Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Through the Roof: A Better Way (Reflections on Mark 2:1-12)

"What good is a man who won't take a stand? What good is a cynic, with no better plan? 'Cause I believe there's a better way. Reality is sharp. It cuts me like a knife. Everyone I know is in the fight of their life. 'Cause I believe there's a better way." (Ben Harper, "Better Way")

I, too, believe there’s a better way. There has to be a better way. Every day our consciences are confronted as we encounter, via newspapers, websites, local and global news stations, and our own travels up and down the streets of Philly, a world that is both beautiful and in distress. We are heartbroken when we learn of the on-going drug wars that wreak havoc on the beautiful country of Honduras. We cringe upon discovery that children continue to be kidnapped in Uganda to serve as brainwashed soldiers, robbed of their innocence and forced to carry out unimaginable orders and assignments by their still “free” oppressor. Then we enter our own borders and our own cities. Unemployment. Homelessness. Addictions. Poverty. Lack of healthcare. Racism. Sexism. Classism. Homophobism. I have not even mentioned the bullying and exclusion pervasive throughout middle and high school hallways and cafeterias. The list is infinite of the disastrous events, heinous ideals, and oppressive systems that leave so many victimized and on the margins. These realities are sharp and they cut through our hearts and minds like a knife.

In the wake of these tragedies, it is easy to be a cynic. It is easy to be a critic. Yet the challenge of our generation is not solely to intensify our criticisms, rather to explore and engage our imaginations with audacity. That is, as cynics we must refuse to surrender to the obstacles created by events, systems, and institutions that create, permit, and condone human distress, and instead look for new opportunities to rise above the chaos and confusion and discover fresh openings for human liberation. ‘Cause I believe there’s a better way.

This is where we encounter this riviting gospel text from the book of Mark. The writer illustrates this Jesus as on the move, traveling from place to place with great hurry and immediacy. The life and mission of Jesus is mysterious, subversive, and received with a mixture of responses, none short of confusion and wonder. Jesus, most likely born a poor, Jewish peasant within the first-century Mediterranean world, moves quickly through lower-class villages with a message that confronts the systems, challenges the institutions, and sparks the imaginations to look beyond supposed realities and towards better ways, even God’s way of deliverance and new life.

In Mark 2: 1, Jesus has returned from a preaching and healing tour throughout Galilee and finally arrived “home” in Capernaum. [1] It could be said that Jesus has planted a house-church in the beginning of this gospel, which has raised more than a few eyebrows. [2] The news has traveled quickly about this mysterious rabbinic peasant and the crowds rush to Jesus’ dwelling, so much so that they begin to burst the seams of the home. Unless you arrived early that day, you were left outside only to hear faint whispers, if that, of the happenings inside Jesus’ quarters. In other words, you now were in the outer courts, unable to enter the coveted inner courts.

The scene is much like what happens here in Philadelphia when the Phillies clinch the pennant and fanatics rush the stadium ticket windows for a chance to gain entrance into the inner courts of the baseball temple to participate in the (latey, disappointing) festivities. Unless you arrived early, had the right connections, or were willing to spend significant amounts of money, you would be left outside.

Or consider the lines in front of evening shelters in Center City. The homeless line up in front of the less-than-adequate city housing in hopes of a warm place to stay and to get rest. Many wait in line in vain as beds run out and occupancy limits are reached and exceeded. Therefore, the streets become their bed and the grates become their opportunity for warmth.

Then there is the all-to-familiar feeling when a student walks into a high school cafeteria, scans the scene, and notices that there are no empty seats, or at least nobody willing to slide over and make room.

Still more, we could say the scene is similar to what it would have been like for the Jewish people, i.e. those in this first-century narrative, who rushed to the temple in Jerusalem, their “home,” [3] for particular festivals and rituals. Eager to enter, many would only encounter large crowds, or worse, magnifications of their own condition and social status that made it next to impossible to gain entrance and participate in the life of the community, even the religious community. In other words, Mark is intentional in this illustration, moving his brush carefully with each stroke that is colored with subversive mystery and suspense. What is going to happen next? Will Jesus’ home not be big enough for the gathered crowds and those on the outskirts of this story?

