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:

    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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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:


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.

The Provocative Gospel of Jesus, The Son of God- reflections on the third chapter of the Gospel of Mark

In my previous reflection, I noted the transition from John (the Baptizer) to Jesus in the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, a transition that pushes us into a fuller discussion of the nature of discipleship- the call to follow Jesus on the Way.

Recognizing the Way as a movement in (and into) life in the Kingdom of God (a Kingdom come near), Mark leaves his readers with two central questions that will continue to define the rest of his narrative looking forward- Who is Jesus, and what does it look like to follow Jesus on the way?

Bookmarked by two passages- the call to discipleship in 1:16, and the appointing of the twelve disciples in chapter 3:13; these two questions will launch us head first into the rather difficult and defining language of “The Parable of the Sower” that opens chapter 4. It is here where the discussion of life in the kingdom of God gets blown wide open in a rather challenging and unsettling fashion, setting earlier discussions of the right and the wrong Way (of the straight path) into the more surprising language of “insiders” and “outsiders”.

Before we arrive here, however, there is worth in giving pause to consider the ways in which Mark has been preparing us to approach the challenging nature of this parable with proper perspective and open ears, beginning with the rather provocative nature of his opening statement:

Jesus, The Son of God
“The Beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God.”
-Mark 1:1

The gospel of Jesus, the son of God!

By opening His Gospel with these words, Mark calls us to attention. The words we are about to read, the testimonies we are about to encounter all come down to one person- Jesus. Jesus is the one John calls us to turn towards. Jesus is the one we are called to follow.

Jesus, the son of God.

It is a provocative claim that indicates the Gospel we are about to hear, the “Gospel of God” that Jesus comes to proclaim in 1:14, has the power to change us in unexpected ways, both in the way we think and the way we view God’s involvement in the world and our lives. In the Kingdom of God come near, Mark recognizes the work of Jesus in reshaping our perspective on how the kingdom of God arrives at our point of view.

As the Scribes say, “who can forgive sins but God alone?” In the language of the son of God, we find this shocking declaration that the kingdom of God has been brought near in the person and work of Jesus, the one who enters the world on God’s terms, a God who has chosen to dwell alongside the created order, in the midst of the brokenness. He is the one who forgives, heals, eats with sinners and then calls us to follow Him on this Way in the forgiven and forgiving life.

The Pattern of Discipleship Continues
As we move from chapter 2 and into chapter 3, we find the same familiar pattern moving us from the still places of the synagogue (3:1) and the desolate place of the sea and the mountain (3:7; 13) into the business of the healing and the crowds… only now, as we continue to do so, we find “the Crowd increases”.

“Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter.”
– Mark 1:45

In Mark 1:45 we find the space between the desolate places and the business of the crowd beginning to blur. And now in chapter 3, Jesus enters the synagogue and it says, “a man was there”. He withdraws to the sea and it says “the crowd follows”. Jesus goes up the mountain and He “brings those he desires”.

This apparent tension, the gradual disruption of this pattern we are being asked to imitate, is a call to keep our eyes open, to expect the unexpected. As Mark calls us to consider who Jesus is and what it looks like to follow Him on the Way, we find Him eating at the table with sinners and out in the world healing on the Sabbath. As we find Him in these places, the voices of the dissenters also increase. These are the voices intent on describing, instead, who Jesus certainly must not be.

So who is Jesus? In chapter 3 it is the “unclean spirits” and the “demons”, not the dissenters, that know the secret of the kingdom that the “Parable of the Sower” will eventually unleash in chapter 4, the secret of who Jesus actually is in this kingdom narrative. And if one thing is becoming clear at this point, it is that Jesus is most certainly not the person they suggest Him to be. His way is decidedly different than the one they expect to follow as He persists in the Way of the forgiven and forgiving life.

Forgiveness and the Kingdom Way
All sins towards the son of man will be forgiven but whoever Blasphemes against he Spirit will not be forgiven
– Mark 3:28-29

It is the resurfacing theme of the forgiven and forgiving life in this obscure passage about the “eternal sin” that finally prepares us to hear the challenging parable of the sower in proper perspective, and there are a few things of note we can pull from this passage that can help us as we head into chapter 4:

  1. Without the baptism of the Spirit (1:8) there is no forgiveness.
    We can follow John’s call to turn (repent) towards Jesus (chapter 1), but without the arrival of the Spirit (the Spirit that declares Jesus to be the “son of God”) there is no forgiven and forgiving way of life for us to follow into.
  1. This passage has more to say about who Jesus is as “the son of God” than it does our own sinful nature.
    The passage indicates that Jesus refers to “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” because “they were saying He (Jesus) had an unclean Spirit”. In speaking of the eternal sin, Jesus is addressing His own nature, not ours. Either He can forgive sins or He cannot. For Mark, He is either the son of God or He is not. He cannot be both things at once.The Kingdom come near in Mark chapter 1 is a Kingdom undivided. It is a straight path in which we gain a perfect (undivided) picture of The Way, the Gospel of God that belongs to Jesus. As Jesus goes on to say, a Kingdom cannot stand divided against itself (3:24), and thus there remains only one way to truly see who Jesus is, and that is to recognize the Way of the forgiven and forgiving life that He calls us to participate in.
  1. The paradox of learning to live in the tension between the right and the wrong Way of the Gospel.
    Chapter 4 is about to push us head first into a discussion of “insiders” and “outsiders”, but before we arrive at this place in Mark’s Gospel of Jesus, the son of God, we must wrestle through a passage about the “eternal sin”. Here we are reminded that if we see anything other than the forgiven and forgiving life we will miss the point of Jesus as the son of God. The Way of Jesus is not about our ability to enter the Kingdom by living the perfect (moral, lawful, holy) life. Rather it is about learning to see Jesus, the son of God, and all of the implication that this provocative statement brings with it. For Mark, seeing Jesus as the son of God changes everything. It is because of this statement that we can find hope in the brokenness of our world. It is because of this that we can find freedom in our own failure.And here in lies the paradox- If the Spirit is true, and if the Spirit came to reveal Jesus to us on God’s terms rather than ours, then the very fact that this tension exists (between a broken world and a promised restoration) testifies to the existence of the Spirit in our lives and in our world. This passage is not about having to fear whether we have committed an eternal sin or not (and the judgment we might feel this carries with it), it is about the freedom that Jesus, the son of God, offers in the forgiven and forgiving Way of life.

Making Further Sense of the paradox
The tension that Mark continues to grapple with as he approaches this notion of insiders and outsiders continues to build a case for the forgiven and forgiving Ways of Jesus, the son of God. This is the Gospel that Mark is unfolding. It is out of the brokenness and the failure that we come to an awareness of Jesus. It is about sharing space with the sick and the sinners, the unclean and the demons.  In Jesus, the Kingdom of God comes near in the form of a promise to bring healing and restoration to the brokenness, and we do not enter the Way of this promised restoration by proving our worth on the grounds of our own holiness or perfection first, but rather on the grounds of embracing the (perfect) undivided picture of Jesus that the son of God represents – the son of God who, indeed, does have the power to forgive.

Mark is good at recognizing when passages like this will bring to light a certain angst. If we know there is an eternal sin, our first tendency might be to fear we have committed it or to wonder how can know if we, in-fact, did commit it. When we allow ourselves to get lost in these kinds of questions, it can cause us to feel a need to try and control the Way of God. It can lead us to respond like the dissenters, binding the Way of God to the letter of the (moral, holy) law and working to achieve a place in His Kingdom based on our own merit.

