Wednesday, November 9, 2016

I Quit Politics

I quit politics on January 3rd, 2012. That was the night of the Republican caucuses in Iowa, a night on which Rick Santorum bested Mitt Romney by a mere 34 votes in the first contest of the 2012 primary season to see which Republican would challenge incumbent Democrat President Barack Obama in the 2012 election.

OK, so maybe that’s not quite factual. But it is a true narrative, nonetheless. Facts and truth are not always the same things, nor should they be. Yet both are vitally important, each informing, correcting, and shaping the other – and they usually intermingle with each other to such a degree that it is hard to tell one apart from another. There are very few things in life that are immoveable, unchangeable data, or facts. There are many things in life that are flexible, changeable narratives, or truths. As a Bothandian, I believe each is important, and that we must chart ways forward that successfully navigate and embrace, while not confusing, both the reality of facts and the reality of truths.

Technically, I was done with politics one month earlier, on December 3rd, 2011, when business person Herman Cain suspended his campaign for President amidst patently false allegations of sexual harassment and an affair, and very real threats of violence against his family. I was a Cain supporter, and in fact had become a volunteer with his campaign as part of his Media Action Team. It was the first time I had ever become anywhere near that involved with a political campaign. I did it because I believed in the principles and solutions to problems that Mr. Cain was espousing, and that he was the kind of person USAmerica needed as a leader at that time. To illustrate that, I give you a line from an internal e-mail from Mr. Cain himself in the wake of his campaign suspension that summed up his character and why I supported him so fervently: “Family first, as you know.”

Putting family first is costly. Very costly. I know this firsthand from a number of life experiences, whether it be losing a job (more than once), losing a house (also more than once), or ‘losing battles in order to win wars,' all because I am committed to putting the best interests of my family first. During my last Associate Pastorate (which was one too many, illustrating that no matter how committed we may be, we can and do still make mistakes, but that’s a rabbit trail if ever there was one…), when I would preach, I was fond of using the phrase, “First Church of Family” to describe the ecclesia we experience in our family units, however those might be constructed, from the most “traditional” to the most “non-traditional” among us. Community is vitally important in every arena of life, none more so than the ecclesia, which is the body of Christ. We are meant to live in community, both together (‘commune-’) and unified (‘-unity’). And that community begins first at home. While we must open our families to fellowship and relationship with all peoples, from the ‘greatest,’ to ‘The Least of These,’ that cannot and will not happen unless it begins at home, in our families, with those to whom we are the very closest. When Jesus said, “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” he was right.

Technically, I didn’t quit politics entirely. I did go on to make an ‘endorsement’ of Mitt Romney for President in 2012. And then…I checked out. There was a lot of that going on at the time, apparently. I truly did not pay attention to what was going on, politically, for several years. I am sure I had some sense of what was going on (headlines and red flags are both hard to avoid, especially in the digital age), but I was either in denial, choosing to live in checked out ignorance, or both. In 2015, I chose to check back in. Fully. Completely. Without reservation. I remember the first debate I watched with my family in October of 2015. I was stunned by how much had changed and the craziness of the multiple, confusing options in front of us. There were too many people on the stage, too many cooks in the kitchen, as it were.

By the late spring of 2016, as the fields finally narrowed in the major parties and no one who truly appealed among the smaller parties or independents emerged, I had come to a decision, the only thing I had really stated publicly, although not really ‘announced’ per se, since 2012: #NeverHillary #NeverTrump

There were no good candidates, no good options, and certainly no great ones, at least, not in this view. So what to do when it is impossible to get what you, or others, would actually want?

I chose to vote, to take action. It would have been irresponsible, in this view, to not do so.

I did not vote for Hillary Clinton.

I did not vote for Donald Trump.

I voted Republican, straight ticket, something I had never done, nor do I ever expect to do, again.

Not because of blind loyalty to a party – my goodness, I am long since over that way of thinking. Not because of the ‘party platform’ (there is as much, as a Jesus disciple, that I disagree with in both of the major party platforms, as whatever I might agree with). And certainly not because of the virtues (or lack thereof) of the person at the very top of the ticket.

I voted because a hard decision had to be made, and no matter how distasteful being put in the position to have to make such a decision was, it was my obligation, responsibility, and conscientious duty to make the best decision I could make at the time, with the information I had, in the best interests of everyone.

If I had gotten what I wanted, Herman Cain would be the President of the United States today. I believe that was the best option. I did not, very decidedly, get what I wanted. But it is not about what I wanted, or would want now. It is about making the best decision possible given the circumstances with which one is faced. We cannot control circumstances. We cannot control others’ choices. Nor should we try, because that would be unloving. And love does not, indeed cannot, control the other. Love comes first. And love wins. Every. Single. Time.

So…the Bush/Clinton/Obama era is, mercifully, finally, over. It has been going ever since George H.W. Bush was elected Vice President in 1980, when I was just 4 years old. In essence, my entire lifespan, politically, has been wrapped up in Bush/Clinton/Obama. And now, as of two thirty something in the morning, whether we like it or not, a new era has begun.

While I can’t find the exact quote (I’ll update this later if it becomes available), someone on the news coverage last night said something I think is vitally important about Trump, and if we take the words to heart, we should recognize it should be said about all of us, not long before it was announced Trump would be the President-elect. It went something like this: “People have to give him the opportunity to make things right.” Of course, people don’t literally have to do so. But that would not be the most loving option. Not even close.