If the crowds that gathered are not enough to frustrate the reader, now there is a paralytic, carried by his friends, who is eager to meet Jesus, known for his previous healings throughout Galilee, and to hear a fresh word of hope.

But the crowds

As cynics, we would expect for this paralytic, carried by his friends, to be frustrated by the setting and to condemn the situation. Many may recommend that he turn around in disappointment, maybe even telling others rushing to the scene that it is not worth the journey. What they had heard about Jesus is all a myth and only for the privileged. You will not be able to get anywhere close.

Jesus is just like the temple.

But the story does not end with cynics with no greater plan. They believe in a better way, push through the crowds, scale the walls of the house, dig through the roof, and lower their paralytic friend and his mat into the inner courts of Jesus’ home. The paralytic has box seats. He has made it to the front of the line. The last has become first (Mk. 10:31).

It is important to note that this paralytic was probably accustomed to exclusion and marginalization. Crowds were his enemy and welcome was not typical to his condition. But the story in Mark unveils a new experience for this paralytic. Instead of being excluded, he is included. Instead of waiting outside the walls of the house, maybe even the temple, he is lowered into the center and becomes the guest of honor.

Yes, Jesus is like the temple. But this temple is quite different. It may even be a better way.

It is interesting to notice Jesus’ response to the paralytic in this passage, “When Jesus saw their faith he said to the paralytic, “‘Son, your sins are forgiven’” (Mk. 2:5). This man has been unconventionally lowered by his friends to the feet of Jesus and all Jesus offers is forgiveness? It can be difficult to read this story in light of our contemporary notions of sin and forgiveness, especially when we discover that Jesus’ words to the paralytic hinge on such realities. Yet, Jesus’ statement pierced the hearts and minds of those gathered in ways we may no longer be able to recognize at first glance. The paralytic is not forgiven in the sense that his condition is the result of his poor behavior, possibly a form of bad karma or rightful consequence. Furthermore, Jesus is not necessarily offering a simple pardon for drinking too much at a frat party or cheating on a midterm exam. Instead, his offer of forgiveness for his sins is the reconciliation of his socio-economic and religious condition that has made it impossible for him to participate in the life of his community. In other words, Jesus is now declaring that what was once unclean, i.e. the man because of paralysis, is now clean. He is to be received as an equal participant and a significant member within the Jewish community, i.e. he can go to the Temple. It is to this that Jesus responds to the concerned critics by not only “forgiving” the paralytic, but also saying, “‘rise, take your pallet and go home’” (Mk. 2:11, RSV). Jesus has delivered, or resurrected, this man from his oppressive condition and reconciled him to the community as a valued participant and contributor. He and his friends knew there was a better way than paralysis, exclusion, isolation, and frustration. Jesus was that better way, and the crowds outside Jesus’ home, no doubt frustrated by their own location, affirm through Mark’s concluding statement after they witness the paralytic walk out of Jesus’ home, “they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this” (Mk. 2:12)!

The world around us can be a very dark and dreary picture. We look around and there are paralytics everywhere. We witness them in in developing nations and around the streets of Philadelphia. We may even see them in school hallways or cafeterias, looking for inclusion by someone and somehow. It can be difficult to witness and it can harden our hearts so much that we become cynics without a plan other than complaint and retreat. In essence, we become paralyzed ourselves. We may even witness the crowded social, political, and religious institutions and wonder if it is even worth the effort.

Is there a better way?

Our challenge is to allow our imaginations to be confronted by the faith of the paralytic’s friends and look beyond what at first appears to be impossible obstacles and carve out fresh openings for human liberation and deliverance. We must embrace an alternative consciousness that subverts conventional wisdom. In the words of faithful scholar, Marcus Borg:

“Jesus was not primarily a teacher of either correct beliefs or right morals. Rather, he was a teacher of a way or path, specifically a way of transformation” (Borg Jesus: A New Vision, 97).