The provocative declaration of Jesus as the son of God challenges this sort of thinking, exposing the dangerous places it can lead us towards- when we work to erect boundaries, and when we become primarily concerned with proving our right to be counted as an insider in God’s kingdom based on our own sense of worth, it will inevitably lead us not only to a sense of failure in living up to our own expectations (living the letter of the law is an impossible notion for anyone), but it forces us to relegate others to the outside based on these same failed expectations.

This is how we arrive at the final section of Mark chapter 3, a passage that reminds us that when we see anything other than the forgiven and forgiving life we miss Jesus. Here Jesus rather shockingly (and unexpectedly) blows the parameters of the kingdom wide open by redefining for us who belongs in the family of God. By declaring “all those who sat around him” as his true brother and sisters, He reorients our picture of the family of God, one not defined by the walls we build but rather by the ways in which Jesus breaks down these barriers. This is made all the more shocking by the fact that that, His own flesh and blood relations are standing in His midst while He says this.

In God’s Kingdom, “all” are called to belong as a member of the family of God. It is a statement that places Jesus right back where we found him, at the table with the sick and sinners and out in the world calling all who have ears to hear this powerful message of grace, a message that even the demons hear. The real question for us as we read through The Gospel of Mark- is it a message that we are willing to hear for ourselves.

The Counterintuitive Ways of Jesus- Reflections in the Second Chapter of Mark

I reflected in my previous posts that the first chapter of Mark is primarily concerned with helping us to “see” the person and works of Christ- Jesus is where John points us and Jesus is the one that we are called to follow on the Way. In the second chapter of Mark we begin to see that the Way of Jesus often seems unreasonable and counterintuitive to some of societies greatest concerns- the protection of our individual rights (human rights), fairness and equality, progress (progressiveness) and growth. Here we find Mark beginning to pull this tension, between the way of the world and the way of Jesus, further to the surface as he calls us towards a new way of seeing.

I know I am not alone in finding the way of Jesus unreasonable and counterintuitive to my own nature. Mark’s audience found it equally so. That Mark calls us to give up our rights, our ideas of fairness, our ideas of what is progressive, in order to see Jesus more fully can be an affront on the senses. But the true wonder of this new way of seeing is that, as we allow it to reshape our approach to some of our most fundamental (and intuitive) values, it actually can give these values a new sense of worth and meaning.

Bringing Clarity to the pattern of Discipleship
For Mark, this new way of seeing that he calls us towards allows us to move far more intentionally into God’s vision for our lives and this world, one which shares in the knowledge of who Jesus is and what He came to do. This is the Gospel message that Mark begins in chapter 1. It is this promise for a greater vision of God, this world and ourselves that pushes us out into the movement of the Gospel, a movement that Mark expresses in the idea of discipleship, which follows Jesus out into the world.

In my last post I described “discipleship” (Mark 1:16-20) in the following pattern:
“Discipleship begins with the formation of the Synagogue (the still places), where we can be shaped by the Word, and moves outwards towards the ministry of Jesus to others.”

The second chapter of Mark looks to bring further clarity, along with a further practicality, to this pattern as it functions in a life committed to seeing the way of Jesus above our own.

  1. We see and then we move- the way of Jesus
    In the story of the healing of the paralytic (2:1-12), Jesus moves in the same recognizable pattern of discipleship, from the desolate places (1:45) to Capernaum (2:1), where it is the action of “seeing” the faith of the four men that moves him towards the action of forgiving the Paralytic’s sin. 2:13-17 follows with the story of Levi, a story that finds Jesus moving from the desolate place (by the sea) towards the crowd in which He “sees” Levi and is moved to action.It is by contrast, then, that we are introduced to the Scribes, a group of temple elites who fail to see Jesus for who He is and what He came to do precisely because they were focused on the activity of Jesus (action) rather than seeing Jesus the person.
  2. The question of the Scribes and Jesus’ response
    Recognizing the contrast, Jesus responds to the Scribe’s lack of vision with the following question:“Why do you question these things in your heart?” (2:8)The “thing” that they question is the Way of Jesus, this new way of seeing that calls us to give up our right to live the way we want in order to see Jesus with greater clarity. This is where the concern for Jesus claiming to be God (in 2:7) gives way to a concern for His subversion of the social order in eating with the sinners in 2:16.And here is where this passage leads us- The Way of Jesus is not fair. The Way of Jesus challenges their right to the promises of God as loyal Jewish believers by extending these same rights and privileges to the gentiles and the sinners. In the eyes of the Scribes, The Way of Jesus does not appear to uphold the Holiness and strength of faith that the law was intended to protect, but rather celebrates sinfulness and weakness of character in the eyes of God.

The New Way of Seeing
This brings us back to a key part of John’s ministry that we uncovered in chapter 1- the idea of forgiveness, the forgiven and forgiving life that marks the Way of God.

What is most problematic for the Scribes is that Jesus offers the paralytic forgiveness (2:7). And yet, this is the first action that Jesus does.

Here is why I think Jesus forgave rather than healed. If Jesus had healed the paralytic physically, the healed man still would not have belonged in the company of the Scribes or in the Synagogue. So Jesus goes straight to the heart of the matter. By forgiving his sins He raises the paralytic up and brings the Scribes down to where they all could all exist on the same level.

The Forgiven and Forgiving Way of Jesus
In my first reflective piece on the first chapter of Mark I talked about the tension that exists between the truth that we are broken and the truth that we are beloved. Jesus is moved by compassion by what he sees in the paralytic, a beloved child of God, and yet raises him up according to his brokenness. This is the Way of the forgiven and the forgiving life. This is the unreasonable Gospel that the Scribes feel moved to question.

When Jesus goes on to ask, “which is easier, forgiveness of sins or physical healing”, He presents something of a paradox. In commenting on his own action Jesus is shining a light on the Scribes. It is easy to consider that physical healing would be harder than forgiving, but it is the forgiveness of sins that weighs the Scribes down more than the healing. By forgiving the sins of the paralytic, Jesus effectively reminds the Scribes of what God did for them in their own brokenness. In doing this he calls the Scribes to see the paralytic for who he is, a man now physically healed, but more importantly fully forgiven and fully beloved, just like them. It is from here that Jesus calls them to action by modelling what it means to extend this same forgiveness of God outwards. This is where we find him reclined at the table with the sick and the sinners.

Pessimism and Hopefulness
When we fail to see Jesus, we will fail to understand what he is doing on the path that He is walking before us and why His Way often feels unreasonable and unfair. As Jesus said, He came not to call the righteous, but the sinners, not those who are well, but those who are sick. (2:17). And yet the connecting piece of this puzzle that seems to cause the most angst is the real message behind this statement- we are all in need of Jesus. All of us our sick.

I have heard some say that this is a rather pessimistic view to take of humanity. And yet, after years of living as a Christian, I don’t find it pessimistic at all. I find it necessary. I find it freeing. By keeping our eyes on who Jesus is and what He came to do, it opens our eyes with greater clarity to the needs of this world. This is always where we are heading on the Way, on this journey of faith. But it also opens our eyes to a greater vision of who we are. It keeps us from turning reason, our societies highest virtue, into a god. It humbles us from seeing our rights and our freedoms as the greatest value we can uphold, and in doing so it reminds us that it is only by giving up our rights, our freedoms, our demands for fairness, that we can truly enter into the company of others on equal ground.