In this new era, then, may we all make the best, most loving choices possible, in every arena of life, be it politics, family, the ecclesia, or any other. May it be so in me and in you and in everyone.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Failing Faithfulness

It’s 5:30 in the morning. This is not where I had planned to be at 5:30 in the morning. Funny thing about plans…and plots…and planes…

I’m on my way to Peru, Indiana in the passenger seat (never fear…I don’t blog-and-drive...which I hear is illegal now…) of a slightly rusty, dirty-brown 2003 Dodge Caravan (technically I believe it is red…next time I wash it I will verify).

While in Peru for about 3 hours I’ll make a side trip to Kokomo to get the oil changed and tires rotated so that this 252,000 mile mode of transportation affectionately known around here as B.O.B. (Bucket Of Bolts) will, hopefully, quiet down and behave for the weekend so we can get to Rogers, Arkansas and back, followed by a trip for Seth and I to Michigan and back to Indiana on Sunday to pick up Ian and Miah.

Actually, one of Seth’s birthday presents was a new side mirror for B.O.B. It may sound odd, but let me explain.

Seth turned 16 yesterday. When I envisioned what my firstborn’s 16th birthday would look like, even before he existed, well…let's just say this wasn’t it. Not because of my son, mind you! While he isn’t perfect, and I am not even ashamed to admit that in public, Seth would be the first one to tell you the same, so I have no fear of offending him here – and that is just the point. You can envision what you want to do with and for your children, but you cannot envision who they are going to be. Because it isn’t entirely up to you. You aren’t God. And even if you were, that’s not how God works. We are free creatures. God guides our steps…we make plans…and in the end the best of our co-creative work together is what lasts. God’s guidance and our plans are often thwarted- by ourselves, by others, by culture, by random events, and by both good and evil forces at work. The vast majority of the time – perhaps all the time – we will find ourselves in a place of plans, plots, and planes gone wrong. Most of the time, as it turns out, “this 747 can’t go fast enough.” Lesson learned…and being learned…

Humanity, all of us, in one way or another or a whole bunch of ways (that’d be me…), have abused our God-given freedom. In theological conversations, we hear much about the “problem of evil.” But I wonder if we have neglected to give attention to “the problem of freedom.”

I have come to believe that the answer to this problem, that freedom can be abused, is not to shut down our freedom and control everything (many believe in a God who controls everything, and this is, in one form or another, their answer – follow the rules and do not use your freedom but rather give it up…preferably to the one who has the gold power (either real or perceived) to attempt to tell you what to do and how to live).

Nor is the answer to this problem to throw off any inhibition and to do whatever we please. In other words, the answer to abuse of freedom is not even more unrestrained, uninhibited abuse of freedom. My spouse often likes to quote Augustine, “love God and do as you please…” – but when she does she always includes the remainder of the quote - “…for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.” Doing whatever we please is not license to sin; it is choosing to accept God's invitation to cooperate with God in bringing about the fullness of God’s Kingdom here on earth.

I find it interesting that in the Scriptures, Paul the Apostle does not write to the ecclesia in Galatia, “do not use your freedom” but rather, “do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love” (5:13). Paul says that we are “called to be free” (5:13). I believe Paul is right.

And what is his answer? How can we live out the balancing act of being free, yet not abusing our freedom? By living freely within the bounds of this one guiding principle: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” As I often say when speaking on this subject, you simply cannot love your neighbor if you cannot love yourself. There are some things you just can’t do. And that is one of them. There are some things even God cannot do. And you’re not God, anyway.

Paul goes on to say that the flesh and the Spirit are in conflict with each other – “so you are not do whatever you want” (5:17). Paul doesn’t contradict Augustine with this – in fact, he goes on to confirm it: “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (5:18). There is much more I could say about this…but you are probably still wondering why I bought Seth a new side mirror for B.O.B. for his birthday, so I had better finish explaining.

So I can’t afford to put a brand new car in the driveway for my son’s 16th birthday. That’s one part I would have envisioned many years ago. Actually, only a very, very tiny, privileged few kids ever get the idealistic new car in the driveway. A slightly higher percentage get a used car. In USAmerica and a few other places, maybe half (maybe) get use of their parent(s) car…if their parents have a car…when their parent(s) say they can use it (this was my case when I turned 16). And the rest of the world (the majority, the least of these) just has to wait.

So what I could afford, thanks to the help of others, was a new side mirror – which I have needed since I accidentally cracked mine 4 years ago on a cold night in Peru. It was a very, very cold night. I had no idea just how cold. But that’s a story.

By getting this side mirror, we finally have a vehicle in good enough shape that I feel comfortable training Seth to drive. He’s been waiting longer than I, or he, had hoped. Some kids get their license on the day they turn 16. Others have to wait a few months (that was my case…I was still in driver’s ed when I turned 16…), still others even longer. And some never learn. Now Seth can learn. It wasn’t perfect. But life is messy. And that’s OK.

I gave Seth all I could, and in fact, more than I could (without the help of others, I wouldn’t have been able to do even this). In the Scriptures, there is a poor widow who puts in the offering all she has, and Jesus says she gave more than all the others who were giving, because she gave out of her poverty, and not out of her wealth. Did her giving change the world? It would appear not. But her story is still changing me, and many others, today.

Maybe it is time we start giving out of our poverty – out of what we can’t afford to give, out of all we have, as great or as little as that might be; and not out of what we can afford to give. There are some things we just can’t do. But we will never know what those things are until we attempt them. Some call that failure. Others call it foolishness. I call it faithfulness. I think Jesus would agree.