In so much as we begin to follow this way we see that it is better and able to resurrect even the most paralyzing of human experiences and conditions. May we be ones who follow Jesus and lead others through the crowded systems and situations of injustice and towards resurrected hope and a revolutionary life of welcome.

Still more, we may also find ourselves like the paralytic: isolated and excluded from communities, even those of faith, for reasons undeserved. We travel looking for a place to call home and everywhere we go is crowded. We have no other option but to sit outside the walls and hear faint talk about life as it should and could be. Is there a better way? Again, Marcus Borg is advantageous:

“Jesus frees people from being bent over by bondage so they can stand up straight again, from paralysis so they can walk again” (Borg, Jesus: A New Vision, 203).

My prayer and hope is that this passage lifts you over those crowds, digs you through the ceilings of despair, lowers you into the midst of the one called the Messiah, raises you from your paralysis, and calls you home. Even more, this God has invited you to participate in the resurrection as a valued member of the people of God and the Way of Jesus.

The gospel of Mark is a beautiful narrative that reminds all of us that the world as we know it has been “torn open by God” (Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 88) and raising up new life around us. There is a better way. This is the Christian hope. This is a Christian prayer. This is the Way of Jesus.


[1] N.T. Wright is advantageous on this point, “The focal point of Jerusalem was the temple, the house of God, often referred to simply as ‘the house’” (The Original Jesus, 53).

[2] Ched Myers writes, "The story is an enacted parable of reconstructive worship in an inclusive community. A great crowd gathers in the home (housechurch!) where Jesus 'preaches the Word' (2:2)" ("Say to This Mountain" 19).

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Over-Zealous and Over-Confident: My (Failed) Attempt to Ski Jump for the Gospel?

As I sit here typing, my right hip reminds me that my attempt at pulling some sort of X-Games move off the ramp in the terrain park at Bear Creek Mountain was not my best idea.  However, in my defense, this was a youth ministry ski trip.  So, I did this for Jesus, right?  

While I would love to write a blogpost that explores the theological implications of this crash and burn caught on film, I have come up empty.  I am sure that after a few days I will be able to generate some brilliant and "teachable moment."  But for now, I simply post this for pure entertainment.   Even better, maybe some relevant discourse can take place in the comment feed.  Fear not, as one of my students remarked, "all my dignity was left at the top of the mountain."  That said, nothing posted here can really do any more harm to my ego...

P.S. When I said I was giving up anxiety and worry for Lent....this is NOT what I meant!

If interested in another angle, click here. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Remember That You Are Dust? Matisyahu and Lent...

 "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return."  

These ancient words, recited when the minister signs the cross on a believer's forehead on Ash Wednesday, are humble reminders of our mortality.  We are the created not the Creator.  We are the image bearer, not the image giver.  We are dust.  And to dust we shall return?

I struggle with these words.  When they are whispered to me at the front of the sanctuary every Ash  Wednesday, I baulk for a moment.  Really?  To dust we shall return? 

What about resurrection of the body?

What about new creation? 

Yes, I was made from dust, and my life even "like" dust.  I can rest in that.  But the notion that I will return to dust is personally haunting, let alone theologically puzzling.  

Our staff wrestled with potentially alternative statements upon the imposition of ashes:

Repent and believe the good news? 


Remember that you once were dust?

You are created not creator?

But most settled on the traditional liturgical statement.

I pondered the conversation as I drove home when my playlist jumped to "On Nature," one of my favorite songs by Jewish reggae artist, Matisyahu. Also, perfect timing as I develop the 2012 rendition of "Modern Psalms for the Lenten Journey:"

We are men of nature

We are made from the earth

At the end of my eighty, I'll return to the dirt

Just sand, just rock, dry land, fast and silent

Only bein' only breathin'

We're just children of believers. [1]


Sounds a lot like Psalm 90:10:


"The days of our life are seventy years,

   or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;

even then their span is only toil and trouble;

   they are soon gone, and we fly away" (NRSV).


