Saturday, January 28, 2012

Gospel of Mark: Disciples Called to Animate the Messianic Narrative

Karl Barth once wrote, "Theology responds to the Word which God has spoken, still speaks, and will speak again in the history of Jesus Christ which fulfills the history of Israel" (Evangelical Theology, 20). That is to say, the Word of God is not a frozen specimen to be dissected, rather a living and active testament to what God has done, is doing, and will continue to do in and through the person and work of Jesus and those who profess to be Jesus' disciples. In this vein, Scripture warrants readers to move beyond mere passive spectating and into real participation, i.e. what Ched Myer's calls "theological animation." [1]

This is particularly significant when one engages the Gospel of Mark.[2] All too often the Church has approached the Gospel as though it were gifted to God's people in order to siphon desired timeless "Truths" and ascent to absolute certainty about a series of theological propositions (especially those that assert the divinity of Jesus).[3] This oppressive and malevolent posture against Scripture not only domesticates the gospel within the (not-so) friendly confines of ivory theological towers, but also and especially de-fangs the biblical narrative of its contemporary significance intended to provoke the prophetic imagination of disciples past and present.

The Gospel of Mark exists for so much more. That is, Mark's writing is the intentional and subversive development of a "new literary genre" for the first-century Roman world: gospel (Myers 92). This gospel invites the people of God to shift their perspectives from the dominant and oppressive center, as occupied by the political and religious elite,[4] and towards God's activity on the margins, i.e. the prophetic periphery. In other words, the Gospel of Mark is a call for hermeneutical and socio-political repentance that challenges our assumptions about what is good, just, right, and characteristic of the kingdom of God. Ched Myers writes:

"The evangelist Mark, too, enlisted into the war of myths in his day; he did so by writing his gospel, by retelling the story of Jesus of Nazareth and his struggles with the 'powers' of Roman Palestine. Today, how we interpret that Gospel depends upon our reading of, and engagement in, the war of myths that still continues." (4).

Therefore, whenever we engage in Bible Study, either as individuals or in the context of community, we eavesdrop on a cross-cultural religious and socio-political conversation (45). This rolling dialogue challenges the powers-that-be [5], past and present, which infringe upon God's dreams for the world and God's special concern for dwellers on the periphery.

That said, it is the task of anyone who reads the Gospel of Mark to pay close attention and uncover the poignancy of this "war on myths," not so much for the purpose of intellectual ascent, rather as means to animate radical discipleship in twenty-first century contexts. In so doing, disciples of the crucified and resurrected Messiah will begin to discover that the gospel is not only what God said, but also and especially what God continues to say in and through the person and work of Jesus. If we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear the message of Mark, we will soon discover that this divine activity often takes place, much to our surprise, on the periphery of our power-hungry world. It is only fitting to end where we began- with Karl Barth:

"The community does not speak with words alone. It speaks by the very fact of its existence in the world; by its characteristic attitude to world problems; and, moreover and especially, by its silent service to all the handicapped, weak, and needy in the world. It speaks, finally, by the simple fact that it prays for the world. It does all this because this is the purpose of its summons by the Word of God. It cannot avoid doing these things, since it believes" (Evangelical Theology, 38).

[1] Much of my reading on the Gospel of Mark is framed in light of Ched Myers' work, Binding the Strong Man (Orbis, 1988). All citations here are from this text, unless otherwise noted.
[2] This post was written in preparation for and use within an upcoming course on the Gospel of Mark, as prescribed by the Revised Common Lectionary (Year B).
[3] This is not to say that the divinity of Jesus cannot be derived from the Gospel of Mark; rather, this theological conviction, contrary to much of what is taught and assumed, is not the primary focus of the gospel writer
[4] "The 'center-periphery' model is in many respects germane also to the world, and hence the site, of Mark himself. The ancient Mediterranean world was dominated by the rule of imperial Rome. However, whereas I read from the center, Mark wrote from the Palestinian periphery. His primary audience were those whose daily lives bore the exploitative weight of colonialism, whereas mine are those who are in a position to enjoy the privileges of the colonizer" (6).
[5] A great and related read on these "powers" is Walter Wink's, Engaging the Powers (Fortress Press, 1992).

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Life as Liturgy: A Pastoral Prayer for Worship

The Westminster community has begun a series on the vision and mission of our congregation.  This week we engaged, "Worship as Our First Calling."  Below is the pastoral prayer that some have asked to be posted or sent as we continue to contemplate what it looks like to not "go" to worship, rather to live into worship.  Said best, life is liturgy.