In Jesus we are offered something much greater than the values of our rights and freedoms and fairness- all things that point us back to ourselves. In Jesus we find the opportunity to truly see beyond ourselves, to see one who embodies the values of servant-hood and sacrifice on our behalf.

Finding A Common Grace At The Table 
The real glory, the real surprise, the real amazement of these two stories was always about the much harder thing… repentance and forgiveness. When it comes to our own lives it would be much easier to have God show up in physical form and visibly fix the problems of this world. It is much harder to see God in the mess. And yet this is where this forgiven and forgiving life calls us towards- into the brokenness of our lives and the messiness of the world, finding a place at the table with the sick and the sinners.

When we repent, when we turn our eyes away from ourselves and towards the person and work of Jesus, we begin to see what Jesus sees- the person in the crowd, the hearts of the questioners, the call of the needy. We begin to see that we have not been given a greater claim to the Gospel than the sinner that sits next to us. We recognize that, in Christ, we all stand on equal ground.

The sermon at my Church this past Sunday pointed out the way in which the meal shared with Levi points us to our communion with Christ at the table of this sacred practice. When we come to the communion table, we enter into the company of the one who walked this path before us. We share space with the work that Jesus is doing in us, and we are nourished for the journey that shares this forgiveness with others. This is where we find Jesus, reclined at the table with Levi. This is where we find freedom, in the grace that Jesus extends to us to recline with Him at this table as well.

Embracing A Messy Way of Life 
So why is this idea of forgiveness so hard to believe? Perhaps because it asks us to give up our ability to control how we feel the Gospel should work. Perhaps because it feels like an affront to our ideals of personal rights and fairness on the worlds terms. This Way of forgiveness is not easy. It is never easy. And it is rarely rational or reasonable. And yet it is in this idea that when we are broken we are also beloved that we can learn to see Christ more fully, both for who He is and what came to do. And it is by seeing Christ more fully that we can learn to see and serve the needs of others in the Way of Christ as well.

The Pattern of Discipleship: Further Reflections on the First Chapter of The Gospel of Mark

In my previous reflection on the first chapter of Mark, I focused on my response to “the Kingdom of God coming near”, suggesting it necessarily be shaped by the following two ideas:
1. Repentance (a turning towards Jesus)
2. Belief in the Gospel of God (living into the “way” which John comes to prepare and that Jesus comes to embody)

We can recognize “The Way” (or the straight path in Mark 1:1) by keeping our sights on the one(s) who have gone before us. In the first 15 verses of Mark’s Gospel, we are introduced to John The Baptist, who comes to model this way of “seeing” by preparing the way for the one who is to follow, the one he calls Jesus.

The transition point between these two figures comes in verses 14 and 15, where John is arrested and fades from the picture in rather stark fashion, and Jesus continues on the straight path in his stead. It is this transition that prepares us for a pivotal point in Mark’s Gospel, the call to discipleship.

Just as John prepared the way for Jesus, Jesus now prepares the way for us. This is the way of discipleship, a way that is shaped by the example of Jesus which Mark helps give shape to in the remainder of chapter 1:16-45. As we will soon see, this is a way that is marked as both a movement towards and a call outwards to living the forgiven and the forgiving life that I unpacked in my first reflection.

The Model of Discipleship (Mark 1:16-45)
1. Learning to See
In Mark 1:16 and 17, we find Jesus “turning” his sights towards Galilee in which the first action we encounter is that He “sees” Simon and Andrew”.

Discipleship is about learning to “see” more clearly, both who Jesus is and who Jesus is calling me to be as His disciple. This is what it means to grow into our call as “fishers of men”, is to see and participate in the work of Jesus as we move out into the world as witnesses to the work that Jesus is doing in us.

2. Learning to Follow
Two times in Mark 1:16-20 we encounter the word “follow”.

Discipleship is a movement. Just as Jesus marks his transition on the straight path by moving into Galilee, our discipleship is marked by “following” in the way of Jesus.

Which begs a question. Where are we following Jesus towards? Here Mark uses 1:21-45 to help give shape to the path that Jesus treads before us, a movement that we are called to follow in as disciples of Jesus, or disciples of The Way.

The Pattern of Discipleship: Moving From Word To Witness
As one of the pastors at our Church pointed out this past Sunday, Jesus spends a lot of time in the synagogue and in prayer in Mark’s Gospel. And so the path that Jesus treads begins in a rather counter-intuitive place- in the stillness of the Word. We must be formed by the Word before the Word sends us outwards.

This is where we find the Stillness-Witness movement emerging as a pattern in Mark for helping us understand the nature of discipleship.

– Jesus moves from the isolation of the wilderness (vs. 12-13) to calling the disciples in Galilee (vs. 16-17)

– Jesus moves from the teachings of the synagogue (vs. 21) to the healing narrative in the house of Simon and Andrew (29-31)

– Jesus moves from the desolate place in which he prays (vs. 35) to the towns and all of Galilee (vs. 38-39).

It is in verse 39 that Mark summarizes this movement from Word to Witness,
“And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.”

This is, I believe, the point of the pattern that Mark seems to lay out for us in his first chapter: Discipleship begins with the formation of the Synagogue (the still places), where we can be shaped by the Word, and moves outwards to the ministry of Jesus to others.

As Mark established in the first 15 verses of his Gospel, this is how we learn to see Jesus on The Way, is by first being forgiven and then learning to forgive. This is the Gospel Way. This is the Way we keep our eyes wholly centered on the one who has gone before us, the Jesus who came to carry the Gospel forward into all the world. This is the way we ensure that we don’t get lost living life out in the world on our own terms and on our own effort.

The Great Reversal
This remains purely subjective, but I can’t help but see some intention in Mark’s closing section of chapter 1, the “Cleansing of the Leper” (vs. 40-45). Where the pattern of discipleship has been set in the previous verses, here we find it reversed. This healing story begins with the busy-ness of the towns, the crowds and the ministry, and then pushes us back out into the desolate place(s) to which Jesus retreats. This is a reversal that reminds us that, no matter how hectic life gets, we must always make time for the what matters most- centering our life on The Way of Jesus. Making time for prayer and the forming Word of God helps us to keep our sights on Jesus and helps us to follow in His footsteps as we move out into a busy and demanding world on the Spirits terms rather than our own.

It is a reversal that reminds us that for as much as The Way calls us towards an outward movement, the work of the Gospel begins as an inward transformation. For as much as discipleships calls us to “follow” in The Way of Jesus, we can only follow Jesus if we encounter him first.

Our Church sent out another reflection question this week to think over as we continue to process the idea of The Way in Mark’s Gospel. The question was simply this:
Jesus appeared to say no to many things in order to say yes to the main thing he was called to be and do. Are you saying yes to so many things that you have lost sight of the big Yes of your life? Is there a next step in saying no to something in order to say yes to the main thing?

Contemplating My Life in the Stillness
As I consider the pattern in Mark 1:16-45, I can’t help but feel how intentional Jesus’ movement becomes. He seeks out the synagogue. He seeks out the disciples and the crowds. He seeks out the desolate places. He seeks out sick. It’s a humbling picture as I also consider just how unintentionally I live my own life on most days.

Another translation for “The Kingdom come near” in verse 15 is “The Kingdom is at hand”. In other words, the time has come to live in the kingdom now, not later. That I waste so much time living unintentionally is not simply humbling, it is convicting.