It is true, we are dust.  While it may remain an ancient mystery, and not fit within a therapeutic theology, we all need the reminder that "to dust we shall return."  The words remind us of those spoken to the first humans (Genesis 3:19) and the present reality of a world caught in already-and-not-yet dreams for new creation.  

Still more, if God can create dust, surely God can and will resurrect all of us from it. 

Until then, life is lived within the dustiness.  


I think Matisyahu gets it here, too:

We came to taste the rain

We're just widows and orphans

Not afraid to feel the pain

Or to leave behind our notions

Bathe in showers, taste the tension,

Hear the howl, climb the mountain,

Kiss the cold and heal the frozen

Read the dreams in this here dungeon.


Yep, I can taste the tension.  It tastes like ash. It's bitter. I don't really like it. But it is the reality of "this here dungeon" called Lent that moves us towards Holy Week...and yes, also towards Resurrection Sunday.

But first, "remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."




[1] The complete lyrics can be found here 

[2] Visit www.imagodeiyouth.com/spiritualformation for previous years' playlists, "Modern Psalms for the Lenten Journey.  Also, check out reflections on Mumford & Sons as Lenten lyrics: http://gregklimovitz.blogspot.com/2011/03/modern-psalms-for-lenten-journey.html  

Friday, February 17, 2012

Be Anxious About Nothing...and a Beagle on Prozac

Even photos cause Copper anxiety...

Yes, I just picked up a Prozac prescription for our six-year-old Beagle, Copper.  My wife and I adopted him and his brother, Jax, from a rescue almost four-years ago, well aware that they both had a history of abuse and neglect that could pose potential difficulties later in life.  While Copper's "twin brother," Jax, has more than overcome his tragic past, Copper has been unable to shake his fear.  Instead, our hound dog lives in a cloud of anxiety that causes him to cower at the slightest sounds, e.g. a baby-tossed cheerio, or elicit pathetic, albeit subconcious, barks while curled up in his bed.  Copper's life is dominated by worry...hence the Prozac.

I have tried reading Philippians 4 to Copper, where Paul writes, "Be anxious about nothing."  The results are less than satisfactory. 

Then I think to myself, I am not much different.

"Be anxious about nothing, Greg."

"In everything, O young theologian, present your requests to God...with thanksgiving."

Yet I continue to cower at the slightest of obstacles.  I bark endlessly whenever trials come my way.  Despite a history of God's provision and grace, I live in fear that somehow this time will be different.

And I panic.

I am not sure which is more difficult for my wife to endure: our mentally disturbed beagle and all his baggage or a husband who preaches faith but so often fails to possess it?  

After 4-6 weeks of Beagle Prozac, I am sure she will probably say the latter. 

This past year has posed a wide variety of changes in our lives.  We have taken risks and welcomed new lives.  We have accrued expenses and been the recipients of extreme generosity.  

I still worry.  Even though God has provided and reminded us over and again that God never leaves nor forsakes, I worry.  

As Lent approaches, I pray for fear and anxiety to be crucified and peace and thanksgiving to be resurrected.  I covenant to celebrate the simple joys in life, be they days off with my kids or conversations with friends.  I hold on hope, confident that as God has been present in the darkest moments of my life, so also will God be present today, tomorrow, and everyday thereafter. 

I will be anxious about nothing. 

Maybe Copper will, too. 


A great article by Lauren Winner, "My Lenten Fast: Giving Up Anxiety."

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Why Church? The Fading Uniqueness in a Post-Christian World

The other day I read a Facebook post by fellow Presby, Bruce Reyes-Chow:
"If a church denomination, association, or organization took their website offline as part of the SOPA Strike, would anyone notice?"
In my 10 years of youth ministry, I would venture to guess that unless there was an upcoming event that required folks to sign-up via said website, not many would notice.

This playful, although quite serious inquiry, also leads to a much larger question: if the church ceased to exist in a particular community would anyone notice?  Still more, would anyone miss it?