God of creation, we are reminded that from the very beginning you have had a vision for your people.  You have called us your image bearers, made out of dust to radiate and reflect your goodness in the world. You have invited us to be story tellers and story dwellers, not only proclaiming with our lips but also living into with our very lives how you have worked in and through your people throughout history.  You have dreamed for us to be peacemakers, justice seekers, care givers, resource sharers, and hope instillers.  You have provoked us to have the ears to hear the cries of the oppressed, the yearnings of the broken, the struggles of the wounded, and the pleas of the long forsaken, marginalized, and ignored.  Still more, you have nudged us to have the eyes to see where we can be a people of liberation, agents of healing, and incarnations of your radical hospitality.

Yet above all, you have fashioned us to be worshipers.  All that we say and do as individuals and a community of faith is wrapped up as a living sacrifice to you who molded and shaped us to be your people in the world.  While we may gather for worship in this place, may we also see every waking moment as an opportunity to live into the liturgy of the gospel beyond the four walls of this building..

May we wake as a call to worship.

May our daily interactions with neighbors, co-workers, family, friends, and the kid who sits alone at lunch be bold moments to affirm our faith.

May our encounters with those who have offended us and those we have offended be real moments to confess our need for forgiveness.  Strengthen us so we may offer such forgiveness to another.  Humble us so we can receive it when forgiveness is offered to us.

Make us a Eucharistic people, your body and blood in the world, who enter into the broken places.  Make us willing and able to vision together where we can incarnate the love of Christ to the poor from High Street to Honduras.  Lead us to pursue generosity from Market Street to Mexico.  Guide us as we extend the table of compassion from the borough to Broad Street.  We also ask that we would be able to enter into communion with those in this congregation who long for your help and peace:

Father, Son, Holy Spirit, we worship you as the one who created us, sustains us, and moves us all the more closer to the final day when all will worship you in spirit and in truth. Until that day, we give you thanks that you have enabled us to be a people who sing into the world this good news found in and through the person and work of Jesus, our Lord.  And may the prayer Jesus taught us be the song that gives rhythm to all that we are and all that we strive to become as we say this prayer together:

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, butdeliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the powerand the glory, forever. Amen

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Why Talk Anymore? Community Formation & On-Line World

A few weeks ago I was sitting next to a former student in the Imago Dei Youth Ministry when he mentioned to me a recent update regarding his brother,

"He got accepted into one of his top colleges."

“I know," I responded. "I saw on Facebook.”

He quickly commented back, “Why do we even talk anymore?”

There is a lot of truth to my friend’s tongue-in-cheek retort. We are so inundated with social media and various forms of on-line communication that real human interactions and verbal dialogue seem out-dated and redundant at best. Yet I wonder, do these electronic interactions and web-based conversations have any real depth? Do they ever extend much farther than clever emoticons and shorthand text-lingo? Can we actually form true community and worthwhile relationships over the world wide web?

So I offer my thoughts, certainly aware of the irony, through my blog.

Yes: Community Can Be Fostered On-Line

As a youth pastor I can say without a doubt that I have witnessed the birth and evolution of adolescent community through the medium of social networking sites like Facebook, Blogger, WordPress, and Twitter. The same rings true for the adult populous of our congregation. There is an ability to share information and swap formative resources through the simple posting of a URL to a given current event, news story, creative video, or pertinent commentary related to theology and/or Scripture. I have found some of my most sacred discoveries through friends within my on-line community.

Even more, some of my most intentional, raw, and honest dialogues, dare I say pastoral ministry, have taken place over the internet. I have discovered that there is a tendency for students and adults who typically balk at any interaction beyond superficial banter to share deeper elements of their story through wall posts, Facebook chats, and other social-network dialogue. There are caution flags to be waved, for sure, when we deceive ourselves and believe to have "security" and "confidentiality" through these variations of on-line community. Furthermore, we are all aware of the horrific incidents that should cause us to pause and be on-guard whenever we engage in on-line discourse. But these abuses of technology do not extinguish the plausibility, even certainty, that community can be generated on-line. Actually, in the emerging technological age, which is actually not emerging but already here, this variation of community occurs quite often. I not only am grateful for this, but also have benefited significantly.

No: On-Line Community Cannot Replace Tangible Human Interactions

In short, unless we are willing to enter into flesh and blood interactions with others we will never fully experience community as God intended. Again, this is not to say that beautiful forms of community do not take place on-line. Rather, it is to say that community can only reach its fullest of potential when people gather together in tangible ways. I think a theology of the incarnation can underscore the significance of this suggestion.

