The Zenith of the Unsalted Seas- Looking Back On Our Journey to Duluth

Memory can be a funny thing. At 40 it gets even funnier.

Like when you find yourself planning a trip with the hope of forging new ground, exploring a new part of the world and establishing a new tradition for your family, only to realize when you get there that you have, in fact, been in this place before. The place in question? Duluth, Minnesota.

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To be fair, I was much younger when I last visited Duluth. This was long before I managed to stumble over the other side of the hill. Not only that, but my experience of Duluth had, up to this point, been confined to a view from the floor of our van. This is where I would sleep through some insanely early starts to our yearly treks to visit extended family in Toronto. Little wonder I still don’t consider it a true road trip unless we leave before 5 a.m.

At this point, you might be saying, ‘Wait a minute now. Did you just say Duluth? Does Duluth really qualify as seeing the world?’ Well, it is technically a place. And the interesting thing about forgetting is you get to experience the place anew. So there is that.

Okay, so it might not be the far reaches of the world (for us anyways), nor would it be considered near the top of most lists of places to see before we die. I get it. But could it be a decent alternative to the Twin Cities? This was the hope anyways when I sat down to plan the trip.

You see, my wife (Jen) and I have long made a tradition out of heading to Grand Forks/Fargo on a semi-annual basis. And if we were feeling really adventurous, we would continue all the way to the aforementioned bustling Metropolis of Minneapolis/St. Paul. And yes, I admit, it’s not much of a unique tradition when you happen to be born and raised in Manitoba. And it most definitely is a tradition that transplanted Ontarioans… Ontarians… Ontarioians?… at least Manitobans has an easy ring to it… enjoy mocking at nauseum. But it is a tradition none the less. And it’s our tradition… that we just happen to share with every other hapless Manitoban helping to create a traffic jam at the Emerson border.

Here’s the thing. When you make this trek as many times as we have, you become very familiar with the way of the old (very straight and well paved) I29/I94 that connects us to the border. I once knew someone who made it all the way to Sioux City before realizing they neglected to make the necessary interchange on the South side of Fargo. Fools I said. And then I remembered that time I was so captivated (read zoned out) by the prairie landscape that I had inadvertently exited the Interstate and entered an old Country road. Which of course led me to nowhere-in-particular.

Yep, the interstate is so straight that I failed to notice I had made the exchange until I was far too up-close and personal with a few unexpected cows.

Also, it happened to be in the dead of night, so I guess I can’t really blame the landscape or lack thereof. But it does go to show that sometimes being too familiar with your surroundings isn’t always the best thing. Every once in a while it’s nice to shake things up and experience something new.

Needless to say, taking that exit onto the #2 Highway at Grand Forks a few weeks ago felt somewhat like taking that old Country road. This was not the way of the well-trodden road I was familiar with. The minute we left the I29 I could feel our surroundings beginning to change, and it was not long before the prairies themselves began to fade into the background.Howard-SD-Mt-Rose-Highway-1024x768

You could smell the dust of the open prairies beginning to dissipate, and the scent of the lake water that once helped earned Duluth the moniker “zenith of the unsalted seas” begins to drift over the horizon. The speed limit slows, the pace grows a little less hectic, and you gain a picture of the smaller cities and towns that the interstate tends to hide in its wake:

Places like the commuter railroad town of Crookston, MN, home to the oldest continuously operating movie theater in the United States (Grand Theatre) and, in what should be familiar to Winnipeggers, the New Flyer bus manufacturing plant. I also noted a made-for-me coffee shop-bookstore fusion called the Novel Cup in passing. NovelCup640

We did stop there on the way back, but it turned out to be anything but novel. The grumpy old lady that ran the place seemed more interested in eyeing us up than serving us a quality cup of joe with a side of a good book.

Or there was the quaint town of Erskine, an old Scottish settlement equipped with a Russian Bakery (of course). MinApr14 002-1There was also something we passed in the town called “Oof-da Tacos” that apparently sells Elephant Ears, but they are only open in the summer. I was, however, able to sneak a look at the world’s largest Pike, so that made up for it.

How about the old woods-town of Bemidji? The birthplace of Paul Bunyan and Babe, which, believe it or not, “are recognized as the second most photographed icon in the nation” according to the town’s website. I made sure to get in a shot of the classic pose (see attached picture).16933692_10154833912235664_1807367990_n

When I was younger (and immature), standing beneath his legs was something that made me laugh. At 40 I guess it just makes me immature. Probably why my wife (Jen) chose to stay in the car. For the record, they both chose to stay in the car during a stop at Judy Garland’s Birthplace (Grand Rapids), but I think they were hoping I would come back with a heart and a brain. I digress.
And by the way, I’ve heard that the homemade chocolates at Chocolate Plus in downtown Bemidji are well worth it. You could even buy some, set it on the top of your head and go back for another pose underneath Paul Bunyan. But I’m sure you are more mature than that.16899968_10154833913460664_1071250336_n

I do have to say, there is something therapeutic about the gentle hills that mark this part of the mid-west, and even though this wasn’t the other side of the world, this small change in scenery seemed a welcome breath of fresh air. It was enough to cause Jen to lean over and comment, “this is really pretty.” Understanding that she wasn’t referring to me, I was inclined to agree.

Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas
So why is Duluth called the “zenith city of the unsalted seas”?

Definition of “zenith”:
The zenith is an imaginary point directly “above” a particular location, on the imaginary celestial sphere. “Above” means in the vertical direction opposite to the apparent gravitational force at that location. The opposite direction, i.e. the direction in which gravity pulls, is toward the nadir.

Maybe a simpler definition that doesn’t require gravity or words like “nadir”:
“A highest point or state”.

Actually, this was one is my favorites:
“The highest point reached in the heavens”

A city for the Gods. The image of heaven itself. At first glance, it sounds like Duluth might have had something of a superiority complex back in the day, however, perhaps some further context might help put this into a bit more perspective:

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The Fourth Coast
As the world’s largest inland waterway, Duluth’s shoreline was once considered to be the nation’s fourth coast. And this is really the most important factor in considering the Duluth in its hey-day (and even now in its modern incarnation)- the gradual development and growth of its port.

Being the only port with access to both oceans (Atlantic and Pacific), it was Dr. Thomas Preston Foster who first adopted the moniker “zenith” in an effort to capture the spirit of Duluth’s growing influence on trade as it pushed to prove itself a significant player in the Nation’s economic landscape. The simple truth was, Duluth had what everyone else wanted- an abundance of natural resources.

Duluth: A Place of Booms and Busts and Booms
Any history of Duluth- which was officially named after Frenchman Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut, who arrived to make peace with the Ojibway and Sioux in hopes of securing trading and trapping rights- reveals a story of many ups and downs, booms and busts. Some of this mirrored the similar struggles of the Nation’s past (such as the Great Depression), while others were a reflection of Duluth’s unique position as a trading hub. Just as Winnipeg once strived to become the Chicago of the north, Duluth also competed against Chicago to become the fastest growing city in the Nation. The waterway, the port, and the railroad all made it seem like the opportunity was endless for this port side community. SONY DSCThe modest population of today might hide this past, but one can still see signs of its potential underneath the exterior, such as the mansions and castles that showcase the fact that Duluth was once home to more millionaires per capita than any other city in the nation, and one article says possibly even the world.

As with the rest of the nation, the decline of the railroad and changing economic trends took its toll, and eventually, the city was forced to give up its spot in the race for civic dominance. However, in the face of such hardship- and at a few points things seemed incredibly bleak for Duluth’s future- it also learned how to persevere. The way it survived, and, one might argue, learned to thrive, was by shifting its attention towards investing in its greatest strength- its continued relationship with the natural world that surrounds it. It was by investing in these resources that it was able to grow into a healthy, vibrant small-scale city. In this same spirit, a few years ago the city began an initiative to generate 18 million dollars over 15 years to invest back in its outdoor infrastructure. As of 2017 it now boasts “one of the largest urban mountain biking systems in the world” (the Duluth Traverse).

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So while the Castle Glensheen Museum, built between 1905 and 1908 for Chester A. Congdon, might serve as an example of the cities potential past, a city that once sat on the cusp of greatness and which desired to become LSR-5784-La beacon of opportunity for the rest of the nation to heed and to follow, the real allure of Duluth today, this “zenith city of the unsalted seas”, is now its modesty and its sense of escape. The famous Split Rock lighthouse that dots the North Shore Drive now shines a light on a different kind of rat race, a different way of life; and it appears to be paying dividends as it is attracting more and more young people to call it home. Just 3 years ago it earned the nod as the #1 spot to live on Outdoors annual Best Places to Live in the U.S. list.

“I do believe Duluth is making a comeback… We want to be part of this economic upturn.”
– Duluth Mayor

The city has done a few other things over the years to reinvent itself for the modern age. First, and this is not unlike Winnipeg, slower growth combined with intentional efforts to protect the historical heritage of its downtown buildings has allowed the old character (1872-1929 era) to be retained and restored into downtown storefronts/living. Second is the efforts by the city to reclaim the lakefront and port by integrating into an integral part of the city life and fabric. The third is by encouraging young entrepreneurs to move in and set up shop downtown with (regulated and deregulated) incentives. You can see the effects of this in the presence of a growing number of independent storefronts. As one article puts, they expected a resurgence and now the data is showing it.

Duluth: Culture, Spirit… and Foodimg_2015-10_aerial-bridge-winter-sunset--duluth_X
The first thing you will notice on the drive into Duluth is the iconic lift bridge (the Aerial Lift Bridge) that spans the Duluth/Superior Harbour. The second thing you notice is the massive boat (William A. Irvin, an old ore boat) that hugs the shoreline of what is now called Canal Park.17467730_10154926806380664_379398726_n If the port defines the city’s past and character, Canal Park affords it culture and a future. This is where you find the nightlife, a social hub of activity. The opportunity to stroll up and down these streets to visit shops, restaurants, and coffeehouses (the local roaster Duluth Coffee Company is recommended), is now a favorite city past time. It is here where culture and nature meet, which is an essential part of the Duluth experience.duluth_coffee12

Now, while it might be a modest city these days, but it is worth nothing that Duluth does also have some claims to fame. It is the home of Bob Dylan. It boasts the United States’ only all-freshwater aquarium (the Great Lakes Aquarium). It is the birthplace of the American mall. pie-a-la-mode

Most notably perhaps, it is the inventor of pie a la mode.

For our purposes, on both of the occasions, we found ourselves strolling the streets of Downtown Duluth and Canal Park, our main interest was food. And while pie a la mode would have certainly been welcome, we needed something more substantial.

On both of these occasions, we were also looking to try out a place called Pizza Luce, a restaurant that I had seen in Minneapolis but had yet to visit. When I saw it in Duluth I suggested we finally take the plunge.

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The first time was a fail, as they were entertaining some local music that night and happened to be full to capacity. This turned out alright though as not only did we manage to make it on our second try the next night, but it also ended up pointing us in the direction of another local recommendation called The Duluth Grill.

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An inconspicuous location and a simple exterior felt insignificant, but on the inside, we were greeted by an environment that feels nostalgic and colorful. And not only was this local institution featured on the Food Network, but it had some fantastic food to back it up.

The attention is on fresh and local, and it gives honest attention to those with allergies and preferences (I have celiac and was able to enjoy a fantastic mac and cheese dish which was otherworldly). A popular cookbook called the “Duluth Cookbook” is actually a product of this restaurant and it’s owner, and it is well worth the price. It showcases the city history and food trends quite well. I am kicking myself for leaving it behind, but budget trips dictate priorities I suppose.

But back to Luce… Oh that Luce. Creative pizza concoctions, nice environment, and tons of flavor give it two thumbs up.

Beyond Downtown Duluth16830566_10154828738695664_163216858_n
We stayed at a hotel just outside the city limits (Duluth Spirit Mountain Inn), steps away from Spirit Mountain Ski Hill, as we had planned to do some snowboarding while we were there. Given that we were there on a Sunday, I was also intrigued by their option of Sunday Fat Bike rentals (where they open the hill for these bikes to flip and slide and tumble their way down the hill), but the weather made this activity inaccessible, unfortunately.

The hotel, while fairly modest, was the perfect location between the heart of downtown and the hill, and serves as a nice entry point onto Duluth’s North Point Scenic Drive. And to be honest, it is likely there are few places you could stay in Duluth that wouldn’t be able to open your eyes to what the greater area of Duluth had to offer. Its relationship with the outdoors is just that prominent, and one of the most respected excursions is the North Shore Drive, a scenic byway that opens up from the skyline drive and the Duluth lake walk in the heart of Canal Park and takes you through the communities that dot the waterway.scenic-drive-in-minnesota-north-shore-scenic-drive-ga-3

Also worth mentioning, to the other side of Duluth you find the Apostle Islands, a series of summer islands that turns into ice caves in the winter, along with the many bike trails available to enthusiasts.


There is plenty that we missed on our brief visit. We (of course) barely broke the surface of things to do in the few days we were there, such as the vintage train that celebrates the arrival of the rail back in the cities heyday (the North Shore and the Mississippi railroad).There is the famous Grannies in Canal Park, and the famed shipwrecks that color the lakes lore (it was known as one of the most violent seas on which to set sail, and excursions to sea wrecks are available). And I really want to get back there around Halloween when they turn the boat on the harbor into a massive haunted house that is for mature audiences only.

But we got enough of a taste to begin to fall in love with the place’s majestic sense of beauty and culture and nature.

Duluth: Looking Back and Looking Forward
As I mentioned, I don’t remember much about the place from when I was younger, but the places en-route that I do recall (the town of Christmas, Michigan- surprise, surprise; the Mackinac Bridge) have helped play a role in bringing back to life this picture of my childhood. These memories allowed visiting Duluth to become a sort of looking back on my past, a meaningful exercise of self-reflection on days long gone. However, what I haven’t mentioned yet is that this trip also had another similar motivation for our son Sasha.

17238922_10154890804020664_1044137050_nHe came into our lives two years ago via international adoption, and a part of what inspired this trip was the opportunity to reconnect with an old friend who had shared a room with him during his time at the orphanage. That he now lived so close to us was an exciting revelation, and so this special young man that we now have the privilege of calling our son was also given an opportunity on this trip to reconnect with a piece of his past.