So this day…what once upon a time was the worst day of my life (as opposed to the worst day of the year that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago)...I choose to reclaim this day as a day that the Lord has made, that I will rejoice and be glad in, content and at peace whatever the circumstances. As a wise person I am close to once said, “Love is a choice.” She could not have been more right. I choose to give all I have, and all I can, and even what I think I can’t, failing my way to faithfulness. I choose love.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Worst Day of the Year

I am pretty sure everyone has a worst day of the year.  By this, I do not mean, 'the worst day of your life.'  Sometimes those two things coincide.  But they can also be quite different and separate occasions. 

For some people, 'the worst day of the year' is what most people would consider a good day.  Some really do not like having birthdays.  Some do not like particular holidays.  For others it makes ‘more sense’, at least from the outside looking in:  The anniversary of losing a loved one, or an emotionally difficult or tragic event in one’s life.

The truth is, I have had enough of those over the course of 40 years to nominate any number of days, quite legitimately, as “The Worst Day of the Year.”  And yet…somehow… every year…since 2003…it always comes back to this day.  The last day of August.  The last day of so many things.  And the first day of so many others.

The thing is, you never know when and where the seed of hope has been planted.  And even when we are certain of the impossibility of a situation, when all has clearly and irreparably been lost…there is yet hope, unseen as it may be.  The author of the letter Hebrews in the Christian Scriptures writes this: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, and certain of what we do not see” (11:1).

I wonder what she may have been hoping for personally and for her community…and I wonder what it was that she did not see.  And I wonder how it was, in the midst of whatever it was she had hoped for and longed to see, that she was able to be inspired by the Spirit to write those utterly rebellious, defiant, foolish words.

Perhaps it is because sometimes what matters most is not what we do know, but what we don’t know.  Were we capable of knowing everything…would we really want to?  I suspect the answer to that is something along the lines of, “not as much as we think we would…”  There are things that are very important to know in this life.  As a person who always favors having more information rather than less, no matter how distressing that information may be, I certainly get that.  What I need to remember, though, is that there are also things that are very important not to know in this life.  Sometimes it’s better not to know, because it is in the not knowing that we become more sure of what we hope for and more certain of what we do not see.

*           *           *

It has been almost a year since I tasted the first sip of coffee…in my life…ever…it reminds me of an old song by Caedmon’s Call, “I Just Don’t Want Coffee.”  For 39-1/2 years of my life, this song resonated with me…and for many, many more reasons than just the fact that I was not a coffee drinker…

…but now…I do drink coffee…in fact, even on the worst day of my life it has become, as we like to talk about all the time in my family, one of my “favorite parts of the day.”  Now, I do want coffee.  Perhaps I even need it.  And that’s OK.  Especially if my motivation is to share it with my world and my community.  And, it is. It is good.  And it is well.

But there is another old song by Caedmon’s Call that has endured around this place for almost as long, “Faith My Eyes.” And today…it is the song that resonates most:

As I survey the ground for ants
Looking for a place to sit and read
And I'm reminded of the streets of my hometown
How they're much like this concrete that's warm beneath my feet

And how I'm all wrapped up in my mother's face
With a touch of my father just up around the eyes
And the sound of my brother's laugh
More wrapped up in what binds our ever distant lives

But if I must go
Things I trust will be better off without me
But I don't want to know
'Cause life is better off a mystery

So keep 'em coming, these lines on the road
And keep me responsible, be it a light or heavy load
Keep me guessing with these blessings in disguise
And I'll walk with grace my feet and faith my eyes

Hometown weather is on TV
And I imagine the lives of the people living there
And I'm curious if they imagine me
'Cause they just wanna leave, I wish that I could stay

And I get turned around
And I mistake my happiness for blessing
And I'm blessed as the poor
Still I judge success by how I'm dressing

So keep 'em coming, these lines on the road
And keep me responsible, be it a light or heavy load
Keep me guessing with these blessings in disguise
And I'll walk with grace my feet and faith my eyes

So I'll sing a song of my hometown
Breathe the air and walk the streets
And maybe find a place to sit and read
But the ants are welcome company

So keep 'em coming, these lines on the road
And keep me responsible, be it a light or heavy load
To keep me guessing with these blessings in disguise
And I'll walk with grace my feet and faith my eyes

And I'll walk with grace my feet and faith my eyes
And I'll walk with grace my feet and faith my eyes

*           *           *

On this, the last day of August, 2016, I would do well to remember that what was true 13 years ago is just as true today:  A seed that was yet unseen, unknown, and undiscovered had been planted.  There is always faith, always hope.  And always love.  Because the greatest of these is always love

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Deserted, But Not Deserted

As a disciple of Jesus, know that Jesus will never desert you.  But know also that as a disciple of Jesus, should Jesus gift and call you as a prophet, Jesus will always desert you.

Not everyone is deserted.  Just prophets.

You can be a disciple even after you have forsaken, abandoned, deserted Jesus.  There is always forgiveness, restoration, and reconciliation available to you.  And Jesus will never forsake, abandon, or desert you.

But prophets… prophets must always be deserted.  Not deserted.  But desert-ed.  Not everyone has to go into the desert.  But prophets always do. 

Paul.  Jesus.  John the Baptist.  The desert mothers and fathers.  Elijah.  Elisha.  Moses.
Being desert-ed is not about discipline for a sinful way of life.  The entire company of Israel was disobedient and unbelieving, and they wandered in the desert for 40 years because of it.  But they were not all prophets, of that I can assure you!  But Moses was a prophet.  And he too had to experience the desert, yet for different reasons.  It is not that Moses was sinless, of course.  He, too, fell from time to time.  But as a prophet, consecrated to God and made holy, this is not what characterized his life.  Rather, what characterized his life was the experience of being desert-ed. 