The Christian tradition throughout history has held fast to the theology of Jesus as "God-in-flesh." In other words, while God's people, prior to the incarnation of Jesus, were able to pilgrimage together en route towards God's dreams for the world, confident that God was with them, only through the advent of Immanuel does the imago Dei fully experience and enter into fellowship with the Creator.

The Law: a gift.

The writings: a shared story.

The Temple: a sacred place.

But all of these are a mere shadow of the "with God life" compared to the actual incarnation of God in real human flesh. Still more, this Jesus as God incarnate called a people to live into the incarnation as they not only "provoke one another to love and good deeds," but also refuse to neglect the significance of "meeting together" (Hebrews 10:24-25).

Yet this is the habit of some.

I write all this because as I begin a new series with the Imago Dei Youth Ministry, "Below the Surface: Relationships and Faith of Depth," I am reminded how difficult it is to move beyond superficial dialogue and community engagements and to go deeper. As my former student said, "why do we even talk anymore?" Better said, do we even talk anymore? Or are we so entrenched in a Facebook world that we no longer have the capacity to engage in conversations, sustain strong relationships, covenant and commit to faith communities, and even pursue faith that dives below the surface.

Phyllis Tickle alludes to this in The Great Emergence:

"Dependency on machines, in other words, is part of the Great Emergence, and it infiltrates far more than our mundane activities. It infiltrates as well our unsettled and unsettling inability to determine where the line is between us and many of them we will allow into our bodies, how much we will allow them to stimulate our actions, how long we will be able to control them" (15).

I love social networking. I value the advances in technology that make communication with neighbors near and far possible in an instant. I am grateful for the ability to share ideas, stories, articles, videos, and thoughts through mediums like this blog with people all over the world and in my own church.

But while community may happen there, it does not end there. It should not end there.

Community needs to be incarnated. Community requires flesh and blood least if we want our communities to move below the surface.


[1] Two great and relevant clips from Portlandia that expose the propensity for shallow conversations should we become so obsessed with community through social networking and media: "Technology Loop" & "Did You Read?"

Updated 3/27/12

A great interview of Brandon Vogt on his book, The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, On-Line Activists, and Bishops Who Tweet, available on

This article was also featured in the on-line resources of CONSPIRE Magazine.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Year of Gratitude: Moving Beyond Mere Cynicism

The past few years I have noticed that I have grown increasingly cynical. The circumstances of my own life, pastoral ministry to the life circumstances of others, encounters with poverty and contexts of oppression, rapid reading and engagement with current events, and a whole host of other factors have resulted in a very jaded version of me. Said differenty, suspicion and cynicism have become my new religions.[1] I have noticed that without fail many conversations move rather quickly from friendly discourse to critical banter. While there is nothing inherently wrong with the desire to move beyond superficiality and to challenge the status quo, to be defined by cynicism and suspicion is a deadly trap to the human spirit. This trap has begun to dig its teeth into my soul and cripple my passion. Even worse, I have begun to miss the beautiful attestations to God's kingdom alive and well all around me: in my family, my community, my church, and the world.

I have a particular zeal for the prophetic tradition and concern that is to play a pivotal role in God's people and ecclessial witness. We must be willing to ask the hard questions, to pull back the curtain on false assumptions and cheap imitations of truth, and to expose the idols of our culture and socio-political systems that continue to oppress and offend so many.

Said differently, we are to be a people of the cross.

Yet we must not forget that we are also a people of the resurrection.

Even more, we are a people who claim the Eucharist as sacramental center to our worship and missional vocation in the world.

And Eucharist means to give thanks. [2]

I need to be more Eucharistic. This is my New Year's resolution.

I declare 2012 as the "Year of Gratitude," I proclaim 2012 as the year of thanksgiving. I resolve to make 2012 a fresh opportunity to incarnate a Eucharistic frame of mind.

In 2012 I will move beyond mere cynicsm and strive to give thanks for the many blessings around me...

Maybe you will join me...Maybe you can help me...

"And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him" (Colossians 3:15-17).


[1] A great song by Switchfoot, "Selling the News" (2011).

[2] Karl Barth says it best, "The only answer to χάρις is εύχαριστία...χάρις always demands the answer of εύχαριστία. Grace and gratitude belong together like heaven and earth. Grace evokes gratitude like the voice of an echo. Gratitude follows grace like thunder lightning" (Church Dogmatics IV, p. 41).