I have only ever been able to imagine what this journey has been like for him, being transplanted to a foreign Country and being asked to say yes to this new family that he had just met; and so it was here on the #2 highway, in the confines of a modest portside city in the mid-west, that we hoped to find a chance to celebrate this journey with him- not only in how far he has come, but also in helping him to remember and cherish the childhood experiences (good and bad) that helped to bring him to where he is today.

So there we were, forging new experiences together, remembering days gone by together, and strengthening our family together. As it is with any journey, veering off that old familiar interstate is when we choose to invite and welcome the unexpected. It is learning to anticipate this discovery, the expectation of what lies ahead, that brings with it the opportunity to breathe a little bit of joy into our lives. And however little or however much this joy happens to be, we know it is always needed and welcome, even on our best days.

Duluth might not be the other side of the world, but it did end up being a little piece of special.

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“It’s where the St. Louis River, after plunging through pine-lined cliffs of Jay Cooke State Park, fans out to create a huge natural harbour, sheltered from Lake Superior by a narrow, sandy peninsula of land that stretches nine miles from Duluth, Minnesota into Superior, Wisconsin. The harbour rim weaves in and out of 49 miles of shoreline, containing 19 square miles of fresh water.”

Look Deep into nature, and then you understand everything better.
– Albert Einstein

Resources

https://www.downtownduluth.com/about/history.php

http://www.duluthport.com/port-history.php

http://www.visitduluth.com/attractions/history-culture/

http://zenithcity.com/zenith-city-history-archives/duluths-development/3126-2/4/

http://www.lakesuperior.com/lifestyle/food/creating-the-duluth-grill-cookbook/

A Long Overdue Reflection on Bill Paxton: Remembering A Man Who Approached His Craft With Joy and Humility

This is long overdue by now, but the recent and unexpected passing of Bill Paxton has found me reflecting on the on-screen legacy he left behind. The film industry as a whole certainly benefited greatly from his continued presence over the years, and his loss was felt immediately.

What strikes me about Paxton is that, even with such a long list of films and small screen projects attached to his name, he was an actor that seemed to still be finding his voice. In all respects, it felt like he was just getting started, with a long career still in front of him, and this was remains a testament to his commitment to giving everything he had to his art. His performances were incredibly diverse, ranging from the humorous to the dark, from the loveable to the jerk, and he often seemed to thrive in the position of supporting (or complementary) role, even shunning the spotlight for an opportunity to hone his skill for the benefit of the larger cast and vision.

Perhaps most fitting though, is the joy that he seemed to carry into each of his roles. It didn’t matter what it was or how significant the role was, he always seemed to be having a blast with making the most of his opportunity, and it really felt like he took nothing for granted. This is true for some of his most significant turns on the big screen (Apollo 13), but maybe even more so when it came to his small screen. Nowhere does his sheer joy for character acting jump off the screen than it did as agent John Garrett in Agents of Shield, and we were just beginning to get a taste for his take on the compelling Training Day premise.
Now, I will admit that this proved to be quite the task, but after much consideration, I managed to narrow this down to my top 5 favorite Bill Paxton performances, each a testament to an actor taken from us far too soon:

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  1. Aliens
    Nothing quite captures Paxton’s diversity or character as an actor as his role in what I consider to be the best film in this franchise. It helped to define what he was able to bring to the supporting role, and he makes the most of every moment on-screen by moving from quirky to comedic to serious, from over the top bad-ass to humility. The fact that he is able to fuse this into the picture of a selfless hero, in the end, is a testament to his skill, his attention to character and his ability to compliment a film’s larger vision. He never steals the show, but I also can’t get enough of him.

ALL YOU NEED IS KILL

  1. Edge of Tomorrow
    This might actually be my favorite of Paxton’s films. Word on the street has it that this role was apparently written with Paxton in mind. Good thing he said yes to it because it captures all of his best points. Interestingly, the film taps into his penchant for characters a bit more rough around the edges that emerge in the years to follow, but more importantly, Paxton (once again) manages to measure up against Cruise without demanding the spotlight.

Nightcrawler paxton gyllenhaal

  1. Nightcrawler
    If Edge of Tomorrow was my favorite film of Paxton’s, this one might be one of his most admirable. It’s a decidedly dark film (and a very good dark film) that tackles some rather cynical and timely themes. But while Nightcrawler just might be the performance of Gyllenhaal’s career, what helps make him who he is in the film certainly has much to do with Paxton’s presence and chemistry as both his friend and foe. It might seem simply a supporting performance on paper, but Paxton’s ability to embody this complex relationship remains largely understated as the presence which helps to frame the questions that plague Gyllenhaal’s own social commentary.

Mean

  1. Mean Dreams
    As one of his final films, this also might be Paxton’s most powerfully rendered performance. In Mean Dreams, he exudes passion, and in the leading role, he uses this passion for bringing life to a man harboring an incredible amount of hostility. He almost makes you forget how likable he actually is as an actor.

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  1. Twister
    I know, it was really tough not to put the iconic Apollo 13 in this number one spot. But I just could not avoid Twister no matter how hard I tried. I can still remember the thrill of seeing it on the big screen. And sure, in looking back on it today, it might seem like just your everyday, average summer blockbuster, but for me, when I think of Paxton I think of the guy who helped bring the profession of storm chasing to the world. It is no secret that he inspired a tribute from those whom he actually helped inspire to enter this profession (and hobby) in real life. And I think this is a testament to just how relatable and accessible Paxton was, no matter what kind of character he happened to be playing.

Even in a big-budget blockbuster, I got the sense that Paxton refused to see anything as a dialed in or throw away performance. He was simply out there doing what he loved to do, and getting great joy from doing so. And for that he remains an inspiration, even in his passing.

A Cup, A Child and A Cross- A Marriage of Salt and Fire

“For everyone will be salted with fire.” 
– Mark 9:49

Biblical scholar Albert Barnes once suggested, “perhaps no passage in the New Testament has given more perplexity to commentators than this, and it may be impossible now to fix its precise meaning.”

If there is one thing I have found in my own journey through The Gospel of Mark thus far, it is that Mark’s Gospel is very good at challenging my expectations of Jesus’ ministry. If there is a second certainty, it is that the upending of my expectations leaves me feeling uncomfortable more often than not. And when I encounter words like ”fire”, especially when set in light of other words (like “hell” and “unquenchable”) that precede it, I definitely find myself feeling uncomfortable.
This sounds like a negative thing on the surface, but I am actually finding this feeling of discomfort to be the place where the Gospel power comes most alive. So, rather than close off my mind and my heart to what the Gospel of Mark wants to say to me here, my prayer this week has been for the Spirit of Jesus’ baptism to do its work- to teach me and show me what I need to hear.

Approaching the Fire with Humility
It is worth noting that this passage falls within a narrative section which binds the transforming event of the Transfiguration to the revolutionary picture of the coming Triumphal Entry. We are on the road to Jerusalem, and it is on this road that Jesus continues to foretell the way of the Cross. And so, above all else, the placement of this passage in Mark in chapter 9 appears to be intended to prepare us for approaching the Cross in a spirit of humility.

It is difficult to know whether Mark is translating this passage from its original Hebrew, or if he is recording a central teaching of Jesus that he has encountered in his familiar Greek. In truth, this has been a part of the difficulty of navigating this passage. But one does not need to look far to find a pre-existing tradition in which to understand Mark’s use of “fire”, and a good way to recognize this tradition is by taking a closer look at The Gospel of Matthew’s declaration that Jesus’ baptism came not only in Spirit, but also in fire:

“But when he (John) saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, We have Abraham as our father, for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He (Jesus) will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing for is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”-
– Matthew 3:7-12

The use of “fire” in Matthew confronts us with two sides of a single picture. By calling up the picture of the “unquenchable fire”, Matthew sets the idea of “wrath” (judgment) against the call to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (forming/purifying). In context, Matthew is warning the Pharisees and Sadducees (in view) about getting too comfortable with their idea of what it means to gain reward in the Kingdom of God. Matthew’s narrative, as it becomes increasingly clear, is equally interested in up-ending our expectation of the Gospel of Jesus, and Matthew’s call to those in view is not to simply “assume Abraham as our father”, but to live in repentance (turn in the direction of Jesus) and to actually live like a child of God. A strong statement like this was sure to grab their attention.

From Wrath to Temptation
Returning to the Gospel of Mark, he doesn’t use the word wrath here, but he does talk in a similar (dualistic) way about how “temptation” requires a response, and that our response can shape an outcome in one way or another as it also reorients our perspective in one direction or another. This idea of contrasting outcomes, or the dualistic force that shapes his amalgamation of both “salt” (hopeful) and “fire” (judgment) into a single passage, might feel incredibly uncomfortable and confusing for us as readers (as I imagine it would have been for Mark’s original audience), but I think in order to make sense of this obscure marriage of salt and fire, it is important for us to keep the two sides of the picture firmly in our sights. What has become increasingly clear to me in my own study over this past week, is that we cannot understand the one side of the picture without the other.

 

Recognizing the Bigger Picture
So, with this in mind, here is what I would like to suggest. When Matthew asks the Pharisees and Sadducees “who warned you about the coming wrath”, He is speaking from the position of their Jewish expectation. He is guiding them back to the words of their own prophetic tradition and the sacred scripture that would have informed their understanding of the wrath He is talking about, and it is through understanding the story of the Israelites own history that the word wrath (and fire) gain a bit more clarity for us as readers.

When Jeremiah 17:27 declares that God “will kindle a fire in its gates, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem and shall not be quenched”, he is speaking of two things- the very real struggle of the exile itself, and the judgment of a people who failed to listen to what God was saying. All throughout the Israelite history, we find this same story being played out in the midst of a people being who are being formed out of the fire of their persisting struggle with faith and circumstance. In his new book, “The Day the Revolution Began”, N.T. Wright refers to the Jewish scripture as a story without an ending, exposing this persisting pattern of ups and downs that seemed to shape the trajectory of God’s chosen people out of exile, slavery and, yes, judgment, and then back again. The exile, the struggle of faith, slavery; all present an opportunity for the people of God to be renewed in their faith, to turn and face in a different direction, to look towards the work that God is doing in them and the world around them. As readers we know that God uses the exile to breathe hope into a story full of desperation and failure, but we also know (as readers) that we are never far from another exile, another failure, another setback- this is where the story without an ending feels incomplete, a story that exists in a world where sin seems to reign over the persisting plans to reform and redeem the people.

For Wright, the Israelite history reflects the incomplete expression of the hopefulness that we find in the midst of the struggling people. But he also finds within this “story without an ending” the gradual unveiling of a Messianic expectation that sees the work of God moving from the Israelite nation out to the world at large. It is in this place where we find God’s saving work being formed out of fire of the Cross, a central image in Mark’s Gospel, and important piece of the puzzle for understanding his use of the salt/fire metaphor.

 

Seeing Mark in light of the Israelite Story
More than a few Biblical scholars find a reference from this passage in Mark to Leviticus 2:13. There is an early witness (contemporary to Mark) of a scribal note attributing this passage to Leviticus, and thematically this seems the most pertinent connection available to us for working through a difficult interpretation:

“You shall season all your grain offerings with salt. You shall not let the salt of the covenant with your God be missing from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.”-
– Leviticus 2:13

What binds this passage to Mark is the ensuing reference to the process of burning the offerings. In this context, the passage represents allusions to the image of sacrifice that underscore both the Jewish and Gospel narratives. This idea of sacrifice, of allowing the purifying nature of the fire to shape us in a positive direction, is the means by which we are called in scripture to direct our worship outwards to where it belongs, onto God rather than towards the things of this world.

The Sacrifice and the Fire
The section of Mark in which the salt/fire verse is found is titled (in my Bible) Temptations to Sin. We encounter this word “temptation” again in the garden as Jesus approaches the reality of His coming death, his sacrifice. Jesus encourages his disciples in this moment by saying,

“Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation.”
Mark 14:38

Jesus goes on in this same passage to say that they must do this because “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”. It is the spirit of Jesus’ baptism that has the power to set our sights in the right direction. In contrast, it is the allure of earthly (fleshly) desires, the things that have no power, that resist the power of the Spirit to set our sights in the right direction. This a picture of the power and forces that are constantly competing for our attention, and it is something that brings to light the two sides of the picture that Mark is speaking of when he outlines the nature of temptation- the ability to resist it or to accept in one way or another.

Drinking The Cup 
The words of Jesus’ own prayer that precede this encouragement pushes this thought even further:

“Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me.”
Mark 14:36

Following Jesus’ final foretelling of his death and Resurrection, He declares our call and our right (as followers of Jesus) to share not only in his baptism, as the Gospel of Mark sets out in his beginning chapters, but also in the “cup that I drink”. Here we find this cup being set against his suffering and his death- his sacrifice for the sake of the world. It is as Jesus faces the reality of his own cup that he goes on to offer us a precedent for which to do the same:

“Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

When faced with temptation, this is what it means to ensure we “have salt in our self”, the kind of saltiness that can attest to the power to the Spirit rather than the idols that compete for our attention (9:50). This image, this metaphor that Jesus provides of cutting off our hand, our foot, our eye- is about submitting the reality of this coming wrath, the looming sense of this unquenchable fire as a picture of God’s great (and just) judgment, to the forming work that God desires to do within us. It is about allowing the reality of Sodom to awaken our senses to the work that God is also doing in the world around us. As a people of salt and light, scripture calls us to recognize and participate in this work as followers of Jesus who are being formed by the spirit through the fire. This is what it means to share in the cup with Jesus, to allow the road to the Cross, the fires of our own exile, struggles and judgment, to exchange our worship of idols for the Worship of the Creator God; and we do so for the sake of bringing God’s light, God’s voice to the world.

 

Wrestling with Our Own Messianic Expectation
As we look back on the story of Israel and the Jewish people, this story without an ending finds a definitive conclusion in Jesus. It finds ultimate hope in the person of Christ as the answer to the Messianic expectation.

This means that this forming work, the purifying nature of the fire in our own lives, is now purposed towards a greater end than simply judgment. We are no longer left with the ambiguity of Israelite’s past, and it is to this end that we can afford Mark’s marriage of “fire” and “salt” a final piece of clarity.