Over the course of my young ministry career I have discovered that, at least in the 'burbs, church is no longer central to the vast majority of professing Christians. Yes, it is true that we live in a post-Christian context whereby the church is no longer central to the dominant culture. However, when it can be assessed that we not only live in a post-Christian "secular" society, but also permit a post-church Christian worldview, questions need to be asked.

My question: Is it even possible to profess to be Christian aside from a commitment to and covenanted relationship with a local church?  

I think some believe the affirmative.  If you ask your average pew sitter to describe what it means to be Christian you will often hear responses like, "to be a good person,"  "to love others," "to serve the less fortunate," and a whole host of musings related to deep-seeded twenty-first century altruism also confessed by organizations like the United Way and your local Rotary Club.  These statements are not completely void of truth; rather, they are sure elements of Christian discipleship.  Yet rarely are they followed by any reference to the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Youth Ministry guru, Kenda Creasy-Dean, refers to this phenomenon as "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,"[1] a cultural doctrine that has infiltrated the Christian church and robbed God's people of its unique confession and related mission in and for the world. In other words, if Christianity is what many Christians "confess" it to be, the uniqueness of the church has abruptly faded only to be absorbed by the plethora of other communities, organizations, not-for-profit agencies, and therapeutic spirituality  promoted by pop-psychology and cultural trend.

Said differently, why church when you can love your neighbors through Boy Scouts of America?  Why church when you can participate in charity and community service through your local philanthropy club? Why church when you can be embraced by a community of like-minded people with a common goal through local athletics?  Why church when you can find healing, strength, and spirituality through "leadership" retreats organized by the public school? [2] Why church when you can exercise your unique gifts for the benefit of others through school choirs, bands, and tutoring programs?  Why church when there are as many religious options in your community as there are cereals in your grocer's breakfast aisle?

Why church?  

Again, if the local church ceased to exist would we miss it?  Would we struggle to revive it?  Or would we be relieved that we have one less organization to fund?  Would we feel as though our evenings are finally liberated because we now have one less social activity to drive our kids to on the weekends?  Would we relish the death of a committee and related responsibilities we never really liked in the first place? Would we be energized because Sunday mornings would actually become a time for rest? Would all that we "confess" as markers of the church simply be absorbed in the vast array of service organizations and clubs that lobby for and already claim our allegiances?

My question: Has a shallow and faulty understanding of church made the Body of Christ just one more entity we feel obligated to join so to keep pace with the Joneses?  

That said, I pray for resurrected understandings of the uniqueness of church confession and mission whereby faith language and action are reunited.  I pray for an ecclesial identity revival whereby we speak against injustice, exercise radical hospitality, quest to alleviate poverty and homelessness, practice peace and enemy love, speak for those whose voices go unheard, intervene in the midst of heinous crimes against humanity, tell stories of grace, and entertain strange guests in our home not because we want to be good people, although we do, but because these are the marks of Jesus' disciples who make up the church near and far.  I pray that our present patterns and ways of being in the world would be pursued in light of our future anticipations- dreams of the day to come when God will make all things new and right because of God's work in and through Jesus. I pray that when asked about our hope, our love, and our life lived to the full, we would have the courage to confess Jesus as reason and motivation.

Why church? Because the object and subject of our faith is a crucified and resurrected Jesus from Nazareth, the world's Messiah, who is in process of resurrecting a crucified world.  And yes, this cruciform resurrection is the vocation of the Christian church...it's what makes us unique.