Which brings me to a second consideration, something that has stuck with me since last Sunday’s sermon. The challenge of discipleship is two-fold: living a fruitful life requires us to make time for stillness and contemplation, but we must also question contemplation and stillness that doesn’t bear fruit out in the world. I’ll be honest, I feel pretty far off the mark in both respects.

But the Gospel is a movement in which the most important thing is continuing to move, and in encouraging myself to move I find it worth considering which part of the pattern I need to move towards in this moment in time. Is it stillness and contemplation (being forgiven) or is it extending mercy and healing to those who need it (the forgiving life). Even as I write this I can feel God’s spirit re-fueling my sense of focus, and so maybe this is the place to start for the moment. This is the place to fix my eyes, once more, on Jesus. But I do so knowing this is not where the pattern ends. This is where it begins.The grateful truth of the Gospel message is that Jesus has gone before me both in the stillness of this moment and out into the places He desires me to move in the remainder of this warm, sunshine filled day. It is simply my job to antcipate and to follow.

So may God continue to direct my footsteps and show me where to head, and may he do the same for each of you, wherever you find yourself in the pattern of discipleship.

The Kingdom Come Near: Reflections on The First Chapter of the Gospel of Mark

Every year our Church embarks on a journey through one of the four Gospel narratives. This year it is The Gospel of Mark, and with this past Sunday marking the start of the series (the first Sunday of Epiphany), we opened the series by looking at Mark’s first chapter.

To help foster some further reflection over the course of this past week, my Church also sent out a question for us to consider-
What is our response to what God does in Jesus as the “kingdom of God being brought near”?

The question comes out of chapter 1:15:
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;[a]repent, and believe in the Gospel.”
– The Gospel of Mark 1:15

It is the “Gospel of God” proclaimed in 1:14 that we are being asked to believe in verse 15, and this is, of course, the same Gospel that Mark “begins” with anticipation in 1:1. Here in verse 15 we are presented with two ideas that must mark our response to the “kingdom come near”- “repentance” and “belief” in the Gospel of God.

As I spent time reflecting on these two ideas this week, I found my response to the “Kingdom come near” being shaped with greater clarity, beginning with the question, what is the “Gospel of God” that we are being asked to believe in?

The Gospel of God
There are two immediate components of the Gospel that we find in 1:1:
1. The Gospel is the fulfillment of a promise (the promise of the prophet Isaiah)
2. The Gospel of God belongs to Jesus Christ

However, there also appears to be a third component hiding underneath the surface, and it has to do with the question of identity- who is Jesus, the one to whom the Gospel belongs, and who is John, the one who prepares the way for the Gospel of God to be revealed.

Both of these “identity” questions are important for uncovering Mark’s understanding of the Gospel of God, an understanding that moves us from John to Jesus.

Who is John?

  1. John the messenger
    In chapter 1, John is introduced to us as a messenger (vs. 2). His message? To proclaim the one who will follow him, the one who “is mightier than I”, the one whom will come not with water but with “Spirit”. It is the Spirit descending in 1:10 that recognizes this to be the one called Jesus
  2. John the Preparer
    In verse 3, The Gospel of Mark declares that John has been sent to “prepare”.
    “Behold, I send my messenger before you, who will prepare your way.”
    – Mark 1:2

    What is he preparing? “A straight path” to reveal (to us) the “way” of God (vs3), a way that flows out of a Gospel (in Mark 1:1) that is centered on Jesus Christ, the son of God.
  3. John the Baptizer
    In verse 4 John is described as the baptizer, one who has come to baptize in “repentance” and “forgiveness”, two ideas that help define for us what baptism is. Jesus’ declaration of the” kingdom coming near” goes on to share in this call to repent.

    And what is repentance? One of my pastors rightly pointed out that the most accurate picture of repentance in the life of the ancients was a complete “turn” in direction, or to turn our face “towards” something new. It is a positive action towards new life, not simply a negative avoidance of destruction, and in the first chapter of Mark the direction we are being turned towards is Jesus.

Who is Jesus?
After thinking through the identity of John, here is where I found myself in the first chapter of Mark:
1. The Gospel belongs to Jesus
2. John (the messenger) came to show us “the way” of the Gospel in order to show us Jesus.
3. To see Jesus we must “turn” our face in His direction and embark on the way.

So if John is preparing “a way” for us to see Jesus, and repentance is the means by which we face ourselves in the “right” direction, this leads me to another question: What does it look like to embark on the way?

1. The Way as “a movement” or a journey
Jesus is the one we are called to turn towards. But, more than simply facing in the direction of Jesus, this new direction also requires movement. “The kingdom of God coming near” suggests that we have not yet quite arrived. It is something we must continually pursue. There is a hopeful restoration in store for this world, and yet it also reflects an opportunity to live in (and into) this kingdom in the here and the now. It is a journey.

Werner H. Kelber puts it this way in his book, Mark’s Story of Jesus:

“The very first time Mark alludes to an aspect of Jesus’ life, he does so in terms of a “way.” The reader knows Jesus will be traveling a way. We shall observe that the Markan Jesus is indeed in constant movement from place to place, from region to region, frequently back and forth, and all the way from life to death. Jesus’ whole career is conceived in Mark as a journey. The reader will understand Jesus, his life and death, by paying close attention to the points of departure and arrival, to the directions and goals of his travels. There is logic to Jesus’ journey, and to grasp that logic is to grasp the meaning of his mission and identity.”
– Werner H. Kelber (Marks story of Jesus)

In a very real sense, this concept of a journey connects us back to the first mark of the Gospel, a promise fulfilled. The original audience of the Gospel of Mark would have connected the concept of a “straight path” not simply to its prophetic origins, but to the whole of their experienced history.

As John J. Parons argues, both the story of John and Jesus in Mark 1 conjure up memories of the Israelite journey through the wilderness and the desert under Moses, and the return from Babylon out of exile. The Hebrew word derekh, the one used for “way”, can refer to a physical road or pathway, but metaphorically it often refers to the journey that brought the Israelites out of exile and into the promised land.

And here-in lies the great realization. As Parsons continues to point out, the way forward (for the Israelites) in the wilderness was by following in the footsteps of one who had gone ahead. This is how they would know the “straight” path, by trusting and depending in the path already trodden, the (one) who went before them in the fire and in the cloud, and in the messenger, Moses, sent by God to deliver them from their slavery. Trust means not knowing what is ahead. Trust means entrusting one’s self to another even when we don’t know what is ahead.

And the more I think about this the more I realize, the best part about embarking on a journey is the idea of embracing the unknown of this trusting experience. In faith it is the unexpected places, the unexpected surprises that bring light to a God who is on the move. And even when we feel lost, it is learning to give ourselves to these unexpected places that can inspire us towards the most important thing we can do on the way, which is to keep moving even when we can’t see what is around the next corner.

2. The Way as forgiveness
For John and Jesus, this movement begins with the idea of repentance, or a turning towards. But it is the second descriptive that we find in John’s “baptism”- forgiveness- that enlightens us to what this movement looks like. Traveling on the “straight path” means living into this idea of forgiveness.

So what is forgiveness?

Forgiveness is humility:
“The one who is mightier than me.”