From One Cup To Another
In Mark 9:41, we encounter another image of the cup, and I can’t help but consider it an intentional connecting point to the “cup” we are called to share in by taking up our Cross.

Talking to the disciples, Jesus says that whoever “gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward”. The reward in this passage appears to be directly connected to the disciples “discussion” in the previous passage, of seeking greatness for being a follower of Christ; and later the reward of being first, or sitting at the right hand of the Kingdom Jesus is building that we find them arguing over in the passage that follows.

Speaking of this reward in the ensuing chapter, Mark 10:30 says,

“there is no one who has left (everything) for my sake the for the gospel who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time… (with persecutions) and in the age to come eternal life.”

So what is the reward we will receive? When we receive the (figurative) child that Jesus holds up for all of us to see, we receive Jesus. And when we receive Jesus we receive access to the Father (Mark 9:37). And so, it is the Worship of God that is our reward, the fellowship with our Creator.

And what must we do to receive this reward? The answer is found in the giving of the cup. Just as we share in the cup that Jesus drank, we are called to share in the lives of others by giving of ourselves. For Mark this is giving up our right to be first, of being the greatest. Here this theology is given a practical outflow in the action of giving water to the thirsty, an action that anticipates God’s ultimate restoring of the created world.

In a similar fashion, Mark 9:50 closes this section with the call to be at peace with one another. Elsewhere, in Matthew 25:31-46 the fire is directly connected to failing to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and give drink to the thirsty, while in Ezekiel we find the fire that consumed Sodom to be a direct result of failing to attend the needs of those who sat hungry outside of its gates.
Like a Child
So to ask this question again, what must we do to receive this reward? As we approach the revolutionary picture of the Triumphal Entry, a definite moment in which Jesus circumvents our own Messianic expectation and lowers himself to the place of a servant, we are told that we must also learn to become the least of us so that we can also receive the least of us into our midst. We must become a servant of all because Christ came to be a servant to all. To demonstrate this Jesus draws their attention to the image of a child.

What I find most significant about this picture is what it means for those of us who are Christians, who are Christ followers. We are called to receive such a child, not because they have earned a place in the kingdom of God (this is the true power of the image), but simply because they are said to belong to Christ. The nature of a childlike faith is not about what the child has done, but rather about the prevailing nature of God’s unconditional grace and love that He is breathing into the world through Christ. Just as we were given water to drink for the simple reason that we are said to “belong to Christ” (vs 9:41), we are called to extend this same grace to others. In this light, the “Temptations” passage becomes the definitive response to the disciple’s own question of exclusion that precedes it in 9:38.
When considering such fire filled language, we cannot miss this point. This passage is about the the problem of exclusion and the push for inclusion. It is about the way in which the Cross on which Jesus died became the means through which God is accomplishing (and accomplished) His work of restoring our world, of setting things right. For as much as the fire has to do with judgment, the primary concern of this fiery image is to “salt” us into effective imitators of Christ and partakers in God’s great restorative work. For as much as God’s wrath remains a necessary part of this picture,  it is the sin of exclusion, the idolatry of earthly measure, and the withholding of God’s grace in the form of neglecting social concern and reform, that is the temptation. In Mark’s Gospel, it is by withholding this grace that we cause sin to enter the lives “of these little ones who believe”, the sin that brings with it a message that they do not belong in the company of God’s people, that they are products of the world (idolatry) rather than a necessary part of God’s restoring and forming work.

A Living Sacrifice

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
– Romans 12:1


It is this notion of sacrifice, of understanding the purpose of the salt and the fire metaphor in the light of Jesus’ work on the Cross, that motivates Paul to write these words. Sacrifice gains life when it directs our worship, in heart and action, towards God and his vision for the world. It gains life when it understands the nature of servanthood, of submitting our own will to God’s greater purpose.

It is no mistake that Paul’s vision of overcoming evil at the end of Romans 12 recognizes this living sacrifice as being accomplished through living “peaceably with all” and “feeding our enemy and giving drink to the thirsty”. As Paul declares, at the Cross we are called to leave it (discussion of God’s judgment of others) “to the wrath of God”, not for our sake, but for the sake of others and the world. In this two-sided picture, the purpose of the fire is to direct ourselves to examine our own hearts first, and then to shift our worship outwards to what God is doing. By directing our worship towards God, God is made visible to the world. By directing our worship to the idols of this world, we hide God’s hopeful message. Without this hopeful message, people will exchange belief in God’s vision, both of themselves and of the world, for false images of who they are and what this world is- God’s loved and cherished creation.

It is by following in the way of the Cross, on the Way of Jesus, that we become witnesses to the work of Christ, both in judgment (of our own hearts) and in grace (in God’s definitive statement that this world is worth saving and that we play a part in this saving work from the place of our own brokenness and failure in the power of the promised Spirit). Just as the Pharisees were cautioned about getting too comfortable in their faith, we should not assume “Abraham as our father” either. Rather we should choose to live in humility as God’s children, to strive to avoid the temptation of telling someone they are not worthy to be called a child of God, and in-fact to become willing to sacrifice our own rights (entitlement) to the kingdom so that others might come to know that they indeed are a child of God. On the Cross, in the fire of the pain and suffering it embodied, we find this was the greatest work of all.

The Least and the Last- Understanding the Transfiguration in Mark 9

Palm Sunday (April 9th) will mark the start of Holy Week. In the Christian calendar, Holy Week follows in Jesus’ footsteps towards Jerusalem, and ultimately to the accomplishment of the Cross and the Resurrection.

Having grown up in a non-liturgical environment, it was an opportunity for employment at a Lutheran Church nearly 10 years ago that opened my eyes to the richness of the Christian liturgy, something I had taken for granted up until that point (and still do, to be honest, even on my best days). I have come to understand that following the Christian calendar can help breathe life into the Christian narrative in personal, practical and theological ways. Stepping into the narrative in (intentional) ways helps to remind me that I am a part of this story, a part of the Christian story.

In the Lutheran tradition (as with the larger Christian tradition), Easter is considered the High Season of the Church, meaning that it is considered the most revered and celebrated part of the narrative. In the scope of the liturgy itself, it begins with the solemn process of Ash Wednesday (from dust to dust we come to embrace the idea that we are in need of a Gospel), continues through the forming work of the season of Lent (emptying ourselves in preparation of the Gospel work), and ends with remembering the death and Resurrection (the celebration of new life in Christ that forms the Gospel message and that fills us up anew)… well, actually it is worth mentioning that Easter Sunday actually begins a journey of learning to live in the midst of this Easter season in the months leading up to Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit (June). Easter is more than simply one weekend folks, it is a way of life, the shaping of a worldview.

 
The great part of engaging the Christian liturgy is that it reminds me of how much of the Christian story there still is for me to discover and rediscover in the changing seasons. There is much to anticipate in the Christian calendar, but what is most rewarding is the forming and learning process of the journey itself. Indeed, having just finished Mark 9, the Transfiguration stands as a great example of a passage that I still have much to learn from after all these years, a passage that seems as foreign to me today as the theological concept of Epiphany did yesterday (a word I had never heard before walking through the doors of the Lutheran Church).

What the liturgy does is help place these important events into a larger context, and in a similar fashion, recognizing Mark’s placement of the Transfiguration within the context of a series of three “foretelling” passages of Jesus’ death and Resurrection has helped shed new light on why it is an important event to consider as we engage the Gospel itself.

What I want to do with the rest of this reflection is the following:
1. Look at how the Transfiguration passage connects to the first foretelling of Jesus’ death.
2. Talk about two common themes that connect the three foretelling passages in Mark 8,9 and 10.
3. Show how these two common themes can help shape the message of the Transfiguration for us as readers.

1. How the Transfiguration connects to the first foretelling of Jesus’ death
Some scholars have recognized the presence of a connecting piece in the narrative that fits between the Transfiguration and the first foretelling of Jesus’ death that precedes it. Their motivation for seeing this connection flows out of the words of Mark 9:1, which seems to indicate that what the Transfiguration is trying to say has much to do with what has just been said in the passage before it.

“And he said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.”
Mark 9:1

In this passage, “they” would appear to be the crowd of 8:34, and the some (who will not taste death before seeing the Kingdom come with power) would seem to be referring to the disciples in the passage that follows. Therefore, some scholars point to the idea that the moment on the mountain that happens “after six days” is actually the moment in which they see the Kingdom of God come with power.

Whether this is an accurate position to take (or not) remains somewhat subjective, but I do believe these scholars have correctly recognized the importance of the placement of the Transfiguration story in the midst of these “foretelling” passages. Further, I believe looking at the three “fortelling” passages together (8:31-38; 9:30-32; 10:32-34) can help unmask the larger purpose for these declarations in Mark’s Gospel, and it is by understanding the common themes in these three passages that the Transfiguration itself can ultimately gain a bit more clarity.

2. 2 Common Themes That Connect The Three Foretelling Passages
There are two common factors that each of these three passages shares. First, in all three cases, we find resistance and misunderstanding to the Way of God, which in Mark is the Way of Jesus or the Way of the Gospel. Secondly, all three passages invite a similar response from Jesus in declaring the Gospel to be about the least and the last in the Kingdom of God.

  • Common Theme Number 1- Resistance to the Way of Jesus
    On the first occasion, Peter does indeed recognize Jesus to be the Christ, but he goes on to resist Jesus’ declaration that the Way of Christ is that He must be rejected, die and rise again.In the second passage, it says that the disciples still don’t understand and continue to resist the way of Jesus, and we find them arguing about who is the greatest disciple in the Kingdom that Jesus has come to build. While it says that they did not understand what Jesus was saying, it also says they were afraid to ask Him what he meant, which is intriguing to me. Why were they afraid? The fact that Jesus’ question (about what they were discussing) causes them to go silent seems to indicate that they knew they were off the mark (9:32-35), and this causes them to fear the words of Jesus’ death and rejection. And so they resist it, ignore it, seemingly shove it under the rug. 

    In the third passage, this resistance and their awareness of this resistance appears to grow even greater. It indicates that Jesus was walking ahead of them, and suddenly they were amazed and they were afraid. Again, this is an intriguing reaction, and it feels like they are gaining a more innate and intimate sense of what is about to happen (10:32). As the passage continues, I have to think that the whole request of James and John for a seat at Jesus’ right hand comes in the midst of a sense of desperation and exasperation. And yet it is out of this desperation that Jesus persists in revealing to them just how His kingdom is intended to work.

  • Common Theme Number 2- The Kingdom of the Least and the Last
    All three of these foretelling passages indicate a similar response from Jesus to the resistance and misunderstanding the disciples display in response to Jesus’ explanation that he must die and be rejected before he is raised again:

    Mark 8:31-38– In the first passage, Jesus foretells his death by telling the disciples, “those who lose their life will save it.”
    Mark 9:30-32– In the second passage Jesus foretells his death by telling the disciples, to be first in the Kingdom of God you must be last.
    Mark 10:32-34- In the third passage, Jesus foretells his death by stating that for the disciples to be great in the Kingdom of God, they must become a servant.

In all three of these passages, we find a great reversal, a Way in which we must seek to lose, in which we must seek to be last, in which we must strive to become a servant rather than a boss. This is counterintuitive stuff, especially in the context of the ancient world.

When Jesus asks the disciples in chapter 10 whether they can drink the cup that Jesus drinks and be baptized in the baptism of Jesus, he is actively reorienting their perspective towards the Way of the cross. The cup stands as an image of the Cross, and drinking the cup is participating in the work of the cross- losing our life, choosing to become the least, engaging the role of the servant. This is the road that Christ himself is on, and it is the road he is calling them (and us) to follow, and it is in the baptism of Christ that we find the promise of the Spirit, the spirit that can empower and reveal the Way of the Gospel, the way of the forgiven and forgiving life, in a very real and practical way.

When Jesus goes on to definitively declare that the right to “sit at Jesus’ right hand is not his to grant”, rather it is “for those which it has been prepared”, He is reiterating the themes that we have already found emerging in the Gospel of Mark up to this point. As I have mentioned before, seeing anything other than the forgiven and the forgiving life is to miss seeing Jesus, and in these passages we find the disciples miss what Jesus is saying and doing. Instead, they see a concern for earning, gaining and acquiring their place in the Kingdom of God rather than seeing God’s greater vision of a new Kingdom for the world, a prominent concern in the Gospel of Mark as a whole.

What the disciples resist is the way in which the forgiven and forgiving life calls us to give up our right and need to be in control. The idea of the Cross means that Jesus gave up His rights for the sake of the world, and He calls us to do the same. A part of this picture is giving up our right to decide who is and is not able to enter the Kingdom of God. For Mark, and the Transfiguration narrative, our focus and concern should be on our own hearts, our own lives. At the Cross we find forgiveness, and it is in becoming a servant, in submitting our right to be first in line in this Kingdom and this world, and finally it is by submitting (losing) our lives for the sake of a Gospel for the world, that we enter into the forgiving life. These are the important questions. This is the direction we must be looking if we are to see Jesus and participate in the kingdom He is building.

How these two common themes can help shape the message of the Transfiguration for us as readers.
In the Transfiguration story, we find ourselves being transported back through time in a sort of sweeping panorama of the Israelite history. We are transported back to Moses and Elijah on the mountaintop. We are reminded of the way in which God once revealed himself to both them and in the Israelite people in their own state of desperation. It’s an incredible scene that unfolds at the Transfiguration, one that left its witnesses on the mountaintop terrified and “not knowing what to say”.

If this indeed is the moment where the some (Peter, James, and John) were able to gain a glimpse of the Kingdom of God coming in power, it is a decisive moment where Jesus is declared to be the fulfillment of this Kingdom. As Elijah and Moses eventually fade from view, we are left only with the voice of God and the familiar words God once gave to Moses- “Listen to him”. It is in this intimate moment that God echo’s the words of John and the words of Jesus’ baptism- this is my beloved Son, the one who is to come who is greater than John the Baptist, who is greater than Elijah, who is greater than Moses.

And it leaves them questioning, “what this rising from the dead might mean” (9:10).