For it was there, in that experience of desert-ion, that he became who he needed to be in order to best fulfill God’s desires for God’s people.  It was never just about Moses and what Moses needed.  It was about the people of God, the Least of These, and what they all needed, collectively, together.  The irony is that prophets are called into the desert alone in order to be shaped and formed into vessels that carry the burdens of many.

Paul instructs the ecclesia to “carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).  And what is the law of Christ?  Jesus says it is to love God, yourself, and others with everything you are and everything you have (Luke 10:27-28).  Love comes first, and though love requires everything, love is all that is required.

Jesus gives different gifts to each disciple. God gives us the grace needed to live out these gifts according to the measure of grace needed to do so.  Whatever amount of grace we need, God gives, and it is always ‘just enough.’  For some, gifted and called to be prophets, the grace needed, and the grace that is supplied by God, is ‘just enough’ to endure the experience of being desert-ed.  But thanks be to God, we are never deserted.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Walls and Bridges and Doors...Oh My...

Recently I have seen quite a bit of talk about how we need to “build bridges, not walls.” I don’t know the exact origin of this quote or line of thinking but it seems to go back in history much longer than those who are currently fond of using it may imagine.

I do know Pope Francis has been using the imagery of walls and bridges for a while now, in various contexts. I happen to like Pope Francis…very much. Plus, he’s the Pope. So there’s that. But just to be clear, the Pope doesn’t always use this imagery in the “either/or” fashion that many people do.

For example, in February when discussing the USAmerican presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, Pope Francis said, “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel.” I couldn’t agree more. Trump responded with something about the Vatican having an “awfully big wall” itself, to which some Catholic priests replied that “Vatican city also has an awfully big door” (for more, see this article at CNN).  

Ah…the third element that we always seem to miss…if you are going to have a place to call home, you necessarily have to have walls…but you also necessarily have to have doors…preferably lots of them, and preferably really big ones…or else you cannot welcome anyone else in…nor can you go out to welcome people, yourself. You are trapped, and others are marginalized. That’s a lose-lose scenario.

Of course, Pope Francis hasn’t just said these things in a political context, and I am not intending for this to be a political post. Nearly three years ago Pope Francis, commenting on the Apostle Paul in Athens, put it this way: "He doesn't say: 'Idolaters, go to hell! This is the attitude of Paul in Athens: Build a bridge to their heart, in order then to take another step and announce Jesus Christ.” Again, I very much agree.

But then Pope Francis said something else that sheds additional light on the idea of “building bridges”:

"When the church loses this apostolic courage, it becomes a stalled church, a tidy church, nice, very nice, but without fertility, because it has lost the courage to go to the peripheries, where there are so many victims of idolatry, of worldliness, of weak thinking” (emphasis mine).

“Build bridges, not walls” – it’s not a bad metaphor – but the trouble is when people do talk about building bridges, it typically involves building a one-way bridge designed to bring the proverbial “them” to the proverbial “us”. Which isn’t bad (it is better than a ‘wall only’ with no bridges…or doors…at all). But it’s not missional. It’s not a “go and be” posture. It has the appearance of it – we build a bridge “into” other people’s lives – but then we stand at “our” end of the bridge and shout across the gap, “come on over!” This is still not the fullness of what Jesus calls us to do – the fullness of the Kingdom of God. Jesus calls us to do as the first disciples did, to leave everything and follow him (Mark 10:28, Luke 5:11, etc).

“Leaving” is part and parcel of “following.” How can you follow where Jesus is going if you stay put where you are? If you build a one-way bridge that only comes to you but doesn't go to others?

There is a “classic” illustration that has been used in Western-American Christianity of the cross being a “bridge” over a “gap” so that people can cross over the gap, on the bridge of the cross, to get to Jesus. I’m just going to say it: That illustration gets it wrong. We don’t have to “get to Jesus.” Jesus comes to us. And he doesn’t use a one-way bridge to do it. God becomes incarnate in and through Jesus, both coming to us and returning to the Father…and then coming to us again. It’s a two-way bridge that, when both ways are fully embraced, creates a third way of being – not either/or, but both/and.

The two-way bridge, the life of Christ, shows us that we need to go to the least of these. Not just as visitors, but to become one of the least of these, ourselves – to become incarnate as the least of these the way Jesus became incarnate as one of us, as human, as the least of these. And perhaps to our surprise (though it shouldn’t be), when we do go to the other side, to the margins, to the edges, to the periphery, and we quite literally extend our home to those places – we find something spectacular:

God is there, too.

I want to be where God is. Home is where Jesus is. And if that is everywhere, with the least of these…then I need to go and be everywhere, at home, with the least of these, as one of them…

There is a third way – one of two-way bridges, really big doors, and even some necessary walls - if we dare to leave everything and follow Jesus, making our home with him, with the least of these.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Church, for Losers

It's #tbt time!  Today I am not going to argue with my past self, as I have sometimes been known to do.  In this case, although I do admit to a very tiny amount of editing for clarity, I think I was spot on.  Not only so, but I find this topic very timely for today - for a wide and varied number of reasons.  In a culture and often a church that is obsessed with 'winning,' this paper, written six years ago, has much to say.

While today I tend towards a heavy use of 'ekklesia' rather than 'church,' what I have written still applies, and I didn't change this both because of the subject matter and because it may be easier to imagine what I am talking about in terms of the 'church' that so often does not reflect the meaning of 'ekklesia.' 