This idea might sound off-putting to our modern ears, but for John this means freedom. It is what allows his story in the opening chapter of Mark to move him from a place of prominence (he got to baptize Jesus! How amazing is that), to a place of desolation (seemingly left behind by Jesus to spend the rest of his days in prison), and still keep our sights on Jesus. It is what allows us to find Jesus in the story of a guy wandering the wilderness, eating locusts and wearing camel’s hair even before he ends up in prison.

Forgiveness must begin with humility because this is what gives the Gospel its power. We are turning in a new direction because the direction we are on is desolate and incomplete. We are living into a new Kingdom come near because the kingdom of now is broken. We are hoping for a new way because the current way often feels hopeless.

Therefore, the way, or the straight path, must be mightier, greater, more worthwhile, more hopeful than the path we are currently on, otherwise there would be no need for a Gospel.

Forgiveness is being Forgiven
If forgiveness is about living in humility, it is also about recognizing that we are called to this journey, or “the way”, as we are and in the midst of the brokenness and in the midst of the desolation. This is where Jesus finds John, in the wilderness exactly as he is, and this is where he brings life into John’s ministry even from the confines of his prison.

Knowing that we are facing in the right direction, knowing that we are on the “right” path is not about doing the right things. It is about our ability to keep moving forward even when things feel broken and even when we don’t get things right. It is about learning to see ourselves (the identity of John) and see the one (the identity of Jesus) in proper light.

The first chapter of Mark contrasts the baptism of John with the baptism of Jesus. In John’s baptism we turn in repentance, and in our turning we see our need for the Gospel, the Gospel that belongs to Jesus and Jesus alone. It is when we turn that we then find the Spirit of Jesus’ baptism that breathes life into this Gospel.

The Spirit is what enables us to carry forward in the way of God as we are. The spirit is what reveals our identity to be other than our brokenness and failure. The spirit is what reveals the way of God and keeps the way of God in full view by continuing to reveal our brokenness and our failure. The Spirit is also what enables us to see ourselves for who God made us to be- children of God who share in the affirmation given to Jesus, God’s beloved child.

Forgiveness is Learning to live an undivided life
There is a tension that arises between these two notions of forgiveness- the humility that recognizes our brokenness and the grace that allows us to live beyond our brokenness, that sees us as beloved.

This tension was not unfamiliar to Mark’s audience. In a theological sense, we can recognize this as being saved by works or saved by grace (faith) alone.

In a practical sense, we can recognize this as a need to know that we are on the “right” path. This is where the (necessary) tension begins and ends, and what the opening chapter of Mark teaches us is that to see the “straight path” as anything other than a movement in which we are living into this forgiveness is to see something other than Jesus.

In an article written for the Biblical Hebrew E-Magazine on the word “righteousness”, Jeff Benner helps shed some light on how the ancient Hebrews would have understood the idea of the “right” way or the straight path.

“The Hebrew words tsadiyq (righteous) and yashar (upright) are paralleled many times in the Bible indicating that in the Hebrew mind they were similar in meaning. Upright is another abstract word but it is used in a concrete manner, such as in Jeremiah 31:9 where it means “straight” as in a straight path.”

He then goes on to show, using the context of Psalm 37:17, how these parallels were used in Biblical literature to help us reconcile this tension between the right and the wrong way.

For the arms of the wicked shall be broken; but the LORD upholds the righteous. (Psalm 37:17 RSV)
“Here we find the word wicked (rasha) being used as an antonym (opposite in meaning) to the word righteous (tsadiyq). These two words are also commonly used together in poetical passage, indicating the Hebrews saw these two words as opposites. While the word is an abstract, we can find its concrete meaning in the verb form, also pronounced rasha. The verb form means to “depart” in the sense of leaving God’s way as seen in Psalm 18:21.”

He concludes by showing us that, for the ancient Israelite and Jewish people, the word tsadiyq is anchored in this picture of moving forward on a path that is centred on the teachings of God, and figures like Moses, the signs of God given to Israel, and ultimately the person of Jesus revealed, give us a very purposed picture of this path by giving us a living example of how to walk it by keeping our eyes on the one that has gone before us. And for each of these persons, stories, and figures, repentance and forgiveness are the two defining factors that keep this path focused outwards (dependence on God) rather than inwards (dependence on ourselves).
Neil Godfrey pushes this idea further by connecting the way, or path, of God in Mark 1:1 with the efforts of the disciples to make a way for their Lord in 2:23.

An interlinear translation shows that the words used here for “way” and “make” are the same as we read in Mark 2:23 where the disciples of Jesus are said to “make a way” or path!

I suggest that when the author of the Gospel of Mark opened his gospel with “make a path for the Lord!” and subsequently depicted the disciples of that Lord “making a path”, presumably for Jesus, their Lord, as they plucked ears of corn to eat, this author was consciously linking the action of the disciples with the call of John the Baptist and the earlier prophets to “make a path” for their Lord!

What Godfrey helps to show is that what Johns calls us towards on the straight path is not simply an act of works, as it is in 2:23, but rather an act of faith and trust in the one who has gone before us, as we find being established in the first chapter of Mark.

For John the Baptizer, the way of God is not about earning or working his way towards a morally upright life, but rather is formed by keeping our sights on the work that God is already doing. Just as the Israelite people needed to keep their eyes on a path that had already been paved, so must we keep our eyes on the one that has gone before us, an action that John symbolically portrays in his life as the “preparer”.

Learning to See with a single-eye
It was a study in the Gospel of Matthew (last year’s Gospel) that helped illuminate this idea even further for me. In Matthew, the idea of the straight path that we find in John’s story becomes synonymous with the word “perfect” or the idea of “perfection” that we find littered throughout Matthew’s larger narrative.

Keener, in his commentary on Matthew, explains the impossible call to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” in Matthew 5:48 in the following way.

First, he writes, “Be perfect” and (be merciful) probably represent two ways to translate a single Aramaic term that Jesus used meaning “whole” or “complete”.”
– Keener page 205

He then goes on to connect this to what follows in Matthew 6:22-24, revealing an important wordplay that can help reshape our idea of what it means to live a perfect or morally upright life on the straight path:

“Jesus’ illustration about the “single” (good) eye and the evil eye would immediately make sense to his hearers: a “good” eye was literally a healthy eye, but figuratively also an eye that looked on others generously. In the Greek text of the Gospels, Jesus literally calls the eye a “single” eye, which is a wordplay: The Greek version of the Hebrew Bible also uses this word for “single” to translate the Hebrew term for “perfect,” that is, “single-minded” devotion to God, setting one’s heart on God alone… the single eye is literally undivided, seeing the whole picture.”
– Keener page 233

Recognizing the word “perfect” as seeing a whole and undivided picture of Jesus changes the way we understand Matthew’s familiar Old Testament usage of the good (tsadiyq) and the wicked (rasha) path in 7:14. Rather than being about what we do, rightly or wrongly, on “the way of God”, it becomes about how we are learning to see Jesus more clearly. Rather than being about how others (and God) perceive us as morally upright or morally downtrodden, it is about learning how to see God’s ways more completely, more fully.

Forgiveness is seeing the Whole Picture of God’s Story
The celebration of Epiphany represents the declaration of a Gospel for the world. It is a celebration that finds the Gospel of God moving outwards and into the lives of both Jew and Gentile, breaking down the barriers of what it means to belong in the family of God. We are reminded that God’s movement was set in motion at the dawn of the created order and that in Jesus it becomes fully revealed to his creation.