And isn’t this what Lent is all about, spending time reflecting on this very question? What does the cross mean for me? What does the cross mean for you? What does the cross mean for the world? In the Transfiguration, we find that it means everything. The point of the Transfiguration was to point to the Cross, and it is at the Cross that we find the means by which God enters the world- the great reversal in which God becomes (hu)man and our Lord becomes a servant. It is at the Cross that we find the means by which God promises to “restore all things” (9:12), and bring hope for a world that is in desperate need of restoration. This is the promise that Christ comes to fulfill, and this is the Way in which we are called to participate in God’s restorative work as Christ followers, by learning to give our lives for the sake of the Gospel, learning to serve rather than achieve, learning to enter into the space with the least of these as we purpose to give up our right to be first in this new Kingdom God is building.

As we move further and further into the period of Lent, we are being called to further reorient our sense of vision, away from ourselves and towards the One in whom we find our hope. Away from worldly ambitions and success, and towards the example of Jesus on the Cross. As the process of Lent continues to shape us, we are reminded that we do not need three tents (whatever those tents symbolize in our lives), we only need one. As when all else fades from view, it is only Jesus who remains.
FInally, in the words of Jesus, look at where we are headed, “see, we are going up to Jerusalem” (10:33). This is the direction we must be looking to see Jesus, towards Jerusalem, towards the cross, and ultimately towards the hope of His Resurrection. And what a beautiful sight it is.

Logan, Lent, and the Promise of New Life

(This reflection contains spoilers, so be aware of that if you have not seen Logan)

First, a quick note on the (should be) obvious- Logan is not your typical superhero film. It definitely earns the 18A rating (something to be aware of if you have personal sensitivities to violence or language). In many respects, the film is also built around a different kind of narrative than the Wolverine films that precede it. It is simple, introspective, and small in scale. It also happens to be very dark. As the character Logan goes on to say at one point in the film, “this is what happens in the real world, people die.”

But Logan also happens to be a beautiful and touching film, a fitting bookend to Jackman’s (now) iconic interpretation of Logan/Wolverine. As it meanders through a sort of Mad Max, neo-Western style landscape, it exposes a narrative that digs deep into the questions of who Logan is and how he has grown and developed over the years. We are given the image of an ailing man, seemingly burdened by the weight of life’s questions and desperate to stay afloat. He struggles to understand the looming importance of his own legacy in light of his own (physically obvious) deterioration, along with the deterioration of the politically charged environment that surrounds him.

There are so many incredible themes that underline the personal journey Logan takes in this film, but there are three that stand out for me:

  1. The question of Legacy
  2. What it means to Belong
  3. The meaning of Sacrifice

The Question of Legacy
Off-screen Legacy
This will be Jackman’s last performance as Wolverine, and he has gone on record (in a number of interviews) about his motivation for getting this last one right, of giving the character the film he believes he deserves. In this sense, Logan is a passion project, and even for fans of the previous films (and I count myself among them), I think it would be hard to deny that this film is something special.

One could fairly argue that when Jackman first put on those claws 17 years ago, he embodied a new approach to developing the idea of the big screen superhero persona, and I think in Logan he puts the final touch on making the character fully his own. The two (the real life and the fictional character) have become synonymous over the years, and I don’t think it is too far out there to consider the character “Logan” will remain a part of Jackman’s legacy as an actor for years to come. Likewise, the legacy of Wolverine (and the many other onscreen superhero characters that the character inspired) will forever owe much to Jackman’s interpretation.

On-Screen Legacy
In the film, set in a near-future setting, we discover that it has been over 20 years since they last encountered a new mutant, and the community that Logan was once a part of is now gone. In a very gripping fashion, this reality has left him silently (and not so silently) grappling with questions of who he is and what this life is about- this becomes the question of his legacy (or a lack thereof) that he will leave behind as he fades away into the darkness from which he came, a fate that he seems to welcome, and even hasten as he continues to carry around the one kind of bullet that can actually kill him in his pocket.

We first met Logan in 200o’s X-Men, a mysterious man wrestling (figuratively and literally) over the immense burden of a forgotten past, with the only certainty a persistent feeling of brokenness and emptiness that haunts him on the inside; emotions that he channels through a penchant for outward aggression, anger, and social neglect on the outside. Now we find the reality of Logan’s self-healing and anti-aging properties clashing with this rather innate sense that, somehow and in someway he is nearing the end of his time on this earth, and that his once forgotten past (in the form of poison) is finally (and slowly) getting the best of him.

On Jackman’s part, he gives everything that he has left to give to this role, and then some. He helps us experience all of these emotions, both in the nuances of his facial expressions and in the way he carries himself on-screen. I felt every moment of this astute introspective process, and his performance invites us in on the experience as it continues to unfold. But it is the characters that come alongside him in midst of this process (two of them, specifically) that help shed light on the real struggle with the question of his legacy and identity.

Professor X
When we first meet Logan, it is eventually the Professor who opens up his arms (and heart) to welcome Wolverine into their community. It was an invitation that broke through the wall of his pain and offered him a place to belong and a family of similarly broken stories to exist alongside. This community was intended to be a safe haven for people like Logan, an opportunity to explore the pain and discover where this pain is born from.

In Logan, we find the situation is now reversed. In the early scenes of the film we encounter someone seemingly content to sink into the trappings his own depression, ready to whittle away in the confines of his substance abuse and apathy by drinking his life away. We very quickly realize that some of the substances he is acquiring is actually for the sake of the ailing professor, who he has been hiding in a building across the Mexican border.

There is immense beauty to be found in this idea, the idea that the stuff that we see on the surface rarely tells the whole story. This is what led the Professor to invest in Logan in the first place, and now it is by caring for the Professor that Logan is able to find the strength to believe he is still who the Professor has always seen him to be- which is more than the mess he has made of his life.
There are so many touching and heart-wrenching moments that surround this relationship. The most memorable for me is when Logan looks to the Professor in a moment of exasperation, reminding him that there are no more mutants left in this God-forsaken world. The community is gone, and he has come to believe that they (he) was simply “God’s great mistake”, a mistake that God is now correcting. That he himself should be left to simply fade into the darkness is seen as a kind of poetic justice, but the truth is, he cannot bring himself to see the Professor in this same light. For Logan, the Professor is absolutely worth saving, which is why he continues, day after day, to risk his own life to bring the Professor the medicine he needs to stay alive.

What it means to Belong
When Logan emerged as a part of the community of X-Men all those years ago, he arrived as an orphan, someone without a family, without a place to belong. We now find these same themes re-emerging in the story of the second character to come alongside Logan in the midst of his hopelessness and despair- a little girl named Laura (played by Dafne Keen with a powerful on-screen presence).

Laura says very little (nothing at all for a good portion of the film), but what she does demonstrate is a quiet, and determined understanding of Logan’s struggle. As it turns out, she is also an orphan- actually, as it turns out, she is Logan’s daughter, someone who shares a piece of his history as the product of a laboratory experiment that the government is now trying to wipe out. Only now she needs Logan’s help to get to a rumored community that is supposedly being built for people like her, a place just like the old community under Professor X where she can find safety and opportunity for a better future.

As Laura enters his life, Logan is forced to grapple with what it means to care for someone else, to invest in a relationship from out of his own brokenness. It is heart wrenching to watch him struggle with this idea on-screen, and there is a rather revealing point where he finally breaks down and tells the girl that he “cannot care for her because bad things happen to everyone he cares about.” And in the course of the film, we watch as he tries to bury this care, avoid it, resist it in every way that he can. And yet, in the story of this little girl, the one thing he cannot escape is the picture of himself that lingers every time he sees her, a picture of someone who desperately needed somewhere to belong, for someone to accept him as he was. That Logan is able to eventually arrive at this realization in the film is a big part of coming to terms with who is- someone who did belong somewhere, someone who was accepted and who is now a father to a girl who needs to know the same.

Sacrifice
Logan tells a tragic story. People die. The Professor dies. And yes, in the end Logan dies. But it is not so much that they die in this narrative, as it is about what this death comes to symbolize.

When the Professor dies, Logan loses the most important person in his life, the single person he cares about, the one who gave him a reason to get up every, single day. And yet through the lens of this tragedy stands a girl, a girl who is now in desperate need of the same thing the Professor once afforded him. In the Professor’s own dying moments, he recognizes Logan as a part of his legacy, and his hope is that this girl can now become a part of Logan’s legacy in the same way. It is in the context of relationship that we find (or gain) our meaning, and even when Logan feels like he has nothing good to give, the Professor sees a man who is able to give everything that this little girl really needs- his presence and his acceptance.

Through all of the resistance, all of the walls, all of the pain, where this story ends is in an amazing statement of what it means to give out of our brokenness, a picture of what it means to truly give our life for the sake of another. As Logan comes to face some of his past in the film, the real battle, the real nemesis of the film begins to emerge- which is the battle he must face within himself.

Or not really within himself, but rather with a clone that the government has created to look like himself- a version of Logan intended to be even more powerful simply because it lacks the conscious that seems to hold the real Logan back.

What these scenes symbolize and personify is the battle that is happening inside of him, the war between the crippling effects of his personal pain and brokenness and his past regret, and his ability and desire to give and to love from out of these broken places. And this war, this internal (and external) battle, leads the film towards a poetic finish, a final moment where Logan finally stops running and faces his demons head on. It is a moment where he comes to understand the value of sacrifice, where he makes the choice to lose his own life for the sake of this little girl. And what is really interesting about this moment is that it is the bullet, the one he initially intended to use to end his own life, that ends up killing the clone, the symbol of his brokenness and past regrets personal demons. This is what allows the real Logan to emerge, and this becomes the person he is finally able to see and accept in his own dying moments. As Logan “dies to himself”, we are left with a clear picture of a man who is both forgiven, accepted and loved in spite of his troubled past and his present struggle. And by accepting this truth for himself, he is also able to offer this same unconditional love to Laura.

The final scene in the film narrows us in on a picture of Laura standing at the foot of Logan’s grave. In the narrative of the film, the journey they are on (in the desert) is one that is built on the promise of a new community (literally called Eden), a place where all of this group of failed laboratory experiments (the group of kids that managed to escape the governments efforts to distinguish them) can find safety and the promise of a better future. But in this scene, rather than continue to run towards this promised land, Laura stays behind to honor the sacrifice Logan made for her. In a fitting statement, a cross is placed at the head of the grave, and as the camera lingers on this symbol of sacrifice and grace, the little girl gently leans down and turns the cross on it’s edge, forming an X. It is the most powerful moment in the film. Far beyond setting the film up as a lead in for the next generation of X-Men, it stands as a statement that Logan was not God’s mistake and that she is not a mistake either. As their stories meet, they find freedom in the truth that they are loved without regard for their past, that they can belong because they found acceptance in each other, in a relationship.

The Power of Lent and the Promise of a New Hope
It is interesting how films can sometimes play into modern politics with an eerie sense of divine appointment. One has to think that this film was already put together years ago, but we cannot miss the fact that this is a film about a group of kids deemed illegals who are now seeking Asylum over what we come to know is the Canadian border (in North Dakota no less). But even with the rather timely nature of this narrative, there is actually an even stronger symbol sitting beneath the surface, one that lives and breathes the essential nature of the Christian hope.
It is interesting that what drives the little girl is not absolute certainty about where she is going, but rather an anticipation for what this promised land means for her life and the life of others. She doesn’t know that this promised new community actually exists (Logan, in-fact, insists that it doesn’t, that it is a lie based on the words of a fairy tale, man made story… otherwise known as a comic book in the film), but she places her hope in the fact that it does. And so she moves forward, forward in faith, a faith built around the idea that in a broken world, the promise of something good, of love and of healing and restoration remains a hopeful reality.

This is such an incredible picture of the faith that we find in the story of Jesus. What is significant is that Laura never believes that the world she inhabits, this broken environment, is simply one that she needs to let go of or do away with. She is angry, to be sure, but her determination is found in the picture of its future restoration, the idea that things can get better. She believes this because of the small glimmer of love and good that she finds underneath the rough exterior of Logan’s own hurt and abuse. She believes that what is broken can be healed, and this healing comes in the new life she finds through the symbol of his ultimate sacrifice (which significantly happens on a tree).

There is a special moment in the film where the three of them (the Professor, Laura and Logan) are taken in by a Christian family as they are running through the desert. This family offers them a reprieve in the desert landscape, and it gives them pause- a chance to recognize what the desert process is all about, which is the power that they find in relationship with each other.

As I write this, it happens to be the beginning of Lent, a period that symbolizes Jesus’ own journey through the desert, and in this scene I was reminded me of what the process of Lent is all about- a time when everything else is stripped away and we are able to narrow in on what is most important, our relationship with God. For me this was a powerful picture of what it means to enter into this desert experience along with Jesus. Lent is about learning to live in-between the broken places and the hopeful promise, of preparing ourselves to encounter and re-center our eyes on the sacrifice that Jesus made in order to attend to and enter into our own brokenness and suffering (and all that this means for our own sense of belonging in the family of God). It is a desert journey that is difficult but also incredibly beautiful for what it ultimately helps to build in us, which is a richer faith and a stronger character. For Logan, this part of the journey allowed him to see beyond his pain, beyond the struggle, and to see himself more clearly, but more importantly it opened his eyes to the story of a little girl who was also drowning in her own brokenness. He finds his own identity in the sacrifice that Professor X first made for him, and by sacrificing his life for this little girl, he is able to help Laura discover who she is as well.
As we prepare to approach the Cross in this period of Lent, I am reminded that we have an amazing hope in the promise of a new life in the midst of a restored creation. And it is in the truth of Jesus’ own sacrifice that I am reminded that I have been given an identity to live into in the midst of this new hope, a new identity that I continue to discover as I learn to put my faith in what Jesus has done and is doing at the foot of the Cross. It is here that I find that I am a child of God, someone who is loved, someone who has been given a place to belong in God’s family regardless of my past. And it is here that Jesus declares me able to give this same acceptance and love into the lives of others.