My only warning here is that this is an academic paper, and styled as such.  It is also long.  However, for those who care about the future - and the present - of both the Church and our culture, I think it is well worth the read (If I may say so, it did receive an A+ for content and an A overall).  And again, I think it is highly applicable today.  And with you go!  Questions, comments, challenges, and dialogue are always welcome!

Church, For Losers


“Loser.”  There is a word for it, at least for its meaning, in any language, and there always will be.  Although the world is diverse and certainly not a monoculture, nevertheless the culture of the world today is becoming a globalized culture more and more so each day with the rapidly increasing pace of interconnectedness that human societies and individuals share. Embedded in that culture is that some people will be “winners” while others will be “losers”; the former are praised, lauded, and looked to as cult heroes, while the latter are dismissed as the unworthy, ‘un-valuable,’ and unnecessary ‘dregs’ of the world that are despised, even by their own selves.  Everything in this culture is based on achieving more, on becoming great, on appearing to be “number one.”  The last label that anyone would want to have applied to themselves is “loser.”

Yet into such a culture thunder the shocking words of Jesus: “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35, NIV).  And suddenly the word “loser” doesn’t have the same meaning anymore.  Yet these words of Christ have seemingly not penetrated, at least in this generation, to the heart of Christ’s Church.  The Church in its cultural context also lusts after the self-respectable title of being “winners”; and so it equates salvation with winning.  To be saved is to ‘win;’ to achieve the best this world has to offer.  Very often the Church is equally as shocked as the culture to hear Jesus say that in order to save one has to lose.  To become who Christ is calling the Church to be, it must lay down its life rather than grab for power; take up its cross rather than reach for worldly respectability; serve “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40, NIV) rather than serve itself.  In short, to become “losers.” On purpose.  If the Church wants to save its life and the lives of those to whom it ministers, then it must lose it.  The Church must become the “Church, for losers.” 

How does this happen?  Are there not too many cultural, historical, and even religious barriers to overcome?  Yes, it is wise to be forewarned:  These ideas may not sit well with church growth strategists, denominational leadership, or the culture at large.  But if the Church is to be about the business of Jesus - the transformation of people, culture, and the whole of creation - then it must pursue this upside-down Kingdom principle:  In order to save, you have to lose.  In exploring this idea more fully, the context of Mark 8:35 will be considered, the cost of discipleship dwelt upon, and the sacrifice and suffering of Jesus as it relates to the ongoing work of the Church reflected upon.

To better understand what Jesus means by “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it,” the context of the passage of Mark must be looked at.  Jesus is teaching His disciples privately during this scene and ends up having a confrontation with Peter, after which he calls everyone to Himself in order to teach all those who would choose to follow Jesus some truths about just precisely what that means:

 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.  But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. "Get behind me, Satan!" he said. "You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men." Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels" (Mark 8:31-38, NIV).

In this passage the word “save” in Greek is transliterated “sozo.”  It has many uses but primarily includes ‘save,’ ‘healed,’ or ‘bring safely’ (Goodrick and Kohlenberger, 1795).  Vine says it is used here in the same way as “soteria,” or salvation, from which we get the discipline of soteriology, and that it is used of “deliverance from danger, suffering, etc” (Vine, 1984, 547).  So when Jesus speaks here of saving one’s life, in the context of denying oneself, taking up one’s cross, and following Him, He is speaking of salvation.  This is not about some sort of unusual call that a chosen few must take up for the sake of the many; this is what Jesus does by becoming the one sacrifice for sin for all.  This is made clear by how Jesus gathers around all those who had been following Him: “The reference to ‘the crowd’ is admittedly surprising. Its significance seems to be that the teaching is not just for the Twelve but for all who would follow Jesus” (Brooks, 1992).   Jesus calls all His followers to respond to this teaching; “this is not a special formula for the elite, but an essential element in discipleship (France, 2002).  For anyone who wants to follow Jesus, they must find salvation through Him; a salvation that necessarily means saving one’s life by losing it.

But the word “lose” here must be understood as well.  It is transliterated ‘apollymi’ and has uses of ‘lose,’ ‘destroy,’ ‘perish,’ ‘kill,’ and ‘bring to end’ (Goodrick and Kohlenberger, 1686).    However, Jesus goes on to say, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36, NIV).  The word ‘forfeit’ can also be translated ‘lose’ but is the word ‘zemioo’ and is used as ‘to damage’ and can mean ‘to suffer loss, forfeit, lose’ (Vine, 1984, 380).  In Luke’s account of this teaching, these two words are combined in Jesus’ statement: What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?” (Luke 9:25, NIV)  So the word lose in Jesus’ use here may be best understood as ‘to suffer loss’ or ‘to be damaged’ or to ‘be brought to an end’ rather than being literally killed or destroyed.  And which is actually more difficult…to have our lives utterly destroyed and to cease to exist, or, to still fully exist yet all the while be damaged and suffering?  What would most people choose, if given the choice:  To go on suffering, or to die?  Jesus’ way is not a way of escape from pain, but a way that goes through it.  In Jesus’ way, His followers must be ‘brought to an end’ in order that He might ‘bring them safely’ into salvation.

This is an upside down Kingdom of God view of things, which humanity finds itself quite unacquainted with in its ‘natural’ (fallen) state.  Paul outlines this complete reversal of understanding of what it means to save, which is to save-by-losing, when he too uses ‘zemioo’ when  he says he has “lost all things” in Philippians 3:7-8:  “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ” (NIV).  Paul goes on to write that as a follower of Jesus he wants to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11, NIV).  Attaining to that resurrection is the full measure of salvation, and it is found by becoming a “loser” in this world through sharing in the sufferings of Jesus. 