If it is the Spirit of forgiveness that allows us to freely participate in the way of God, to be participants in God’s story, and if being forgiven allows us to move into shared space with the one who is mightier than us, then it is our ability to forgive that can unite us with the work that Jesus is already doing on this path. As Keener rightly suggests, to see perfectly, or to find an undivided picture of God’s way, shares a meaning with the word “merciful”. When we extend forgiveness outwards it helps us to confidently rest in the inward truth that we are forgiven as well.

It is through the act of forgiveness that the “way of God” sets us all on common ground as beloved children of God, and it is the truth of this forgiven and forgiving life that Jesus calls us to repent and “believe” in.

The Kingdom Come Near
So back to the question at the beginning:

What is our response to what God does in Jesus as the “kingdom of God being brought near”?

There are three things that stand out for me here-
1. The Kingdom of God is near, nearer than we would ever expect, even when it doesn’t seem or feel that way. All we have to do is turn to see it.

2. The Kingdom of God is something we get to live into in the here and the now as active participants in the forgiving work of God. This is the true kingdom-building work. We are forgiven, the Kingdom is already here; we get to extend this forgiveness to others, the kingdom is still at hand.

3. This Kingdom building work consistently reminds me that no matter how far off the path I veer, there is always room to keep moving. All it takes is turning towards the way of God, the way of Jesus, the way of the Gospel, in which we can see the work that God is already doing on our behalf.

Book Review: Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical by Tim Keller

I think Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical is Keller’s best work yet. He has gone on record stating that Making Sense of God is a sort of prequel to his best selling The Reason for God. The reason he gives for such a prequel is that he felt the need to offer a well-reasoned position as to why people might (or could) be motivated to consider a reasoning for God in the first place. In other words, why should we care about bringing the question of God into the picture in the first place?

Peaceful and Methodical 
I found the book very methodical in its approach and his arguments well layed out. It feels quite the opposite to some of the older style apologetics, which at times tend towards a penchant for creating strawman arguments. Keller is not at war, nor is he wanting to create a war. His motivation is to open the door for peaceful and helpful dialogue, and so he is careful not to dismiss or belittle any of the arguments he confronts. He simply wants to shed light on the struggle that exists between belief and unbelief.

It is worth noting that he does speak, at least partially, from a laymans position. That is to say, his depth of experience with the questions he pursues in the book are centred on his experience with being a Pastor to many who have taken this journey either towards or away from faith, and faced these struggles themselves. I find him to be very good at navigating this middle ground, between his obviously well-researched position on religious and philosophical grounds (the depth he brings to the endnotes and references is worth the price of the book alone) and his understanding of the personal struggle that can (and does) exist for many of us in the everyday commonness of trying to do this thing called life. This is where he finds his sweet spot.

The Skeptical and the Nones: Making Sense of the Target Audience
It is a book that has been suggested as being marketed to the skeptical (as warranted by the title). I might take this a step further and suggest that his true market is the so-called “nones”, to which he references in the book as those who claim no affiliation with a denomination and/or religion, nor a strong affiliation with stringent forms of atheism. I would wager that strident atheists and believers (who have made up their mind on either side of the fence) might not appreciate the book or might otherwise abuse/misunderstand the ideas he represents. This would be unfortunate, but it would also be expected.  It wouldn’t surprise me that some might dismiss his arguments as already “tried and found wanting” without much need for further consideration. The truth is, Keller doesn’t fit perfectly into either mode. Being a (unapologetic) professing Christian who takes equal aim at abusive forms of conservatism and dishonest forms of atheism does limit the scope of his audience. But hopefully the audience that he does manage to captivate can be more adept at bringing both reason and experience, thought and faith into a more well-balanced discussion of the religious motivation (both for and against).

Classic Keller with a Twist
Keller’s interest in writing Making Sense of God should be nothing new (for those familiar with his previous work and his sermons), but the concise way that he brings together his thoughts allows this to feel fresh, and his commentary on the current state on the Church feels important and relevant. He meanders through much of the secular humanist/materialist/atheist reasoning in an attempt not to show them as moral denigrates or dangerous monsters (quite the opposite in-fact), but rather to show the limits of their reasoning in the realm of honest philosophical consideration. To admit the limits of secular humanist reasoning, for Keller, is a place that every good and honest thinker must start, whether one is religiously inclined or not, when making sense of God. For as much as religion must face its own limitations (and accept that it has its own set of problems), so does atheism, and a thorough examining of history can prove this continues to be the case. Perhaps admitting these limitations can help us understand that these two ideologies (or worldviews) should not be at war. Rather, they should want to be in constant dialogue.

Keller goes on in his early chapters to consider a shocking analysis of the religious front. Contrary to the view of popular culture, Keller insists that the data and the evidence shows religion is not waning or dying out, but simply reorienting itself within certain dying factions, while other factions are actually gaining in strength. The great fallacy of our time, or the great misunderstanding of religion, begins with the false idea that there are no intellectually honest, rationally concerned and yet still religiously committed forms of the Christian Church and practice available. That the entirety of Christianity (and atheism for that matter) has been placed under a single, unfortunate stereotype is a part of the problem on both sides of the fence. Keller doesn’t say as much, but certainly his work at Redeemer is an example of a decidedly different kind of Church, one that happens to be flourishing without the aid of popular technique or flashy stages, and one that is encouraging a new kind of urban witness and style of conversation for our modern landscape, one that is not afraid to embrace the Christian traditions or the questions at the same time.

The Problem of Created Meaning
My favorite chapters are the earlier ones that deal with meaning, satisfaction, and happiness. It is the journey that I have been on lately, and it is where I think Keller shines the brightest. His chapters on morality and hope are also very good, but they are decidedly more complex as well and depend on the foundation that is established in the earlier chapters.

Where I think the subject of happiness and satisfaction and meaning hit home (for me) is the way in which they force us to be completely honest with the “why” questions. Why do we need to consider God? Why should we care about altruism and human worth? Why should we embrace the idea of sacrificial living? Keller helps us to see that secular humanism makes a ton of assumptions when it comes to the many why questions, most of which surround morality and meaning, assumptions that, when laid bare, it ultimately cannot fully answer (something the most prominent humanist thinkers admit, as Keller shows). This is where the earlier chapters help give shape to the larger discussion of why God, showing how all of the “whys” flow out of the following notion:  how do we honestly live (and sell, since living is essentially a relating activity) a worldview that must learn to accept that it is living (for better or for worse) a lie. Not a lie in the misleading sense, but “lie” as in a contradiction of thought and practice.

For example (to flesh this out with a bit more clarity), secular humanism accepts what most people intuitively know, which is that emotions such as love and experiences such as admiring beauty are real emotions and real experiences that have inherent meaning outside of ourselves. They are recognized as universal truths. However, the worldview it imposes onto these universal truths must also accept that any meaning attributed to these emotions and experiences is created (a product of chemical reactions determined by the environment in which we live and governed by the process of history and evolution) not given. These emotions and experiences are essentially reactions that trick us into feeling one way or another. Thus, the only way for us to genuinely give ourselves to these emotions and experiences (in a way that matters) is for us to willingly (or naively) ignore the truth of created meaning (a truth that can be manipulated) while subsequently allowing ourselves to submit to the delusion that this truth carries given (universal) meaning.