Learning to Live in God’s Economy- Rediscovering the Way of the Cross in Mark 8

“And (Jesus) asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Christ.”
– Mark 8:29-30

There is an interesting dynamic that surfaces for modern readers of Mark’s Gospel, as we encounter his words from the outside looking in. We have, after all, the benefit of this outside perspective, of being made privy to the answer to this question in the opening words of the Gospel- “The Gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God”. Thus it is easy to kind of sit back and simply watch the mystery of this statement unfold through the characters we find in the Gospel. It is riveting stuff actually, sit on the edge of your seat kind of stuff even, where we can watch others wrestle with their faith from the safety of our couches.

But every once in a while I arrive at a verse (like this one) that awakens me to the idea that I am far less removed from these words than I realize; that they are as much for me as they were for Mark’s original audience. I (we) are a part of this story. Suddenly I find myself shifting even closer to the edge of my seat.

From Confession to Rebuke (Mark 8:27-38)
The closing passage in Mark chapter 8 brings us face to face with a glaring contrast- the clear and concise nature of Peter’s confession of Jesus as Son of God, and the rebuke of Peter’s subsequent (and apparent) resistance to what this confession actually means in light of his own journey in following Jesus.

Mark has just finished providing us with a stark reminder of the Gospel Way, the Way in which we have been called to follow as Jesus continues to travel the straight path set before us. In the sending of the disciples, we encounter two complimentary parables (the feeding of the 5,000 and the feeding of the 4,000) that outline the nature of how this movement is supposed to work. It begins with God’s provision for His (Jewish) people in the 5,000 (the forgiven life), and then moves outward to God’s vision and provision for the (gentile) world in the 4,000 (the forgiving life).
*See my previous post for more on this thought.

Which brings us to this closing passage, a sort of entry point into the Way of Jesus, the Way of the Gospel, the Way to the cross. It is a Way in which Jesus 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

It is a Way which leads immediately to resistance (in this passage), a resistance that Jesus goes on to rebuke (Get behind me Satan!), by declaring that Peter is setting his mind on the things of man rather than the things of God (vs. 33).

Two questions arise in me as I read this passage:
1. What is it about the Way of Jesus that Peter was resisting?
There are some culturally relevant answers available to us as readers. According to the prophetic words that we find in the book of Daniel, the Jewish culture would have sensed a contradiction between Jesus’ specific reference to a single resurrection and the teaching of an expected general resurrection of God’s people. As a culture built around certain Messianic expectations, Jesus’ Messianic methods easily could have been met with a certain degree of skepticism.

However, I think these cultural expectations become that much more interesting and applicable when seen in light of Jesus’ immediate and personal response to Peter’s resistance. It is a resistance that Jesus seems to apply to “anyone” (vs. 34), and Jesus’ answer here reveals something incredibly specific, incredibly intimate about the human tendency to resist His call to follow Him. Here is Jesus’ response:

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.”
– Mark 8:34

So this is The Way that Peter is resisting:
We follow “after” Jesus, not before– Jesus goes first, and we are called to follow Him on the straight path. In doing so we must give up our need to control the way this path “should” travel.

We must deny ourselves: This is the idea of repentance that we find in Chapter 1, the turning in a new direction. We are called to reorient our line of sight towards the saving work of Jesus and the Gospel, and in doing so we must submit our own idea of what it means to belong in the Kingdom of God (and what it says about us and others) to Jesus and His purposes.

We must take up our cross: In a bit of foretelling (or foreshadowing), Jesus offers us the image of the cross. The cross, here, means letting go of our self-determination and exchanging it for a sense of dependence on the work of Jesus in going before us on the straight path. The cross we take up is both a symbol of what Jesus has done in our lives (the forgiven life), and a picture of what we carry with us as we enter on the Gospel Way (the truth that this forgiveness declares about us and others). As Paul understands it in Galatians 2:20, it is about the process of being “crucified with Christ”, of seeing past our own efforts and towards the Kingdom work that God is already doing.

We must follow Jesus: The call to “follow me” reminds us that faith is not stagnant but active. It is a movement, a movement that brings us out of the truth of the forgiven life and pushes us into the Way of the forgiving life. It is a faith that calls us to get out of the boat and to trust that we have something to offer to the world through the work that Jesus has already done in us.

So what does Peter resist? According to Jesus, he is resisting the Gospel’s call to shift his sights from looking inwards to looking outwards. What he resists has much to do with his ability to see past himself (deny “himself”, take up “his” cross, save “his” life, lose “his” life) and to actively participate in the work that Jesus is doing in the world at large.

Which brings me to my second question:
2. What is it about the Way of Jesus that I resist?
I am currently (for Lent) spending some time working my way through N.T. Wright’s “The Day the Revolution Began”. Wright is one of my personal hero’s of the faith, and his work on the new perspective (of Paul) and in reshaping our understanding of the Cross (away from the problems of penal substitution and towards the more scripturally faithful idea of the Kingdom of God come near) has been transformative for the way I have come to understand God in the midst of my own faith journey.

This latest book is sort of a summary of the ideas he has been formulating elsewhere, and they are ideas that I find myself continuing to wrestle with as I encounter some of Mark’s more difficult passages. Here, the ending of Mark 8 is no exception as the difficult insider/outsider language of Mark 4 resurfaces. This time we are presented with a contrasting picture of the “world” and the “soul”, or the idea that two opposing actions can lead to two differing results between life and death (of being ashamed of Jesus and Jesus being ashamed of us).

Here is the thing. I cannot help but tend to read this passage through the lens of the old penal substitution paradigm that has become so ingrained in me over the years, a perspective which, according to Wright, has been built on this idea that the forgiven life has everything to do with appeasing God’s great anger towards us (and/or our sin) and that requires the punishment of death (which Jesus accepts in our place). It is a view, whether we recognize it or not, that moves from a negative to a negative, and often does so at the expense of the greater (more positive) Gospel vision of the Kingdom. And so, I cannot help but arrive at this passage about shame (and the failure that leads to shame) that closes chapter 8 with a great sense of fear and resistance. I cannot help but resist the helplessness and hopelessness that I feel when I measure the seeming expectation of this Gospel (of Christ’s substitutionary work) with the fruit of my own example (personal failure). And so, I find myself moving back and forth between two lines of thought- if this is what the passage means, that I must be ashamed (condemned to death) because of my lack of fruit, I will either become like the disciples and resist Jesus’ words by trying to control it for my own sake (it cannot work this way, Jesus), or I will reject (resist) the call of the Gospel altogether.

And yet, as I sit down to read over this passage again, as I pray for a fresh set of eyes, I am struck with the idea that it is in the midst of my own resistance that Jesus is speaking directly to me, and it is in the midst of this Gospel message that Jesus is exposing my resistance for what it actually is- an inability to follow Jesus without inhibition.

Discovering My Motivation
I cannot escape the fact that, in this passage, faith is participatory, not stagnant. But the bigger question that I find here is, what is motivating me to enter into this new Way of living. Here is what I know. Faith, as a picture of the forgiven life that Mark has been building up to this point, is not a get out of jail free card. To view it this way is to make little out of the muchness that we find in this new Way of life. At the same time, faith cannot be about proving our worth on the Way of Jesus. This methodology works against the call to deny ourselves, and to view it this way is simply to elevate ourselves above others while also condemning ourselves to the picture of shame that closes chapter 8 at the same time (thus the complex this creates).

And so how do I reconcile these two ideas without simply getting lost in the temptation to resist it? Here I have found the following verse to be helpful:
“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.”
Mark 8:36-37

There is a question that this verse pre-supposes. It is a question of worth, or more specifically, the question of what my life is worth. What is a man’s soul (life) worth? In vs. 36 Jesus declares it is worth more than the world. So what can man give in return for his life? We cannot possibly gain enough to measure up to the price that Jesus declares our life to be worth.

Understanding this economic exchange or parallel helped to reorient my perspective on what it is that I am resisting. When I read this through my old paradigm of penal substitution theology, the Way of Jesus becomes a picture of Jesus paying the price for my sin through the rejection and death that He (willingly and purposefully) suffers. He payed a debt that I owed. The truth of my resistance to this idea of Jesus and the cross is that, in order to follow him in this same Way, I am required to respond to this “debt” by living a “profitable” life in exchange. And yet, as this verse exposes, I cannot possibly earn enough to measure up to what is declared to be priceless. But, in the eyes of Jesus’ substitutionary work, this is the model I am called to follow and to imitate, and so I find myself without hope and feeling stuck in an economic system based on the haves and the have not’s, the divide between the rich and the poor (in faith).

When I read this verse through a different paradigm, however, the paradigm of Jesus’ restorative work in the promise of the Kingdom come near, what I find is a verse that actually begins to reshape my motivation for following Jesus into something far more hopeful. At this point in perspective, the word “loss” takes precedence over “profit” in God’s Kingdom economy. Jesus’ suffering and death become a positive investment in God’s restorative work (the forgiven life), an investment that is not so much about atoning for our sins, but rather about entering into the affects of sin in our world along with us. And we enter into God’s restorative work (the forgiving life) by learning to give out of the muchness that the Way of Jesus declares us to have in a less than perfect world, in the midst of our less than perfect lives.

When I consider this fresh perspective on the new economic order of God’s Kingdom, Jesus’ own path of rejection, suffering and death finds new roots. The cross is not a payment for our sins, or the appeasement of an angry God. This simply does not fit with the picture we find here of God’s new economic order. In the cross we find a positive investment in the work of God’s promised restoration (the Kingdom come near), and for Jesus this investment is us. We, His priceless sons and daughters of God, are the fruits of His Kingdom work.

And so, when we enter into the Way of Jesus, when we deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him, what we are doing is accepting the truth that we are seen as priceless in God’s new economic order. And when we follow (as we are called to do as equal participants in this Kingdom work), what we are doing is declaring others to be equally priceless in this Kingdom as well.

Exchanging Shame to the Forgiven and Forgiving Way of Life 
Here is what really stuck out for me when it comes to my own tendency to resist the person and work of Jesus in my own life. When I resist my old idea of the cross, when I see it as simply a debt that I must repay (but can never repay), it inevitably brings me shame. I will also inevitably put this same degree of shame on others as well. Not only will (and do) I find myself consistently looking to compare my own fruit to the fruit of others around me, but I am forever tempted to judge the fruit of others as less in order to keep my own profitability quota up. It’s a nasty circle and one that thankfully Jesus’ helps to call us out of on the way to the cross.

I recently submitted a devotional for the Lenten Reader (2017). It is a set of devotionals made up of submissions from people across the Covenant Church of Canada that is intended to lead us through Lent, a period of reflection and preparation for approaching the cross. My submission happened to fall on today (March 4th), and I couldn’t help but see some parallels to Mark chapter 8. And so in closing I would like to include this devotional here. It is based on a reflection of Psalm 22, and has much to say about reorienting our perspective on this idea of shame and of embracing the work of Jesus not as a debt, but an investment.

Psalm 22

“I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”
– Psalm 22:22; Hebrews 2:12

Often the most difficult part about experiencing hardship and failure in life is making sense of that space in-between God’s apparent silence and the promise of His presence.

As the Psalmist writes, God is “enthroned on the praises of Israel” because “In you our fathers trusted… they trusted and were not put to shame (vs. 3-5).” In contrast, the Psalmist’s inability to see God in the midst of his own suffering, his inability to see similar fruit, brings him shame. He finds himself no more than a “worm”, “scorned” and “despised” (vs. 6), far from God’s saving grace (vs1).
And yet, the strength that eventually allows the Psalmist declare, “Yet you (God) are he… ”, comes in the midst of the bulls, the drought, and the preying dogs (vs. 9). It is a strength that he gains not by his own worldly idea of success, but by lifting his eyes upwards and outwards towards a God who has heard his cries in the silence, who is not far from his pain. It is a demonstration of faith that leads the Psalmist to pray, not simply to be delivered from his trials, but for his trials to “tell of God’s name” and to “praise God’s name” in the midst of his family and his community, not on own strength, but on a strength that comes from God (vs25).

Recognizing that Jesus, the founder of our salvation, was “made perfect through suffering”, the author of the letter to the Hebrews reflects that the Psalmist need not be “ashamed”, because just as Jesus tasted suffering on behalf of “all” so does our suffering unite us with the one through whom all things exist (Hebrews 2:5-13). The Psalmist can find freedom in not having to compare the fruitfulness of his ministry to the fruit of his fathers, because in the cross Jesus declares us all to be equally worthy of being called His children. As Jesus shares in the cry of the Psalmist, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me”, He demonstrates just how far God is willing to go to meet us in the space in-between, and reminds us that it is okay to sit in these difficult spaces, to wrestle with the silence. We are also reminded that God has “left nothing outside his control”, and it is because of this that we can trust in the promise that God is up to something far greater than our limited perspective can see in these difficult spaces in-between, and join the Psalmist in saying “He has not hidden his face from (the afflicted), but has heard their cries”, Praise be to God.

Finding Nourishment in the Storm (The Gospel of Mark 6-8)

Sickness managed to sideline me from doing much writing this week, but I did want to take a moment before the hours click away on this weeks end, to offer a brief reflection on my continued journey through Mark. As I made my way through chapters 6-8, there were a few things that stood out for me as I continue to get ready for the Lenten season and the first foretelling of Jesus’ death:

A Second Storm Passage
In the first storm passage (the calming of the storm in 4:35-41), Jesus is in the boat with the disciples and asleep in the stern. The point of this passage was their lack of a faith, a problem that I believe had less to do with their fear or their questioning of Jesus’ care, and more to do with their inability to fully entrust their lives to Jesus’ call, a call that Jesus will be asking them to live out only a few passages later (6:7-13). This is contrasted by the stories of the healed woman and healed man in the passage that follows, two people who demonstrate the necessary faith required to “go” out into the world in the way Jesus calls them to do.
In the second storm passage (6:45-52), we find the disciples in the boat by themselves, with Jesus staying on the land.

Two things to note here- First, sometimes when we have faith enough to go, the going can be a struggle. And sometimes when we face these storms it is easy to mistake Jesus as too far removed from our circumstance to do much at all. And as he demonstrates by walking on the water and joining them back in the boat, we can have faith that Jesus still sees and Jesus still attends to our cries in the midst of the rough waters.

Secondly, this truth (that Jesus never leaves us) finds even more significance in light of the line at the end of this second storm passage, which suggests that they were “astounded” at this truth because “they did not understand about the loaves” (6:52).

