normally associate with Samaritans, and “clean” people didn’t normally interact with those they considered morally stained” (p 107).  

To Jesus these people whom others maligned and ignored, mattered enough to stop, to heal, to hear, to care, to defend.  Jesus “proposed that basic human kindness and compassion are more absolute than religious rules and laws,” McLaren observes.  And he’s correct.

Jesus was the toughest on the Pharisees, a religious reform movement from His day, who were then seen as the moral backbone of society, but to Jesus they were among the elite, at the top of society, and missing the boat on what mattered.  His famous arguments with them are found throughout his teaching, and when choosing his disciples, he bypassed all of them, choosing an unlikely crew even including a hated member of society, a tax collector.

In the second century and beyond, the negative portrait of the Pharisees was applied to all Jews and became the root of antisemitism.  The judgmental and mean-spirited characteristics of the Pharisees are ugly anytime they are enacted by anyone else, in any other time. During WWII the heroes of that era were those Christians who stood up against the evil profiling of Jews as inhuman and as the enemy.  These believers sought to hide and save others, putting themselves at risk. In this they aligned with Jesus.

McLaren ends this chapter stating:  “To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to stand with the multitudes, even if doing so means being marginalized, criticized, and misunderstood right along with them” (p. 109).  Amen.

He asks to share a story about a time when you felt like one of the multitude, or when you behaved like one of the Pharisees.  

My response:  I feel like part of the elite always.  When I speak with someone without house or housing, when I give to someone begging along the street, I know, I am part of the privileged in society.  It is a top down relationship. The challenge is I was “born into this,” as others were born into poverty. Sometimes people escape the cycle of poverty, but oftentimes they do not.  My problem with being at the upper echelon of society is it feels “normal” and so I can live without being aware that that is where I am. I still have problems that feel large to me, but those are not about like issues related to housing or paying bills or the dissolution of relationships. Following Jesus for me as a member of the elite means I need to make concerted effort to connect with those who are marginalized. For me the church has helped me in this, for the church is an embrace of all people no matter where they might land in society.         

McLaren also asks, “How do you respond to the stories of Jesus engaging with ‘the multitudes’ and the Pharisees in this chapter?”  

You are invited to respond to either question either in comments or by emailing the office at office@westsidejourney.org.  


Chapter 22 "Jesus the Teacher"

Scripture: Proverbs 3: 1-26; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Mark 4: 1-34

While many people would give varying answers to the question, “Who was Jesus?” -- the fact is that no one would dispute the truth that he was an incredible, challenging, truth-telling teacher.  McLaren in this chapter begins with a list of how diversely Jesus taught.

First, he taught through signs and wonders.  Healing blindness, curing mutes and lepers, calming storms Jesus demonstrated his authority, to the degree the disciples once turned to one another asking, “Who is this man? Even the winds and waves obey Him!”  

Second, he taught in public lectures both outdoors and in synagogue and home settings, utilizing all the natural environment had to offer for his illustrations.

Third, he taught at “surprising, unplanned, impromptu moments” (102).  You had to pay attention for any moment could become a teaching moment.

Fourth, he taught his disciples privately in what McLaren calls “retreats and field trips.”

Fifth, he taught in public demonstrations-- flipping the tables in the temple, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the boy’s lunch used to feed a multitude --and in each lessons lasted because of “how” Jesus taught.

Sixth, he taught in what were finely crafted works of short fiction called parables.

Throughout all of this teaching, McLaren notes rightly that one subject returns again and again as the main theme of Jesus’ teaching:  the Kingdom of God. Not as a top-down type, power-over system like the Roman Warmachine, no, this Kingdom was something far more intrinsic and universal. It was not and is not something for the future, but something that was and is near, at hand, even among and within the lives of his listeners, then, as within and among ours as well.

McLaren speaks about the contrast of this kingdom to the Power of Rome and the climaxing way in which Jesus demonstrated on the cross  “the revolutionary truth that God’s kingdom wins, not through shedding the blood of its enemies, but through gracious self-giving on behalf of its enemies.  He taught that God’s kingdom grows through apparent weakness rather than conquest. It expands through reconciliation rather than humiliation and intimidation.  It triumphs through a willingness to suffer rather than a readiness to inflict suffering” (p 103-4).

McLaren wrestles with what phrase might best capture the phrase Kingdom of God for our times, since we don’t live in kingdoms much now.  I still like that phrase best. He does point out that in John’s gospel, John replaces this phrase with his oft-used word “life.” For John a life lived to the full resonated with this kingdom of God.  Is it any wonder by God challenged us all to seek first this Kingdom and His righteousness in this life. Seek this first, seek His life, this Kingdom Life, for it surpasses anything else we could seek.  

McLaren invites us to share a story about one of the most important teachers in your life and what made him or her so significant.

For me, one of the most important was Mrs Atherton.  She was my US History teacher as a Junior in High School, and was the first person who made history come alive for me.  She told the stories of history with such a freedom and joy, and intentionality, that my own heart was caught in the narrative of history.  She was tough, insistent that we were in class, on time, and fully tuned in, but with the clarity of her demands she taught in such a way that we all wanted to be there.  In her class I learned to appreciate the US constitution, our government, our unique history, the wisdom behind the amendments and the checks and balances meant to be in our system of government.  But more than those data points, it was the stories she told us of the real men and women who had lived and died years before us that remained with me. Alongside of those stories were interwoven the stories of her own life, some of which I can still recount for they stuck.  