Keller maintains that most of us would accept that, if love (in the moment of the emotion) is processed purely on the basis of what it actually is (in this worldview), the idea of love would necessarily be cheapened; nothing more than a pleasurable and (sometimes) helpful experience that we can either give ourselves to or become cynical towards. Rather, for something like love to become meaningful, we must be able to accept it as meaningful, long before the meaning is actually created. Thus the contradiction of thought and practice.

The word “lie” here sounds rather forceful (and this might be the place where strident atheists check out of the conversation), but Keller’s careful methodology forces us to face it head on. After sifting through all of the complex (and rather good) philosophical considerations for secular-humanism, we consistently arrive back at the same place. The best we can do is suggest that “we should care simply because it is something we should care about”.

But why? Is it that we should care because our environment and evolutionary development has positioned our consciousness to care, and that should be enough? But how do we deal with the truth that history shows us enslaved to the evolutionary process, not the other way around, and thus we must consider an evolutionary process that is contradictory to the claims of our social consciousness? Sure, we can consider that our social consciousness is a unique part of our “human evolution”, and thus must be considered as a unique faction of the evolutionary chain, but even within the framework of human evolution the path is far from linear and purely “progressive”.

Once we consider that all of our conscious emotions (which form the basis of caring and meaning) are simply created forms of created meaning, it should follow that we would be forced to consider ideas (or experiences) such as love and compassion, for as intuitive as they are, as without meaning (or meaningless) outside of their practical context. We can choose to give it meaning, but then we are ignoring the greater truth (of science and reason within a secular humanist worldview), which is that this meaning must be manufactured from outside of the environment that actually created the feeling or the experience, an environment that is not concerned with altruism (selflessness) but rather survival and adaptation (selfishness).

The Common angst of the Spiritual Journey: Why created “meaning” can’t work for me.
The reason I appreciated this part of the book is because it reflects, rather accurately, my own journey through secular-humanism and atheism. At one point in my life I figured I had found the truth (of intellectual reasoning) and the truth had set me free. But what I lost in the process was the motivation to care. Everywhere I looked I found false expressions of the essential human experience that most of us intuitively embrace (love, self-giving, sacrificial), an experience, if I was truly honest, I was even able to manipulate and control if I wanted. This realization filtered all the way down to the most troublesome notion for me- experiencing and recognizing the fallacy of the way in which we process human loss by breathing meaning into our relationships where it otherwise wold not be a given. This is what the truth tends to do, though, is make us confront the futility of this world in which we are far from the centre of the universe. If I am not able to operate from the religious premise of endowed human worth (which is an exercise of faith), I was forced to face the truth that whoever speaks this worth into my context of my own funeral must do so by reconstructing the picture my life in a way that ignores the truth of what it was. Because God knows that if someone honestly portrayed my life for what it was (or has been… I’m still alive after all) rather than what an endowed sense of meaning allows me (and others) to say it is, it would cause most to leave the funeral disgusted, defeated and discouraged.

And yet, I suspect that the story of my own funeral will be the same as every funeral I have ever attended, which is a celebration of my worth and goodness as an individual and a vision of my life set in some form of a positive light. I’ll be honest, this was a small token of assurance during my experimentation with a secular-humanist approach, because God (irony intended) also knows that my name (along with most people) will fade into the nothingness of history less than a generation or so after I pass. But the greatest loss I faced at this time in my life was that, if I was not able to accept this meaning for myself, I could not, at least not honestly, give meaning to others either.

The Emotional Struggle
Keller gets the emotional core of this struggle spot-on, and really narrows in on the questions that tend to cause people in my position so much angst and turmoil. The idea that we are living a lie, and the idea that I must also lie to myself on a daily basis in order to live it with any sense of truth and conviction, is a very defeatist position to find yourself in. I know that there are many atheists who choose not to submit to this defeat, and their witness (as people who live a good life, who are happy, and who manage to make something out of this created worth) might be the strongest argument against the need for God. After all, if the idea of God is not true, this exercise simply becomes the reality of the life we are forced to live, and we might as well try to make it as happy an exercise as we can. But it doesn’t make this approach any more true or honest or rational than the faith positions of the religious. And further, it has little to say to those who don’t fall on the winning side of this lottery we call life, the ones who are not afforded the material comforts and joys of the so-called elite nor the social support that can help ease life’s emotional and physical burdens.

For myself, I couldn’t get past the fact that I must learn to live a delusion in order to find meaning in life beyond the material, and I didn’t have much that could satisfy my feeling of defeat that this reality led me towards.

Making sense of God in my own life was a way of reconciling this tension. It reoriented my tendency to see faith as the “delusion” and secularism as the truth.  It allowed me to consider that both God/religion and secular humanism demanded equal acts of “faith”, a cliche (I know, because I dismissed this cliche myself for many years), but nevertheless a truth, one that that helped free me from the prison of intellectual elitism.

Spreading Himself too thin
This might be a small criticism, but Keller might have been better off simply addressing the limitations of the secular-humanist approach rather than stretching some of the material to0 thin (which I believe he does) with the smaller portions that deal more with apologetics “for” the Christian faith rather than for the “consideration” of God in general. The format he carries through the book, before leaving room for a brief look at the Christian story in the final chapters, is to examine the different parts of the secular-humanist/materialist/atheist positions, outline what he perceives as their limitations, and then conclude with his (brief) consideration for the helpfulness of the Christian approach in dealing with some of these limitations.  In this sense, while the true interest of the book is in setting the groundwork for considering religious belief, he submits himself to the religion which he knows best- Christianity; thus furthering the books interest in the particulars of the Christian faith in response. This is actually the interest of The Reason For God, and I think he would have been better served to simply leave Making Sense of God as an argument for religious consideration in general while allowing his previous book to push this further.

Although all of what he says has relevance and importance, it does feel slightly premature to his end goal of engaging the heart and mind of the skeptic in a sort of middle-ground. For many skeptics (I can imagine), the Christian theology might arrive with the baggage of what turned them away from considering religion to begin with, which means it could become an obstacle to Keller’s greater hope and concern- which is to encourage readers to be “willing” to consider a religious direction and concern.

With that said, I would definitely still consider this one of Keller’s best books. It won’t be for everyone, but I think, for a certain crowd, he provides something incredibly reasoned and hopeful, especially for those who have ever felt lost in the middle ground between faith and the secular.

ROSEBUD- A resolution that just might work.

One of the podcasts in my weekly rotation recently published an episode on New Years resolutions. Normally I don’t do resolutions. I find them predictable, cheesy, a bit silly, and unrealistic.
So I was a bit cynical when I found the podcast promising an approach to resolutions that could actually make a difference in the year ahead.

Cynical but also intrigued.

This intrigue eventually led to a willingness to give their advice a shot.

I do admit, once you pull away the cover of the catchy title, their concept for making resolutions shares much in common with pretty much every other resolution out there. But what stands out is the way their approach easily carries over from one year to next, allowing me to look back on the year before and integrate what worked (and what didn’t) into next years resolutions.

It comes from a podcast called extrapackofpeanuts, and it is based on a simple formula they came up with that they call the ROSEBUD system. The rules for the ROSEBUD system are as follows:

Step 1: List Three Roses-
This is the stuff that I would consider the greatest strengths, successes or accomplishments of the past year, the stuff that has managed to blossom into a Rose.

Step 2: List Three Thorns

This would reflect my greatest personal struggles of the past year.

Step 3: List Three Buds
This is a list of what I would like to “bud” into Roses in the coming year.

Step 4: Come up with a word for the year
This should be a single word that can help reflect the direction I want to head in the coming year, a single word that can give my year a theme or a recognizable flavor.