Understanding The Two Loaves Passages
Here we find another pair of nearly identical stories in the Gospel of Mark, and while all four Gospels do record the first (the feeding of the 5,000), Matthew and Mark both include the second (the feeding of the 4,000).
It might be easy to simply dismiss these as two varied versions of the same story, but there is worth in considering how and why these stories were included in their traditional context, and the way it can shed further light on the way Jesus promises to never leave us we step out of the boat and enter the world. After all, it is Jesus himself who calls our attention to the danger of misunderstanding the point and purpose of the loaves.

The Numbers Tell The Story
Numbers were important in the ancient culture, and no less important for the Biblical authors themselves, and from my own research, commentators and scholars generally seem to agree that the differences in numbers that distinguish the two stories can help shed light on their intended meaning in the larger picture of Mark’s Gospel.

In the first story, we encounter the number 5 (five loaves, and five thousand). In the ancient Jewish culture this was understood to symbolize the Pentateuch (books of the Mosaic law). And in the stories conclusion, we find 12 baskets (12 Tribes of Israel).

Contrast this with the second story and we find 7 loaves (and baskets). The number 7 usually indicates the 7 days of Creation in which God looked upon all of the created order and saw it as good. 7 can also mean the perfect or whole picture of God or God’s ways.

So what does this tell us? In the story of the Feeding of the 5,000, we find a story that is symbolic of God’s provision for His chosen (Jewish) people. Further, this miracle occurs near Bethsaida, which indicates a Jewish setting.

In the story of the Feeding of the 4,000, we find the location now shifts to the Gentile region, with the number 7 signifying Jesus’ care and provision not just for the Jews, but for all the world.

So how do the loaves connect us back to the story of the storm? For Jesus, the story of the loaves should serve to remind the disciples of two things when it comes to following Jesus. First, they are called to go into all the world. This is how far God’s provision is intended to reach. It is interesting that the story of the 5,000 finds the disciples being removed from the crowd in order to tend to their hunger, only to be pushed by Jesus to share their hunger (and their food) with the crowd. Secondly, no matter how far they go, Jesus is always with them and their care always in His sights. Even as Jesus calls them to out of their own hunger to feed the crowd, we cannot overlook the fact that the story begins with Jesus seeing their own hunger as well.

The Odd Story of John the Baptist as a Further Picture of God’s Provision
When I did a study on The Gospel of Matthew last year, the biggest surprise I found was the intentional way in which Matthew places John the Baptist into his narrative. In Matthew’s Gospel, John is presented as a model for discipleship (with the 3 transitional placements of his story coming at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the beginning of the disciple’s ministry, and finally in the foreshadowing of the passion narrative as the ultimate model of how discipleship is supposed to work in God’s kingdom).

Here in Mark, we find something similar, only John’s arrest arrives at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (in Galilee) while his death arrives at the transition into the greater Gentile world (the sending of the disciples).

The abruptness of John’s death feels somehow, even more bracing as Mark prepares us for the sending of the disciples. All but abandoned, all but forgotten, a sort of footnote in the Gospel narrative. And yet it is hard to miss the placement of this story as a demonstration of faith, a faith that allowed John to give his life for the One who was greater than he. It is a faith that seems to ring loud and clear with the common message Mark has been building through the stories of the storms and the loaves- this message that the compassion of God reaches much farther than we can see on our own, and that even when we feel we are alone, Jesus still sees, still cares, is still present- that Jesus above all is interested in love and compassion.

This is a truth that will now carry us into the next transition in Mark’s Gospel, the movement into Christ’s own walk to the Cross and the foretelling of His death. It is something that John’s death equally prepares us for. It is a reminder that just when we think there are limits to His compassion, there is a grace that pushes even further.

A Faith that Stands Taller Than Fear- reflections in the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Mark.

“Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith’… And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’
– Mark 4:40-41

At the end of chapter 4 we discover that the disciples, those who are supposed to see Jesus, the ones who are supposed to get it (life in the Kingdom of God) right, fall short. They fail to recognize Jesus for who He is.

And it says, “they were filled with fear” in the midst of the storm, a fear that persists well into the silence that eventually follows.
The antidote to this fear is described as faith, and in chapter 5 we are given 3 examples of individuals who demonstrate the kind of faith that is able to conquer fear in the midst of the storm, the kind of faith that the disciples appear to be lacking:

  • 3 individuals who face a storm in their own life.
  • 3 individuals who see and find Jesus in the storm
  • 3 individuals who respond to Jesus by moving forward out of the storm

Facing the Storm
Oppression (5:1-20)
In the first story, we find a man said to be possessed by demons, a man with an “unclean spirit”. This sort of language might sound a bit jarring to our modern Western ears, but for the ancients, speaking of the spirit and spiritual forces was commonplace.

What is significant in this story, and perhaps more readily relatable, is the degree this man feels imprisoned by his oppression. Even unbound by the chains and shackles we find him crying out and cutting himself with stones. This is a picture of a man who carries deep hurt and pain, a picture of a man who remains nameless, who has lost touch with who he is. He is known only as legion, an identity that has rendered him synonymous with the mental oppression (demons) that continues to haunt him.

Illness (5:25-34)
The second story introduces us to a woman who “had suffered much”. Doctors could not help her, and her condition (which represents another example of someone being unclean according to societal law) continues to get worse (persisting for twelve years).

Death (5:35-43)
In this final story we are brought back to one of the rulers of the synagogue (Jarius), whom we first find seeking Jesus in 5:21-24 in an effort to ask Him to attend to his ailing daughter. Only now she has died.

Three stories, three impossible situations: relenting mental oppression, a persisting, debilitating chronic illness, and death.

Seeing Jesus in the Storm
The oppressed man “saw Jesus from afar” and ran to him.

The ill woman “heard” of Jesus and seeks Him out.

The ruler in the synagogue “sees” Jesus.

In the midst of their personal storms, each of these stories share a similar trajectory. As they see Jesus they run after Him, they move in his direction. This of course, should bring us back to chapter one and the call of John to repent (or turn) in the direction of Jesus, to pursue forgiveness (the forgiven and forgiving way of life).

Faith that can conquer fear begins with seeing and then asks us turn in Jesus’ direction.


Finding Jesus in the Storm

The second thing we find they all share in common is their reaction when they turn and encounter Jesus- they all “fall down before him”, with one crying out, the other feeling inclined to tell Him “the whole truth”, and the last one imploring him “earnestly”.

If faith that can conquer fear begins with seeing, it also means coming to Him in expectation.

It is important to recognize that this expectation does not mean the absence of fear and questions. Faith is something we must wrestle with. The woman comes to Jesus in fear and trembling. The oppressed man comes to Jesus crying out and even blames him for not immediately attending to his condition (do not torment me he cries). When his daughter ends up dying, the response of those in her life is, “don’t bother”, nothing can be done. “Do no fear, only believe.”

Jesus’ response- “Do no fear, only believe.”

Responding to Jesus in the Storm
At some point we are called to take a step forward, out of the fear and into the water. At some point we must choose to touch His garment and expect that He will meet us in the storm.

At some point faith must stand taller than our fear.

Here is the truth of the kind of faith these 3 characters embody. The call of faith is not to simply have our problems disappear. Rather, it begins with being willing to show up at Jesus feet and to expect the unexpected. And then it calls us to trust Jesus enough to move forward, even if storm seems to persist.

In the sequence of these three stories we find ourselves moving in the familiar pattern from the Country back to the synagogue, and subsequently from the unclean back to the religious rulers. What is interesting is that as we arrive back at the synagogue, at the final story of the healing of the daughter, it is the disciples that reenter the picture.

“And he allowed no one to follow him except Peter and James and John.”

The fact that the disciples are the only ones (along with the father and mother who are instructed to tell no one) who witness the healing of the daughter leads me to believe that the three stories were intended to teach them something about the faith they lacked in the boat at the end of chapter 4.

“Why are you so afraid. Have you still no faith?”

While in the end of chapter 4 the disciples are filled with great fear, at the end of chapter 5 they are “immediately overcome with amazement.

Now here’s the thing. I don’t think the initial failure of the disciples was found in their fear or their question (teacher, why do you not care). We find this same question being uttered by the oppressed man after all, and this same fear being expressed by the woman. Their failure, in my eyes, was their inability to move forward out of their fear and into the faith Jesus is calling them towards. They remained stuck in the boat, holding onto Jesus for dear life instead of trusting in the strength He gave them to move out into the world.

Jesus’ work begins with healing. But the command to the oppressed man following his healing was to “go” (vs. 19). Jesus’ command to the woman was likewise to “go”.
As we learn to see Jesus, as we turn to “run” in His direction, His healing work, his restorative work is intended to move us outward not further inwards. This is what faith is, trusting that God has declared us able from the places that we find ourselves, and willing to trust this truth enough to actually take a step forward out of our questions and our fears that often isolate ourselves from the work He calls us to do.

This is the forgiven and forgiving life we have been hearing about all along. It should come as no surprise then that where we are headed in chapter 6 is to the sending of the disciples. These healing stories, these demonstrations of the work of Jesus in the lives of others was to remind the disciples of the work He did in their life, and to prepare them for the call to move out into the world. It also stands as a reminder to us that if we choose to see and move towards Jesus, He promises us a Faith that can stand taller than our storms, a faith that can allow us to take a step forward, no matter where we find ourselves, if we simply choose to trust in who Jesus says He is and what he came to do- to heal, to restore and to give us strength to face all things.

Do the Oscars Still Matter? Maybe. Should They Matter? Yes.

oscars-logoThis is undoubtedly the prevailing question of the last few years when it comes to discussing the entertainment industries longest running awards show- Do the Oscars still matter?

To be honest, I’m not sure. They might, they might not.

It does seem simple at first. Lower ratings mean fewer people watching, while an increase in controversy means fewer people taking it seriously. However, in an article written for The Atlantic following last year’s gala event, David Sims argues that the question might be more difficult to answer than it first appears. As an example he points us towards the following facts:

  • A year in which Twelve Years a Slave took Best Picture (2014), the Oscars actually experienced a jump in ratings equivalent to 2004, the year Lord of the Rings happened to earn the same honor (30 percent increase).
  • In 2016, the year of the #oscarssowhite campaign, the Oscars actually saw a decline in ratings, even with the (visible) presence of films like Mad Max, The Martian and The Revenant (all successful big budget productions), and the hopeful expectation that Chris Rock might be able to address the prevailing problem of inequality.

In other words, there doesn’t appear to be a sole reason for a jump and decline in viewership on a given year, nor a single issue that can lobby people to take it seriously in a given moment.

The truth is, the Oscars remain a rather lucrative financial investment for the ABC Network, even in years where the ratings appear to be fluctuating downwards (largely a problem of shifting viewer trends). It is actually measuring the success or relevance of something like the Oscars in our modern landscape, where such ratings have become somewhat elusive, that remains a much more difficult task.

But there could be a more revealing question to ask that might help in gaining a better handle on the Oscars actual relevance for today, and that is this- Did the Oscars ever matter?

A Private Public Affair
What once existed as a private ceremony for industry insiders (according to sources, the premier of the Oscars in 1929 lasted an entire 15 minutes), the first televised broadcast (1953) pulled open the curtains to welcome in the general American public, and eventually the world.

With public participation comes public criticism (of course), and the televised era of the Oscars has always remained unceremoniously flawed to some degree. But in its lengthy history, the Academy Awards also managed to accomplish something unprecedented. At a time when Hollywood personified the American Dream, an era when many of us were still dazzled by the L.A. lights and the idea of the Hollywood film industry was still thriving, this shift from private to public managed to connect the experience of the filmgoer with the voice of the filmmaker in a way that made Hollywood a very real part of our lives, no matter where we lived.

It offered us a glimpse behind the scenes of the glitz and glamor, a chance to admire the film-making process from abroad. It gave us the opportunity to co-exist with the people that made these films no matter where we found ourselves in the economic divide.

And once upon a time, this was something special. Once upon a time, this was something meaningful.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are many who still enjoy the star gazing, the soap operas, and the expensive attire that accompanies the Red Carpet year after year; even while others continue to decry what feels to them to be a pretentious, liberalized, glorified, self-serving, over-produced display of self gratification, entitlement and materialism (to put it lightly).

But truth be told, the emergence of social media has robbed the Oscars of some of its mystery and allure over the years, and the decline of Hollywood some of its magic. However, here is what I would argue- For as easy as it is to poke fun at this display of seeming self-importance, a large percentage of the population, myself included, still watch the films that the film industry produces, and it is these films the Academy represents. For many of us, these films continue to matter. Why? Because they say something to us, something about us. They matter because they are a part of our moral and cultural fabric, a part of what makes us who we are and a part of what helps us to understand who we are.

Sure, the Oscars can be a convoluted mess of contradictions, failures, and missteps. We can complain about the persistent nomination of Meryl Streep, or about the self-effaced old boys club being an out of touch, nearly all white membership that makes up the Academy voter-ship. We can tire of long-winded political speeches by out of touch and entitled millionaires abusing their platforms for their own purposes, and we can even gripe about the nominated films whilst complaining about the ones they managed to ignore.

But in the end, whether we watch it live, youtube the trending conversations the next day, or fast forward through the boring parts on our PVR, it is the ability of the Oscars to create that bridge between the artist and the art that continues to make it meaningful. It is the relationship it fosters between the viewer and the films we wtach that will keep it meaningful.

Richard Brody puts it this way.

“It isn’t the movies that don’t matter—it’s the Oscars, and it is because of the movies that that we watch the Oscars.”

With this in mind, here is a brief look at what I believe could matter about 2017:

  1. SMALLER FILMS WITH STRONG BOX OFFICE NUMBERS
    The Oscars have always struggled to maintain a balance between the push and pull of the big budget productions and staying committed to championing the relevance of smaller films and lesser known Directors/Actors. Personally, I believe they have become quite adept at maintaining this balancing act over the years, even if at times the big performers at the box office end up getting overlooked. Sometimes they do need to resist public opinion in order to give some of these films the voice they otherwise would not have, and to me that is the greater good of all of us.