This is “the cost of discipleship” as Bonhoeffer says.  As “losers” it “brings us to an end,” and goes beyond what France calls “the inadequacy of a view of discipleship as merely the imitation of Jesus” (2002), beyond only suffering as Jesus suffered to being completely rejected by this world.  Bonhoeffer put it this way:  “[There is] a distinction...between suffering and rejection.  Had he only suffered, Jesus might still have been applauded as the Messiah.  All the sympathy and admiration of the world might have been focused on his passion.  It could have been viewed as a tragedy with its own intrinsic value, dignity and honour.  But in the passion Jesus is a rejected Messiah” (Bonhoeffer, 1995, 87).

“Reject.”  Interestingly, that is another word commonly tossed around in the culture as a synonym for “loser.”  Jesus, the suffering Messiah, is considered by religious and non-religious authority alike as “loser.”  If the Church is to identify with Jesus at all, it must identify not only with Jesus’ sufferings but with Jesus’ rejection.  It must understand “loserdom.”  If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t fully identify with Jesus Himself.

Bonhoeffer again says that “to die on the cross means to die despised and rejected of men.  Suffering and rejection are laid upon Jesus as a divine necessity, and every attempt to prevent it is the work of the devil, especially when it comes from his own disciples” (Bonhoeffer, 1995, 87).  This is why Jesus says to Peter “get behind me, Satan!” (Mark 8:33, NIV) when Peter tries to rebuke Jesus for saying that He would suffer, be rejected, and die.  Does the Church today view suffering and rejection not just as something it may have to taste and endure from time to time in the rarest of circumstances, or as a divine necessity, a requirement of its existence and a measurement of its faithfulness to the call of Jesus Christ?  For “just as Christ is Christ only in virtue of his suffering and rejection, so the disciple is a disciple only in so far as he shares his Lord’s suffering and rejection and crucifixion” (Bonhoefffer, 1995, 87).

Can the Church find an ability to look at itself and ask, “Are we suffering?  Are we being rejected?  Are we considered “losers”?  And do we welcome in the name of Jesus all who are experiencing the same?  And, if we are not and do not, why not?  And what can we do to transform our existence to more fully identify with the Lord Jesus Christ?”  Or will the Church attempt to avoid this kind of suffering and rejection, to eschew “loserdom,” and so become a tool of the devil rather than an instrument of Christ?

In order to do the former, the Church must identify with Jesus by living in what Ray Stedman has called “the way of the cross” (Stedman, 2010).  Stedman says that the call of Mark 8:34 to take up one’s cross “is our Lord's outline of the process of discipleship. Here, in his own words, we look at what it means to be a disciple” (Stedman, 2010).

The very definition of what it means to be a follower of Jesus and to be the Church changes dramatically based on to what degree the Christ-follower and the Church accept this teaching of Jesus.  Many have struggled with this, for “it raises the question that many ask: Can you be a Christian and not be a disciple? -- Is discipleship a second stage of Christianity? -- Are there many Christians, but only a relatively few disciples? -- Can you be a Christian and not be a disciple?” (Stedman, 2010)  It is important here to look again at what Jesus says to introduce his pronouncement of losing-to-save: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34, NIV).

Stedman says that “the word ‘deny’ means to ‘disavow any connection with something, to state that you are not connected in any way with whatever is in view’ (2010).  Jesus uses this not to say that His followers are to deny themselves from any particular thing, but that they are to literally deny themselves.  According to Brooks, “to deny oneself is not to do without something or even many things. It is not asceticism, not self-rejection or self-hatred, nor is it even the disowning of particular sins. It is to renounce the self as the dominant element in life. It is to replace the self with God-in-Christ as the object of affections. It is to place the divine will before is a willingness to suffer for Jesus and for others. Such a concept of discipleship is so radical that many contemporary Christians in the West have difficulty relating to it (1992).” 

Talk about changing the commonly accepted definition of what it means to be the Church!  Self-denial runs counter to the world, counter to the culture, and very often counter to the culturally-assimilated Church.  Almost instinctively we draw back from these words.  We are much more comfortable with words like ‘self-fulfillment’ and ‘self-actualization’ than we are with the thought of ‘self-denial’” (Foster, 2000, 113).   The Church has often failed to understand Jesus’ teaching that the way to self-fulfillment is through self-denial.  To save the life is to lose it.

Yet becoming “losers” in this way is the essence of what Jesus says is means to follow Him:  To take up one’s cross.  And isn’t Jesus’ definition of following the one that really matters?  Stedman says that quite simply “there can be no discipleship apart from it” (2010).

To be the Church then is a costly thing, for it involves the Church taking up its cross to follow, as “losers,” every day.  It cannot be overemphasized that this is more difficult and costly than most want to imagine:  The metaphor of taking up one’s own cross is not to be domesticated into an exhortation merely to endure hardship patiently...what Jesus calls for here is thus a radical abandonment of one’s own identity and self-determination...‘it is not the denial of something to the self, but the denial of the self itself’” (France, 2002).  How does the Church reorient itself to the suffering of Jesus and His sacrifice as it relates to the ongoing work of the Church?  What happens when taking up the cross, losing-to-save, becomes the definition of what it means to follow Christ?