History best told is story and stories capture the mind and imagination of a people.  This has recently been demonstrated by the production of Hamilton the story of Alexander Hamilton done as a Broadway Musical, for which people are willing to pay a house mortgage to go experience.  It is a story told well, and has captured a following.

Who was a significant teacher for you?

Jesus’ arrival in this world brought forth the kingdom in a way prophesied by the Prophet Daniel.  This kingdom was that rock “cut out but not by human hands” (Daniel 2:44-45) against which no earthly kingdom could stand.  Jesus brought God’s kingdom crashing into this world, a kingdom ruled by love, and expressed through forgiveness. And there is nothing more powerful.  Lord, let your kingdom truly come. Amen, Come Lord Jesus.

Chapter 21 "Significant and Wonderful"

Scripture: 2 Samuel 11:26-12:15; John 2: 1-12; Mark 1:21-28

McLaren looks at the two “first” miracles as described in the Gospel of John and Mark.  As he looks at these occurrences he asks really good questions. Observing that many today seem to dismiss the idea that these miracles could have occurred, or that perhaps since we do not see some of these happening now, that they give us false hope, McLaren offers a unique thought.  Why not, instead of debating whether or not the stories themselves happened, we might rather allow the story to shake up our normal assumptions and inspire our imaginations? McLaren asks these great questions:

“Dare we believe that we could be set free?  Dare we trust that we could be restored to health?  Dare we have faith that such a miracle could happen to us-- today?”  (99).

Certainly there are all kinds of ways we can discuss the stories of scripture, but what a rich invitation to accept them as they are and seek to find ways that they might challenge us to live, think, act, or breathe into life differently.  As McLaren ends, “Faith still works wonders.” Indeed.

For you to consider:  How do you respond to the literary approach that looks for meaning in the miracle stories (without needing to prove they did or did not happen)? Can you apply it to some other miracle stories?  This would mean to look at a miracle and simply ask questions about what we might learn about the characters in the story by what they said and did and chose, and how those observations might then change or impact us in our lives.  

This is exactly how I approach all the stories of scripture when I lead people in discussion of bible stories both in church and in public.  It is so powerful to watch the Holy Spirit take a story and apply it to the heart and mind of a listener. A friend was doing this in a grocery store one day and walked up to a checker who wasn’t busy and asked if she could tell her a story.  The woman was open, so this friend, Andrea, told her a Bible story and began to engage her in a short time of discussion asking just a couple questions. This checker began to cry as the story found a place in her life, and told Andrea, “I had come to work today but was determined to make it my last day.  I was going to go home and kill myself tonight. But after this story, after this encounter, I have a hope that can only be the gift of this Holy Spirit you spoke of.” The woman met Jesus at her job that day. People are so hungry to hear some good news.

As you engage in the significant and wonderful gospel and experience and tell His story, what plans God has.

Chapter 20 "Join the Adventure"

Scripture: Isaiah 61:1-4; Luke 4:1-30 and 5:1-11; 2 Timothy 2:1-9

McLaren walks through these passages highlighting how Jesus stood against temptations that often cause us to trip, and entered into his ministry empowered by the Holy Spirit demonstrated in healing miracles and deliverances.  

My favorite aspect of McLaren’s discussion centered around Jesus’ visit to Nazareth.  McLaren observes that Jesus had said, “‘Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’  And then wonders what else Jesus might have said. He could have said, ‘Someday this Scripture will be fulfilled,’ and “everyone would have felt it was a good, comforting sermon.  He could have said, ‘This Scripture is already fulfilled in some ways and not yet in others.’ And again, that would have been interesting and acceptable.” But either of those, observed McLaren “would postpone until the future any need for real change in his hearer’s lives.”  For what Jesus said required radical rethinking and radical adjustment. (McLaren, p 93).

What I love about his inquiry is that it takes us into the possible thinking of those people in Nazareth and helps us understand that when Jesus went on to illustrate that such a present-day fulfillment would mean a gospel that reaches everyone not just those like us, He was really stepping on toes.  

This speaks to us today, still, for in many ways, with all our talk we still are not very open to those unlike us, who dress, look, act, think, walk differently.  It is easier to say we are open to people being with us and walking with us, than it is to actually live that out. In Jesus’ hometown the crowd of people who knew him and loved him from when he was a kid, and had seen him grow up, went quickly from a congregation of well-wishers to a mob who sought to kill him.  

As people who are called to follow Jesus, we can be assured that people will treat us similarly at times.  They will not hear us, they will refuse the gospel we represent, they will want to throw us off the proverbial cliff because we bring a message that does not fit with their lives.  

Along this line, McLaren asked this in the question section:  “How do you respond to the idea that you can be captivated by the expectations of your loyal fans and intimidated by the threats of your hostile critics?”

Great question. How might you respond?

Both statements can be true, obviously. And what it is about the voices of retractors, those who are critical, that make them stick more than the positive affirmations?  Negatives can hit a deeper place and we can then begin to believe them. Like a friend told me this morning at the pool -- “When I get into a pit, those negative thoughts become all the truer, although they are still lies. And the pit is harder to get out of.”  

But Jesus didn’t seem to take the negative words in at all. It was as if he was impervious to the voices of the critics.  He didn’t let their opinions take anything from him, nor exert control over him. He had recently come from the wilderness and the testing and was full of the Holy Spirit, all of which sustained him and made it so he could simply “pass through the crowd” this mob intent on killing him.

This week, write the word “disciple” or “apprentice” in a prominent place to remind yourself of Jesus’ invitation to you to follow moment by moment throughout your week, even in the face of adversity.