    But here is what is interesting about this year. When considering the nominees for Best Picture, nearly all of the films in the Best Picture category happen to be smaller films that have also managed to bring in solid numbers (perhaps with the exception of Moonlight, Lion and Hell or High Water).

    Consider the following Domestic totals:

  • Hidden Figures- 131 million
  • La La Land- 126 million domestic
  • Arrival- 100 Million
  • Hacksaw Ridge- $66 million
  • Fences- 53 Million
  • Manchester By the Sea- $45 million

 

These numbers might feel insignificant, but when considered from within their respective fields and budgets, it would be fair to consider each of these films to be more than a mere modest success.

Consider as well the variety these films represent- two sophomore projects, a Hollywood legend, another Hollywood legend turned first time director, two emerging young filmmakers, a war film, a musical, a sci-fi, a fun (and important) historical drama and a serious drama, a modern western- it becomes rather easy to see any of these films as equally deserving of their nomination for entirely different reasons.

Although I have yet to see Moonlight, what is clear to me is the Academy has played an important role this year in giving many of these films the recognition they deserve, and considering there really is not a bad film in the bunch, it makes the 2017 Oscar race that much more intriguing.

2. THE PROBLEM OF DIVERSITY ADDRESSED?
In an article about the 2016 Oscar debacle, Nicole Sperling urges us as filmmakers and viewers to, “…remember that #OscarsSoWhite is not just about race, and definitely not just about the black race. While we’ve had some forward movement, there is a lot of work that needs to be done.”

She goes on to quote Franklin Leonard, saying “I won’t buy the idea that we’ve moved past this thing until it is no longer perceived as a risk to make a movie about a person of color, or to hire a writer of color to write on a subject that has nothing to do with being that color.” 

For as low as the ratings were for last years Oscars, you would have had to have been living under a rock to miss all the attention over its lack of African-American representation.

Enter 2017.

Much has been written about the potential of this year to address the problem of diversity and equality in the film industry. Only time will tell if it grows into more than simply a momentary solution. But what is true, what shouldn’t be overlooked, is the sheer number of great films with African American representation that happened to be released over this past year. At the very least this should feel hopeful in and of itself, if not a great reason to also tune in on Sunday when the awards are finally handed out.

3. AS MUCH ABOUT THE LOSERS AS IT IS ABOUT THE WINNERS 
It says here that the great loss of Oscars 2017 will be the inexcusable absence of Scorsese’s Silence. I might never understand or find an answer as to why it was left out of consideration in all but one category, but here’s the thing. A part of what the Oscars affords is the opportunity to engage in this sort of conversation about the films we happen to be passionate about. If Silence had made the list, it is likely someone else would be lamenting the loss of whatever film it managed to supplant. And that is what makes the expression of film so wonderful, so engaging. It is in this diversity of expression and opinion that the Oscars can help foster meaningful and worthwhile discussion about an art form that should be taken seriously.

And hey, it should be pointed out that even fans of Deadpool have a seat at this table in 2017.

4. REDEMPTION
Two names: Casey Affleck and Mel Gibson;

And two very different stories of redemption.

One of the great things about the Oscars is that, save for the decision to ban Birth of A Nation (the right decision if you ask me), the Academy generally avoids any unnecessary discussion of off-screen character issues. They leave that up to the host (and the courts), and even then, hosts of the Academy Awards generally tend to err on the side of good taste and class rather than public humiliation.

For me, the preference should always be to allow the art to speak for itself, and in the case of Manchester By the Sea and Hacksaw Ridge, both of these films certainly have made their own collective statements on 2017.

In Manchester, Affleck puts his penchant for melancholy to good use with an intensely powerful performance that has helped term Manchester to be “the saddest movie you will see all year”, and for good reason. The depth of sorrow and despair his character is forced to wrestle with is gut-wrenching, to say the least, and in my opinion, Affleck is worthy of every accolade being thrown his way.

For Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge is a welcome return to form. It is a story of faith, but even more so it is an intensely honest journey through the emotions of a war-torn life (both literally, when it comes to the subject matter, and figuratively when applied to Gibson’s own journey of recent years).

I for one am happy that both of these men are being represented on Sunday night, and while Gibson himself remains a long shot (and Affleck an almost sure bet), the fact that we are granted the freedom to celebrate their art in the midst of their failures is something the Oscars deserve due credit for.

5. THE EMERGENCE OF NON-PIXAR ANIMATED COMPETITION
The big story this year is that Pixar failed to have even a single film nominated this year (save for the short film category I believe), which means they are finally facing some stiff competition.

While the popular pick is Zootopia, an early favorite and predicted Oscar darling for its exploration of racism and inclusion, it is Kubo and the Two Strings that some expect might pull off a surprise win. This would have me elated. The way this film plays with our senses of what is real and what is not, and the way it uses its imagery to challenge us to keep our eyes open to the world around us, was an absolutely beautiful experience to watch unfold on screen.

In truth, there were a number of other animated features that I could see to be equally deserving for differing reasons- the surprise success of Storks or the deeply affecting interpretation of The Little Prince for example- but it would also be very hard to ignore Moana as a strong contender in this fight as well. The somewhat surprising success of this film in breathing new life into a classic Disney formula affords it some pretty strong legs (and music) to stand on.

All said, this is one of the toughest categories to predict, and one of the more exciting to watch unfold on Sunday night.

6. WILL THE LIGHT-HEARTED (BUT STILL SERIOUS) LA LA LAND OR THE TIMELY (AND SERIOUS) MOONLIGHT WIN OUT IN THE END?
There is always room for a surprise upset (here is to Hell or High Water pulling off the impossible), but most pundits have already pegged these two films as the front runners. What remains interesting about these two films is just how opposite they are in their relative spectrums. What is even more interesting is that the one that takes the award will likely set the tone for the night in some rather important ways. La La Land is, in many ways, pure escapism (of the best kind in my opinion, fun and lighthearted with just the right touch of serious and somber), while Moonlight appears to be the kind of film that faces our current political climate head on.

I am betting that Moonlight will go on to win it, but I think La La Land will have an important role to play in balancing things out in Oscars 2017. Where people feel hopeless we all need a reason to smile, and La La Land gave us that reason.

7. AND OF COURSE, THE POLITICS
As David Sims argues, “The Academy Awards have long existed uncomfortably alongside politics.”

The big question will be, just how uncomfortable will this year get with all of the available Trump fodder at its disposal. In-fact, it hasn’t even aired and already this years Oscars seem poised to make a strong social statement follwoing the after affects of Trumps international ban and the subsuming absence of a certain filmmaker.

So what is it about the Oscars platform being used for political purposes that both turns us off and draws us in? Well, drama always makes things more interesting of course, but according to Owen Glieberman of Variety magazine, it has a lot to do with our perception of the person behind the pedestal.

“The perception — right or wrong — that people in the entertainment industry are standing on a pedestal telling the rest of us what to think has become part of the problem, not the solution.”

Owen describes this problem as the difference between a filmmaker addressing the point of their film, and an activist going on a rant about something that has absolutely nothing to do with their film. In one word- context. Context is important.

Every year arrives with its own bag of rhetoric and potential issues, with wars, racism, presidents and national policies tending to find the most sway with speeches at the Academy Awards. But this year the political commentary seems to feel especially pertinent. Perhaps it has something to do with the now public story of Asghar Farhadi, but, as Glieberman points out, if feels as if Trump’s presidency is an issue and a conversation that we can all find context for, no matter which side of the fence we find ourselves on. In fact, this just might be the year where viewers actually applaud Hollywood’s (self-proclaimed) Liberal elites for actually having a platform to speak from (and using it).

No matter how it all shakes down on Sunday, it will be interesting to see how the Academy Awards plays off of Streep’s momentum from the Globes. As Gliberman points out at the end of her article, there is a certain poetic justice to the idea that those in show business are able to speak to Trump on his own turf. Something about that just feels right.


And the winner is…
So do the Oscars still matter?

Maybe. Either way, I am inclined to think that they should matter. At the very least they have the potential to matter, and that is what I think will keep the numbers fluctuating from year to year.

More importantly, regardless of ratings, regardless of viewer trends, there is little doubt that what does matter at the Oscars are the films and the subjects and experiences that these films represent. As David Sims goes on to say, “… despite their perceived triviality and occasional misguidedness, the Academy Awards (have) the power to champion art that might otherwise be overlooked. This influence makes the show a platform that can’t be ignored this month.”

To this end there is plenty to look forward to in Oscars 2017 as I echo the words of Richard Brody. “The movies matter as much as ever, and this year many of the nominations have done the Academy honor.”

For anyone who is curious, here is a link to an article that dives underneath some of these nominations, titled 7 most inspiring stories behind the Oscars:
https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/288742

Sources:
http://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/the-2017-oscar-nominations-dont-matter-but-the-movies-do-more-than-ever

http://variety.com/2017/film/columns/academy-awards-meryl-streep-asghar-farhadi-donald-trump-politics-1201973551/

http://ew.com/awards/2017/01/24/oscars-so-white-2017/

https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/02/should-there-be-an-oscars-this-year/515370/

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/la-et-oscar-nominations-2017-live-i-had-a-couple-of-bad-moments-how-1485271454-htmlstory.html

Scorsese, Silence, and the Parable of the Sower

“Father’, said the Lord of Chikugo, ‘you and the other missionaries do not seem to know Japan.’

 ‘And you, honourable magistrate,’ answered the Priest, ‘you do not seem to know Christianity.’
Silence, page166 (Shusaku Endo)

imgres-1Written by Shusaku Endo and adapted for the screen by Martin Scorsese, Silence tells the story of two 17th century Jesuit Priests (Father Rodrigues and Francisco) who travel to Japan to address rumours of the continued persecution of Japanese Christians and to find a missing member of their priesthood (Father Ferriera) who is thought to have apostatized in the face of growing pressure from foreign forces.

For Father Rodrigues (played with honest conviction by Andrew Garfield in one of the most compelling performances of his career) the journey is also intensely personal, a point makes clear in his insistence that Ferriera is worth saving and deserved of God’s forgiveness. Ferriera, as we discover, was his mentor during the earlier years of his priesthood, and as Rodrigues eventually encounters the persecuted reality of the Japanese Christians first hand, it is the truth of his mentor’s apostasy that ends up having the biggest impact on the struggle that ensues.

Having recently finished the book and having watched the film, I find myself humbled and hurting over the depth of Rodrigues’ personal struggle. This is likely a testimony to the powerful narrative, a work of historical-fiction that Endo crafts with a deep sense of literary creativity and care, and that Scorsese adapts with a great deal of passion and respect. The story is harrowing and heartbreaking to watch unfold and has much to say about the struggle many of us face in finding (and holding) faith in the midst of a broken world.

Finding Silence in The Gospel of Mark
Representing a sort of symbiotic relationship, it was through spending some time in the fourth chapter of The Gospel of Mark this past week that I was finally able to make some sense of the struggle that Silence brings to the surface. At the same time, recalling Silence helped me navigate one of Mark’s more difficult passages, The Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-20), with a bit more clarity.

The Shared Questions
In an immediate sense, it is worth noting that both the parable and the film work in patterns of 3- In Silence the narrative unfolds through a series of three (potential) martyrdoms that frames the theme of forgiveness around the metaphor of Peter’s denial and the betrayal of Judas. Likewise, The Parable of the Sower is the first of 3 successive stories (4:1-34) that use the metaphor of the sower and the seed to call the reader to consider the notion of God’s forgiveness in light of the good seed/bad seed (insiders/outsiders) narrative.

With this in mind, here are 3 distinct questions that emerged for me as I considered the way these patterns used their successive metaphors to explore the theme of God’s forgiveness; questions that helped me to wrestle with my own faith with a greater degree of freedom and grace:

  • The question of evangelism- How does a Gospel remain universally true and yet culturally specific?
  • The question of mercy- Where does mercy begin and where does it end in God’s saving work
  • The question of Forgiveness- How do we offer forgiveness to others when we cannot forgive ourselves.
  1. The question of Evangelism- How does a Gospel remain universally true and yet culturally specific?
    The story of Rodrigues and his journey to Japan begins in a rather simple place; an outward journey born of a concern for his mentor and a desire to encourage the persecuted Christians abroad. But it is the act of actually stepping out of the boat and onto foreign soil that narrows us in on the more challenging part of Rodrigues story- learning to come to terms with his own need of saving and encouragement.The moment he steps out of the boat he is forced to reconcile the harsh reality of the visible persecution with the fact that the (preconceived) enemy is now given a face, a story and a context. In the book, the line between the good guys and the bad guys quickly becomes blurred, and Scorsese does a wonderful job in rendering this emotional development visually, carefully allowing the story to unfold without demonizing the persecuters or glorifying the martyrs.The second struggle that emerges for Rodrigues is his ability to recognize the Gospel in its cross-cultural context. There exists a certain disconnect between his understanding of the Christian story (in its Western context) and the faith that he now finds expressed in the life of the Japanese converts. There is a developing question in the narrative- what happens if the Christian converts were never worshipping the true son at all, but rather a symbol of the “sun”? Does this mean they are dying for nothing? Or worse, does this mean they are dying for Rodrigues himself? Later, when Father Rodrigues finally finds his mentor, discovering that he has adopted the life of the Japanese culture, the encounter leaves him wrought with an unexpected burden of confusion, anguish and turmoil. He is left struggling to understand the once simple nature of God’s forgiveness in a circumstance that feels far from simple.

    Recognizing the Contrast
    There is a contrast between what Rodrigues expects when he departs and what he experiences in his arrival. As he steps off the boat he faces an immediate contrast between these two realities, and it causes him to question- How does a Gospel remain universally true and yet culturally specific? And if it cannot be both, how then does he know if he is seeing the truth?In the Parable of the Sower the question comes in this way- if God’s mercy is true, why do some see and others don’t? And if there is a right way of seeing, how can we know we are seeing the right way? These were troubling questions for Mark’s original audience, and for careful readers, they are questions Mark has been bringing to the surface in his first 3 chapters.