There are a number of constructive ways the Church can reorient itself as “Church, for losers” in light of Jesus’ depiction of what it means to be His follower.  The Church must first make the eschatological connection between losing now to save for later and saving now to lose for later.  The hope that the Church has in Christ is a future hope that has already begun through the coming of the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed and then brought about through His life, death and resurrection. There can no longer be a disconnect between the activity of the Church and of Christ-followers within this world and the future hope that is anticipated, because the anticipation has already started: “In the fate of Jesus the end of history has taken place beforehand as an anticipation” (Moltmann, 1993, 172).  The Church at present has to be anticipatory of the future hope by being participatory in the past sufferings of Jesus.  Moltmann states that “without this eschatological consciousness of time, all the things that the Christian church claims and proclaims as being present:  the forgiveness of sins, reconciliation and discipleship in love, are fundamentally impossible” (Moltmann, 1993, 171).  The Church becomes not much more than a hypocritical assembly of lofty but unfulfilled good intentions if it does not presently suffer with Jesus.

In order to suffer with Jesus, the Church must embrace the abandonment of Jesus by God on the cross.  Paul writes “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20, NIV).  If the Church is to be crucified with Christ it will mean experiencing abandonment in its suffering. The conscious choice will always be there:  To do what is comfortable and intuitive or to do what is scandalous and upside-down.  The moments will come when the Church must do what it seems it cannot do, and consciously choose against its own interests and well-being in order to serve the interests and well-being of others.  The Church will abandon the Church for the sake of those who are not the Church, losing its own life in order to save them in the same way God abandoned God for the sake of the creation, losing God’s own life in order to save it.  Embracing that abandonment is the way of the cross.

To embrace abandonment will require submission of the Church to God and submission as well to the other members of the body of Christ.  The Church at times may take for granted that it is in submission to God.  Or, it may not see how submission to God is connected to submission to the members of the body.  But scripture has clear instructions that Christ followers are to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21, NIV).  Doing so does not come by human nature, which easily twists and manipulates the idea of submission into something altogether different than what Jesus did by submitting to the cross:  “Most of us have been exposed to such a mutilated form of biblical submission that either we have embraced the deformity or we have rejected the discipline altogether.  To do the former leads to self-hatred; to do the latter leads to self-glorification” (Foster, 1978, 113).  To submit to Jesus, and as Jesus did, leads to neither of the former ‘selfs’ but instead to the self-denial of Mark 8:34.  This submission is costly to the Church, for it must lose ‘it-self.’  But scripture is again clear:  “‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’  Submit yourselves, then, to God” (James 4:6-7, NIV).

That particular scripture shows the vehicle through which the Church can practice submission:  Humility, which is another of the means by which the Church must reorient itself.  “Humble people will willingly submit to those whom God has put in authority over them in every arena of life” (Wagner, 2002, 79) (provided such people are not abusing their authority and oppressing the humble).  The Church must look to the One who has authority over itself:  God.  To be authentic followers of Jesus the Church must submit to God and to each other, or risk becoming something other than what the Church was meant to be.  True humility from the Church would mean that it no longer makes “looking” good a priority and instead concentrates on “being” good - “goodness” being one of the fruits of the Spirit that Christ followers and the Church must display if they are authentically Christian.  Not being humble again leads to the aforementioned “hypocritical assembly,” as John Stott has said:  “Humility is not pretending to be other than what we are, but acknowledging the truth about what we are” (Wagner, 2002, 86).  The Church must humbly acknowledge the truth about what it is and seek to submit to God and each other in order to continue in the process of authentically becoming all that God intends it to be.  Jesus says that “whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12, NIV).  This is quite similar to “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35, NIV), and for good reason:  It takes humility to submit to God, embrace abandonment, and suffer with Jesus in the present while living now in the future hope that has begun to be revealed.  All of these means of reorientation to a “Church, for losers” lead the Church back to the first and key ingredient to following Christ:  Obedience (which is submission to Christ, flowing out of love). 

The lead in to the lose-to-save statement of Jesus has been explored in terms of the first part, self-denial, and the second part, taking up one’s cross by embracing suffering, abandonment, submission and humility.  But there is one more step to be taken, and it is the step in which Jesus calls anyone who wants to follow him in precisely the same way, just as He did with His first disciples:  “Follow me.”  The Church that does not follow Jesus in the way that Jesus calls is not obedient to Jesus.  And a Church not obedient to Jesus is something different altogether from the Church.  Stedman writes, “the third step is, ‘Follow me.’ This really means, ‘Obey me.’ Is it not remarkable that it takes us so long to understand that if disobedience is the name of the game before we are Christians, then certainly obedience is the name of the game after we become Christians. It must be” (Stedman, 2010). 

An untenable dichotomy has been reached in much of Western/American Christianity, one in which the Church and the Christ followers within claim to be able to live as they please under the guise of the grace of God covering their actions.  Self-interest and a drive to be number one are seen as perfectly well within the scope of being a “good Christian” as long as these things do not get “too far out of control” and Christians continue to pay lip service to the Kingdom by attending a church building or perhaps praying a blessing before they eat.  Again, Stedman relates how “I am amazed at people who say that they are Christians, but then blatantly, and even pridefully, acknowledge that they do not follow the Lord, do not do what he says” (Stedman, 2010).  He goes on to say that “Christianity is all about...following Jesus, doing what he says -- like, ‘Love your enemy,’ (Matthew 5:44). ‘Pray for those who hurt you,’ (Matthew 5:44). ‘Forgive those who offend you,’ (Matthew 6:14-15). Those are not merely wise and helpful words; they represent a way of life our Lord is setting out before us” (Stedman, 2010).  The Church must live out the kind of life that Jesus not just recommended, but commanded, both as individual Christ-followers and corporately as the Church.  The Church is good at talking about praying and “doing God’s will”; but many churches seem not to look very much like Jesus’ teachings from the Sermon on the Mount or the parable of the least of these.  This cannot be anything other than a lack of obedience to the kind of calling Jesus has issued His Church. 