That’s it. Simple, right? A bit cheesy? Maybe. But I figured it was worth a try. And maybe, just maybe, it might manage to inspire. So here goes…

My Three Roses (greatest strengths, success, accomplishments of this past year):
1. Blog/Writing:

This blog, which I started near the middle of this year, is the first rose on my list not because it is exceptional or unique (which it is not), but rather for what it represents. After years of trying (and failing) to find an outlet to push myself to write, this blog has finally motivated me to actually begin to move some of the fragmented pieces that have been languishing in the dusty corners of my computer shelf and into some sort of public space where I can at least pretend to feel accountable. I admit, this blog remains the product of much anxiety, and the motivating theme of “finding me at 40” has been an intentional and intensely personal effort to try and make some sense of this anxiety. But more importantly, it reflects a place to start, most notably in the opportunity it has given me to reflect backwards on the stuff of my forming years that has helped make me who I am today. Hopefully, it also reflects a place to grow, and the fact that I am still investing in it as we turn the page on another calendar year seems a hopeful sign that the effort and investment is actually working.

2. Reading Challenges:
I love film, but my first love is reading.

I grew up with books, and there is little that has managed to define me more over the years than the simple fact that I am almost always found carrying a book (sometimes two, sometimes three or more). I have, however, had a rocky relationship with reading over the years. While a film only demands a few hours of investment, giving time to a good book over the days, weeks, and sometimes even months that it takes to finish is tough at this point in my life. It has become easier and easier to fall off the bandwagon, and when I do fall off the bandwagon with reading, usually I fall off pretty hard.

But thankfully I always seem to find a way to pick myself back up, usually against the allure of a promising and familiar title. And when I do find my way back into the zone, it is often hard to stop me from reading.

When I thought about this rose, I immediately recognized the correlation between reading and the rest of my life. When I am not finding time to read it usually means one of two things- I am far too busy or I am in an anxiety/depression funk- neither of which are beneficial to the relationships around me. When I am reading it usually means I am pacing myself, managing my anxiety/depression, and thus more invested in the relationships around me as well.

I am in my third year of successfully participating in the Goodreads Reading Challenge, which means keeping a reading schedule through the course of the year. While I would certainly consider that a rose there is more to this picture as well.

This past year, I started to experiment with being more intentional with what I read and how I read, expanding the challenge to include some more personally inspired goals (of reading a variety of books) and purposed driven trends (of connecting themes). Looking back over my catalog for the past year (thank you Goodreads for helping me to catalog my reading schedule with such ease) has allowed me to see some of the smaller trends that have emerged from this process and which have helped shape my growth and development in 2016. For example, I got interested in the idea of happiness, and so I devoted a good deal of time to books on the subject, and have been rewarded with a greater understanding of the subject and how to apply it to my life more directly.

It is the fact that this year reflects some successive, and even some more intentional, investment in reading that puts this as the second Rose on my list.

3. Patience
If there is a title that has often been associated with me in my past, it likely would be the term “eternal optimist”. I haven’t done well at living into this in the past while, but one thing that I think I have adopted is patience.

There are times when life calls for pro-action, and affords opportunity that is there for the taking. Then there are times when it calls for waiting and listening and watching. I am grateful that life has called me to the latter, as this past year has not given me the energy that I would need for the former. But it hasn’t come easy.
The reason why patience is a challenge for me is that when I am sitting it usually means I am obsessing. Thus my anxiety. This is not a good thing for someone with anxiety. But this year I have managed to combat some of these obsessive tendencies, at least a little bit, and have managed to fill my time with some things that can enhance my waiting. And what am I waiting for? I’m not sure, but a part of the process of this year has been attempting to figure that out, and I think the attempting is a part of what encourages me to place this as a Rose.

My Three Thorns- the three greatest struggles of the past year

1. Social Relationships:
No question about it, this is my biggest thorn of the past year. Turning 40 has helped me realize just how few social relationships I have as I slide into the midway mark of my life. There are many reasons for this, some within my control and some outside of my control, some of which I am responsible for, some of which I am not.

The truth is, I made a promise (to myself and to my family) this past year that I would try to build back into my life some recognizable and strong social connections. For the most part I have fallen short. A tough year, growing anxiety and sheer reality that building social relationships is not an easy thing have all played a factor. Add to this my desire to build back into my life a well-balanced picture of social relationships (which would include an older mentor, peer relationships, a younger relationship that I can invest in, supportive relationships) and the picture begins to look even bleaker.

2. Managing my Anxiety:
I have actually made a lot of progress in this area, to be fair. But it still sits high on the list of thorns, and I wouldn’t be surprised (if I continue this ROSEBUD practice in years to come) if it always makes this list. It is a struggle that will always be there., even if it manifests in different ways from year to year.

If I can narrow it down to this year, the main struggle in my life has been consistency. I failed to keep up therapy or counseling- I started, I stopped, I started again and I stopped again- and more often than not I have allowed the day to day struggle to drain my energy. Most days it is simply easier to give into the negativity that anxiety tends to produce.

3. Fatherhood

I know, this is going to sound like an exercise in self-pity/self-depreciation. But it is not intended as that. It is just supposed to be truthful. There remains truth to the fact that I have failed (in a myriad of ways) in this experiment called fatherhood this year. And my number one struggle? Dealing with a lack of self-confidence.

A few things happen when you allow a lack of confidence to rule the day. It causes the emotional rollercoaster of parenting a teenage son (with the rejection, the attitude and the creeping rebellion) to feel far too personal, and, secondly, it causes parenting to become more about my insecurities than his needs.

To add to this, my number two struggle when it comes to fatherhood is knowing how to manage the marriage of my anxiety and my parenting. When I am not managing it well, which most days I do not, is that I either end up controlling or I end up shutting down, neither of which are healthy reactions. Add to this the lack of supportive social connections in our life (when it comes to outside support for parenting a teen), and it becomes a tough cycle to try and maintain.

My Three Buds- Three things I plan to bud into Roses for next year

1. More Focused Writing

What I hope to do this year is begin to bring a greater sense of focus to my blog. I have a few projects that I have been working on for a while (in those dusty corners of the computer), and I hope to incorporate them in a way that can help define some next parts of this journey for me.

I also hope to start to make it more accessible. I recognize this means shorter blogs and more relatable topics. We will have to wait to see how that goes. I am a man of few words… until I start writing.

Much of what I wrote over the course of 2016 was an attempt for me to make sense of my past. I hope to write more about what I am learning in the here and now this year.

2. Take the Small Steps

I have such a hard time with investing in the small steps. And yet, one of the great frustrations of this past year was the feeling of being stuck in the mud (in a lot of respects). We had plans, but very little of what was hoped for managed to come to fruition over the course of this year.
What I hope to bud this year is some smaller investments that are, hopefully, more achievable- getting rid of 15% of our debt, giving a small percentage more, finding a place to give of my time where I feel like I have something to offer, taking smaller trips that are more manageable and achievable and sustainable for where we are as a family… which leads me to number 3…

3. Travel
Everyone knows I love to travel. This past year I resigned to armchair traveling.

This year my hope is to bud this into some ideas that can fit for us a family (which means finding places and ideas that can reaches a consensus with everyone), that are manageable and sustainable, and that can provide memories.
I have a few ideas that I think can work, but more importantly, here is to seeing them come to fruition.

One Word to define my year