    Just like Rodrigues, the people in Mark’s Gospel seem to prefer the simple nature of where the mission begins, in our places of comfort and familiarity, in the temple sharing theology with like-minded believers. Where they face resistance and turmoil is in the call to step off the boat, to enter into the messiness of the faith journey… to eat at the table with the sick and the sinners (Mark 2:13-17). And yet this is precisely where we find Jesus heading, and it is the Way in which He is calling us to follow- straight into the mess. Jesus seems to understand that His Way is bound to raise some tension, some questions, and so he offers a parable, a 3-part story intended to help us make some sense of how God’s mercy and forgiveness works in the midst of the mess.

    The three layers of the Sower
    – The Parable of the Sower
    – The Parable of the Grower
    – The Parable of the Mustard Seed

    The First Layer- The Parable of the Sower
    The first layer- The Parable of the Sower- tells of a farmer whom we find out scattering seed in the field. In the story of the farmer we encounter three (that number keeps reoccurring) categories of seed that is being scattered- the seed on the path, the seed on the rock, and the seed in the thorns- that are intended to define the “outsider”, the one who does not know (see or hear) the “secret of the kingdom of God”. All three categories are intended to paint a picture of the kind of faith that falls away in the face of hardship and persecution, a faith, as the passage says, that is not rooted in much at all.

    Of the single category we are given to define the insider, this seed is simply described as the “good soil”. This is the seed that takes “root” and is able to stand against hardship and persecution, the seed that sees the secret.

    When faith is defined as “good” and “bad” seed, it becomes natural to presuppose the sort of insider/outsider language we find in this passage. It is a struggle that Father Rodrigues personifies when he begins to questions the faith of the Japanese Christians. Are they actually worshipping “true” Christianity if they continue to worship the “sun”? Can they be counted among the good seed, the insiders, and where does he draw this line?

    For Rodrigues, when he stepped in the boat the answers were simple. You either worshiped Jesus or you didn’t. You were either good seed or you were bad. In stepping out of the boat he encounters a Gospel that feels much harder to categorize. Similarly, in stepping off the boat to become “fishers of men”, the disciples encounter a Gospel in which those who see and those who don’t increasingly becomes less obvious as the narrative moves forward.

    When we begin from these places of comfort and familiarity, it becomes easy to judge everyone else around us, to place responsibility for being counted among the bad seed on the shoulders of the unfaithful, and to give due credit to those who are counted among the good. But it is when we step out of the boat into the unfamiliar and unexpected places that our faith calls us towards, that this sort of judgment becomes much more difficult.

    imgresAs Father Rodrigues encounters the first of three eventual martyrdoms, the death of the faithful Japanese villagers, he begins to recognize this tension. imagesHe is forced to wrestle

    with God’s silence in the face of a Gospel that appears to have become culturally bound and messy. And it is from the picture of this martyrdom that we find him being pushed towards the second question, the question of where God’s mercy begins and ends in the midst of the silence and the mess.

  2. The Question of Mercy- Where does mercy begin and where does it end in God’s saving work
    The journey continues for Father Rodrigues as we find him now separated from his partner and struggling through the fury of emotions- sadness. anger, doubt, fear, hope- that comes from feeling helpless and alone.How often does the journey of faith feel this way, spinning our wheels and feeling like we are not getting any farther ahead, wrestling with God over why such suffering and unbelief in our world continues to persist.

    The second Martydom- Father Francisco
    In the second of three potential martyrdoms, Rodrigues is forced to watch his partner from a distance as he is captured and made to face an ultimatum. If he truly believes in the idea of a merciful God he can choose to extend this mercy himself. Simply apostasize and the innocent Christians will be saved. Where God is silent, he can choose to act. After all, if God is truly present and merciful, surely He can forgive such apostasy. Refuse to apostasize and watch as three more Japanese converts drown in the sea.This was one of the most difficult scenes for me to watch on-screen. It is a truly heartbreaking moment, one in which we find Rodrigues helplessly pleading for his partner to apostasize, apostasize, apostasize, as he watches him choose to throw his body into the water and drown with the three converts.

    Back in the comfort of the temple the answer to such apostasy would have arrived with a fair degree of certainty. Apostasy? That is unforgiveable. But in the face of such great uncertainty, the line between where God’s mercy and forgiveness begins and ends gets blurred. Apostasize? Surely God would understand and forgive such a difficult decision. And yet more death, more silence follows. And the larger the silence grows, the more it pushes the personal struggle of Father Rodrigues to surface. He begins to wonder, if there is no fruit to be found in Japan, no mercy to be seen in the suffering, could it be that even he shouldn’t be counted as an insider?

    When we are left unsure of who to blame for this unbelief, for the messiness of it all (as Rodrigues wonders- is it the fault of the Japanese, the people, or God Himself), this outward tension, the need to make sense of who belongs and who doesn’t belong in the Kingdom of God, it often ends up simply pointing us back towards ourselves. This is the real journey that Rodrigues discovers, the one that forces him to come to terms with his own feelings of failure and his own persisting doubts.

    The Peter and Judas Metaphor
    Behind the story of Peter and Judas we find the question of God’s mercy. Why does God seem to forgive Peter but turn his back on Judas? Rodrigues’ finds himself at a loss to understand or explain God’s silence. For the Japanese Christians, their death and suffering persists. For his captors, the fact that the seed remains buried in the swamp (Japan) after all these years testifies that God is certainly not the merciful God Rodrigues claims Him to be.

    As I write this, the sheer weight of these scenes, the sheer power of these questions, is welling up inside of me. It is a haunting struggle to watch unfold, a picture of the struggle that faith can become when we step out of the boat.

    The Second Layer- The Parable of the Growing Seed
    In a surface reading of The Parable of the Sower, we are the seed and it is the fruit (of producing a crop) that declares us to be good or bad (on the inside our the outside of God’s mercy).

    The second layer is intended to clarify the first (in which we find Jesus persisting, saying “Don’t you understand?” Well then, let me try and say it another way!), and in the parable of the growing seed, the “bad seed” are never mentioned. We find only a single man.

    Here the kingdom of God is like a “man who scatters seed on the ground” and simply watches it grow.

    Whereas the emphasis in the previous story was on what we can see and what we can know (the fruit, or the work), here the emphasis is placed on what we cannot see, what we cannot know. In this story we are the man who scatters the seed. We are the questioner, the doubter, the seeker in the story; the one who “does not know how” it grows, only that it does.

    In one sense, the second layer of this metaphor is not entirely comforting or assuring. It arrives as a sort of non-answer, leaving us with even more questions than we had before. And yet there is great comfort to be found in being freed from the weight of responsibility that comes with having to know who is in and who is out based on our production of fruit. Here we are reminded that God’s mercy is not ours to control, we are simply called to “scatter” it freely and without discretion. Here the declaration is that God’s mercy simply exists, even when we can’t always recognize it, even if we don’t always know how it works.

  1. The question of Forgiveness- How do we offer forgiveness to others when we cannot forgive ourselves.
    Where we finally arrive in Silence is in the eye of the storm. We find Rodrigues alone in his pain and lost in God’s apparent absence. As I have said about much of the film, it is a heart-wrenching process to watch unfold. Yet it is also incredibly revealing. Faith is a struggle we are intended to wrestle with. Stepping out of the boat is never easy.In the third potential apostasy, the same question of mercy presented to his partner is finally handed over to Rodrigues. After being brought face to face with his old mentor, he now must apostasize or watch the Japanese converts die in front of him. He must take on the responsibility of God’s mercy in His absence or bear the weight of God’s silence on his own shoulders.Rodrigues apostasises, and in the process relegates God further into the shadow of the darkness and the silence. He now finds himself completely alone in a foreign land having committed the same unforgivable sin that he had been so determined to forgive Ferriera for.Here is the truth- it is much easier to extend forgiveness than to accept it for ourselves. What begins as a journey to extend God’s forgiveness and grace to his mentor, now requires him to extend this same mercy to himself.

    The third layer- “Parable of the Mustard Seed.
    “Again”, Jesus declares. It’s as if to say “You still don’t get it? Then let me try to say this one more time”.

    This time the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the smallest of seeds that grows into something larger than we could have imagined.

    If the second parable reminded us that growing the seed is not our responsibility, that the scope of God’s mercy is not ours to control (or even to fully understand), this parable pushes this thought even further. Here our role as the grower is relegated further to the background, now describing the seed, which symbolizes faith in God’s mercy and forgiveness, as something so small that it is almost impossible to see, let alone imagine how it could grow.

    Having arrived at this final layer, I took a moment to step back and contrast it with where I began in the parable of the sower. In doing so I uncovered an important point in the passage that I managed to miss on my first time around. It is a statement that explains why Jesus speaks in parables, and why Jesus doesn’t simply give us more concrete answers when it comes to being on the inside of His kingdom:

    “But to those on the outside everything is said in parables, so that “they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; lest they turn and be forgiven.”

    These words are borrowed from the prophet of Israel, words intended for a persistently unfaithful Israelite people; a people chosen to be insiders but who more often than not resemble outsiders. How striking it is, then, to read in the final words of chapter 4 that those who are apparently counted as “insiders” still don’t get it. In what is a fitting conclusion to this section (4:35-41), we are brought straight into the eye of the storm, set out on the sea of our doubts and our questions and our uncertainties. This is where faith is expected to live and to thrive. And the truth is, the insiders fail. They fall. They neglect to recognize Jesus for who He was in the storm and in the silence that eventually follows (vs. 40-41)

    Who are you God? Where are you God?
    If the insiders in these stories (the story of the Israelites and the story of the disciples) fail to hear, and if the good seed seems to look just like the bad, where does that leave the rest of us?

    In revisiting the parable of the sower, I also found two recurring words in the above passage that brought me back to where the Gospel started- repentance (turn) and forgiveness.

    These were the words that marked the life of John the Baptist and go on to define the ministry of Jesus.

    Lest they turn and be forgiven
    “Lest they turn and be forgiven”.

    Thankfully Jesus persists with telling this parable three times, finding another way to say it, and another way yet. It is so easy to miss this and get caught up in the imagery of the good and bad seed in a way that limits the scope of God’s mercy in order to avoid the messiness of the faith journey-the reason we resist God’s mercy, the reason we miss God’s forgiveness is because, just like Father Rodrigues, accepting God’s mercy in our lives, seeing our own need for God’s forgiveness first is always the much tougher process. We don’t see “lest we turn”. Another way to say this- we don’t see because it requires us to turn and face ourselves in the mirror.

    Re-thinking the Metaphor of the Good and the Bad Seed
    In a faith that is defined by good and bad seed, insiders and outsiders, the most important truth is that God’s grace persists in ways that are greater than we could ever imagine; even in ways that sometimes, or more often than not if we admit it, we cannot fully know or see in the silence. The real message of the parable of the sower, the real story of Silence, is that God’s mercy is even extended to us.

    “Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce crop.”
    -Mark 4:20


    Here, at the end of the parable of the sower, we are reminded that it is when we are willing to get out of the boat and enter the mess that God’s mercy, God’s forgiveness, God’s Gospel of Jesus Christ becomes ours to discover- to hear and to accept as true for us. Here we are reminded that it is okay to enter into the mess, to struggle with our doubts and to wrestle with our faith. It’s even okay to fail, as it is in the mess of our own struggle that God’s mercy becomes most clear. And an even greater truth yet- it is here where we also find the most mercy to extend to others; a mercy without limits, without boundaries, and without concern for our own ability to produce. A mercy left to God and God alone, and even sometimes, to the silence.

    There is a hope to be found in the not knowing- a light in the midst of the darkness, a voice to be heard in the silence. But not knowing means we must continually wrestle with what we see and what we don’t. We must continue to be reminded that we are in need of God’s same grace and forgiveness every single day, and that we must use this constant reminder to resist the need to bear the weight of responsibility for the fruit of our labor. Because when we measure the harvest based on our works, when we see ourselves as insiders or outsiders based on what we see and what we know, we will inevitably find ourselves with little grace left to offer ourselves, and even less mercy to afford to others.

Finding God’s Mercy in the Silence
We can rest in the truth that the reason something is secret or hidden, the reason God sometimes feels silent or His mercy feels absent, is so that it can be made known (vs. 21/22). God is not in the business of withholding his mercy, even if the mess makes this mercy hard to see. This wrestling with our faith, thankfully, begins with a willingness to hear, a willingness to step out of the boat, not with fruit or even acceptance. And it ends with the promised harvest, a work and a job that is God’s and God’s alone, the hope of a coming healing and restoration of this world.

We are given glimpses of this hopefulness in Silence. In the final scene of Silence we find his (given) Japanese wife (meant to serve as an eternal reminder of his apostasy) placing the cross of Christ in the now fallen hands of Father Rodrigues. Even before this, in one of the final conversations between Rodrigues and Ferriera that we see on screen, Ferriera accidently lets the words “our God” slip from his mouth. It is a moment that is meant to give us pause, to remind us to continue wrestling with our faith even in the face of such dominating silence.

images-1And in one of the most powerful moments in the film, it is a seemingly insignificant character, one whom has persisted in the sort of “cheap” or silent grace Rodrigues has now come to question, the one whom embodies the symbol of Judas with his continued betrayal of his faith and his Priest, and his persistent need of the forgiveness he believes might still be there to have. It is this insignificant character who brings with him a moment of true clarity, a moment of grace where it is needed the most. In this quiet moment, we find an exhausted Rodrigues kneeling down for the umpteenth time to offer this man forgiveness, a man who refuses to leave him alone and a forgiveness he remains entirely unsure of. And yet this is a man who still sees him as a Father inspite of his given Japanese name, inspite of his apostasy. It is just like all of the times before, only this time it forces him to come to terms with the reality of his own failure, his own personal need of this same grace, mercy, and forgiveness that this Judas character continues to demand from him.

In this moment he gains a small glimpse of Christ, a break in the silence that arrives, perhaps, at just the right time, a reprieve that affords him just enough strength, just enough understanding (vs. 33) to carry forward. And the amazing thing is, in Jesus this small bit of mercy is all that we need.

The Japanese leaders I think were right when they suggested the true battle was occurring in Rodrigues own heart all along, not with the Christian’s worship of the sun, nor with the Japanese government, nor with the failure of the Gospel to take root. The real battle was his willingness to wrestle with his own faith, to see the mercy that God could afford him in his own failure.

The mercy of Christ shows up in the unexpected places. The mercy of Christ shows up when we least expect it, even in the unbearable silence.