This is the calling where the “losers” are embraced and loved and accepted unconditionally, and in fact the Church is called to become the same as those they are to love.  For it is in fact that they are, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, NIV).  All are losers, all are “the least of these.”  And obedience will always lead to serving the least.

But how does the Church move forward as losers-in-obedience?  Joseph Stowell points out the many things that can keep people from becoming “losers” by comparing those things to the “nets” that Peter and Andrew left in order to follow Christ’s call: “A net is anything that inhibits or prohibits our non-negotiated commitment to follow Christ” (Stowell, 1996, 136).  If the Church is going to reorient itself as a “Church, for losers” it may be that it has to let go of many of the earthly comforts it has come to depend upon, at least in the west.  There cannot be a set of underwritten assumptions that certain material possessions or ways of living are “non-negotiable”; it is the cross that is non-negotiable, and to take it up is to be open to any direction that Jesus might lead, even and especially those that seems completely counter to the world, the culture, and perhaps the Church’s existence itself.  Stowell notes that “followers go all the way.  They go wherever Christ leads them- and it’s the ‘wherever’ that is so challenging” (Stowell, 1996, 139).  It is a challenge, but one that each new generation of Christ followers and Churches must take up.  The Church must live in the way of the cross, at any cost:  “Our willingness to pay the price of a cross is the pivotal issue of being a fully devoted follower.  If I refuse crosses, then I cannot be a follower; if I follow, then crosses are inevitable.  The cost is measured in some of the more prized currency in our lives- comfort, convenience, health, wealth, fulfillment, and self-protection” (Stowell, 1996, 197).  It is this “prized currency” that the Church must seek to pass on to others for their betterment, not hoard for itself, in order to live out obedience that not only leads to serving the least, but is most clearly seen through it because it is the embodiment of what it means to lose one’s life in order to save it.

Dorothy Day writes of her work at a Detroit “hospitality house” that it was a “long loneliness”, for “over and over again in our work, many young men and women who come as volunteers have not been able to endure it and have gone away...many left the work because they could see no use in this gesture of feeding the poor, and because of their own shame.  But enduring this shame is part of our penance” (Foster & Griffin, 2000, 212-213).  In caring for the “least of these” she found that she lost her own life in order to serve others...but that few were able to accomplish this.  Her story is not dissimilar to what John described in his gospel:

Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you...on hearing it, many of his disciples said, "This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?"...[Jesus] went on to say, "This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him." From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:53, 60, 65-66, NIV).

There will be many who will turn back from the way of the cross.  There will be plenty who will reject the notion of a “Church, for losers.”  But the Church that follows the call of Jesus to the very end is the Church that in that end is obedient to Christ, losing their life in order to save it, saving their life by losing it.  Obedience is still culturally looked upon with some degree of admiration, but only in certain contexts.  Obedience that is obedient to the very end, authentically so and not just artificially constructed, is considered the realm of ‘radicals’ who may in fact even be ‘dangerous.’  To be crucified with Christ, to lose-to-save, is usually considered in this manner.  But Moltmann writes that “crucifixion with Jesus...[is practiced] in the new obedience which is no longer conformed to this world (Rom. 12:2)” (Moltmann, 1993, 56).  The new obedience is not conformed but is instead transformed as Paul writes.  Such a complete transformation is precisely what the Church needs to become the “Church, for losers” - saving its life by losing it, losing its life in order to save it.  The only question is, will the Church take that call seriously?  Will it trust in itself, or trust in the words of Jesus?

Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You're not in the driver's seat; I am. Don't run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I'll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for? (Mark 8:34-37, MSG).

May the Church not trade its soul to be number one in kingdoms of this world, but instead give its very self to be saved in the Kingdom of God.  May it be upside down, living in that Kingdom, in anticipation of its fullness that has already begun to be revealed through Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Works Cited

Barker, Kenneth, Ed.  Reflecting God Study Bible (NIV).  Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI, 2000.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich.  The Cost of Discipleship.  Touchstone:  New York, NY, 1995.

Brooks, James A.  The New American Commentary, Volume 23: Mark.  Broadman & Holman: Nashville, TN, 1992.

Foster, Richard J.  Celebration of Discipline:  The Path to Spiritual Growth.  HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY, 2000.

Foster, Richard J. and Griffin, Emilie, Eds.  Spiritual Classics: Selected Readings on the Twelve Spiritual Disciplines.  HarperCollins Publishers:  New York, NY, 2000.

France, R.T.  The Gospel of Mark:  A Commentary On The Greek Text.  Wm. B. Eeerdmans Publishing Co.:  Grand Rapids, MI, 2002.

Goodrick, Edward W. and Kohlenberger, John R. III., Eds.  The NIV Exhaustive Concordance. Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan, 1990.

Moltmann, Jurgen.  The Crucified God.  Fortress Press:  Minneapolis, MN, 1993.

Peterson, Eugene H.  The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language.  Colorado Springs, CO:  Navpress, 2002.

Stedman, Ray C.  The Way of the Cross.  Accessed 24 April, 2010.

Stowell, Joseph M.  Following Christ:  Experiencing Life the Way it Was Meant To Be. Zondervan:  Grand Rapids, MI, 1996.

Wagner, C. Peter.  Humility.  Regal Books:  Ventura, CA, 2002.