I have a fondness for the rich language of the reformed tradition.  I believe that just when you feel you have had enough of the G-1.whatever and the endless hoops and hurdles blindly prescribed, protected, and preserved, the Spirit unexpectedly shows up and, as Jesus promised, bears witness to all Jesus said, did, and called the church to be:
"Membership in the Church of Jesus Christ is a joy and a privilege. It is also a commitment to participate in Christ’s mission. [3] A faithful member bears witness to God’s love and grace and promises to be involved responsibly in the ministry of Christ’s Church. Such involvement includes: proclaiming the good news in word and deed, taking part in the common life and worship of a congregation, lifting one another up in prayer, mutual concern, and active support, studying Scripture and the issues of Christian faith and life, supporting the ministry of the church through the giving of money, time, and talents, demonstrating a new quality of life within and through the church, responding to God’s activity in the world through service to others, living responsibly in the personal, family, vocational, political, cultural, and social relationships of life, working in the world for peace, justice, freedom, and human fulfillment, participating in the governing responsibilities of the church, and reviewing and evaluating regularly the integrity of one’s membership, and considering ways in which one’s participation in the worship and service of the church may be increased and made more meaningful." (G- 1.0304, PCUSA Book of Order) [4]
I wonder what would happen if God's people indeed "reviewed and evaluated regularly" the above ecclesial identity?  The strong declaration that the church is the means by which God's people "participate in Christ's mission" and whose vocation begins with vocalized and incarnated proclamations of the gospel, reminds us that the church is unique.  We follow Jesus.  It's all about Jesus and Jesus' mission. Even more, if we choose to live into this unique identity with creativity and risk the church would not only be missed if its presence were removed from a particular context, but also Christians situated there would be filled with the Spirit to birth new communities, or resurrect old ones, of gathered and scattered disciples.  And the world would be grateful if and when they did.

This past Sunday, as with every Sunday, we professed our faith through the Apostle's Creed.  In the final stanza it declares, "I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting."

Why Church? 

Because I believe in the church and all the Holy Spirit does in and through it as God's people participate in Christ's mission in and for the whole world.  And if the church were not here, not only would I notice, but also I would deeply miss it.

[1] A great book where she illustrates this is, Almost Christian (Oxford 2010).
[2] Many of my high school students have recently participated in a program called "Link." I would love to learn more about it, which is hard to do, but it appears to reflect a new age spirituality guised in leadership development.  It is quite secretive in its programmatic structure, which leaves me skeptical, and has pulled kids away from several church related events.
[3] Another great statement From BOO: "The Church bears witness in word and work that in Christ the new creation has begun, and that God who creates life also frees those in bondage, forgives sin, reconciles brokenness, makes all things new, and is still at work in the world. To be members of the body of Christ is to be sent out to pursue the mission of God and to participate in God's new creation, God's kingdom drawing the present into itself." (F-1.0302, d).  See related post, "Refreshing Revisions."
[4] I am grateful for the recent conversations with members of Westminster Presbyterian Church whereby we have explored in depth this citation and related understandings of membership as  "general ordination" to participation in the reign of God.
[5] A great article, written by Adam Copeland, was in recent edition of Christian Century: "No Need for Church."

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Eyes to See & Ears to Hear: Book & Music Recommendations

I am conviced that a large part of what it means to follow Jesus is to be completely other-centered.  That is, everything about who we are and what we do should serve to benefit others. This includes our financial decisions, residential selections, career choices, church involvements, ballot castings, food preparations, and consumer purchases.  I even believe that what we read and listen to should be shared with others so to aid in their formation as a called and sent people of God.

That said, I thought I would post this week a simple list of books I have read and music that has influenced me in the past year or so.  Feel free to click the links and engage as you quest to have your eyes and ears exposed to a variety of selections related to all things theology, faith, Scripture, culture, worship, justice, and our missional vocation in and for the world. I would also love for you to post your recommendations to me...

Bookshelf (no particular order)

O' Connor, Elizabeth.  Call to Commitment, The Potter's House Bookservice, 1975
Barth, Karl. Philippians. Westminster John Knox, 2002. 
Origen: An Exhortation to Martyrdom, Prayer, and Selected Works.  Paulist Press, 1979. 
Dean, Kenda Creasy.  Almost Christian. Oxford 2010. 

Block, Peter.  Community. Berrett-Koehler, 2008. 

Bass, Diana Butler. A People's History of Christianity. HarperOne, 2009.

Balthasar, Hans Urs Von.  Dare We Hope, "That All Men Be Saved"?  Ignatius, 1988.

Forest, Jim.  The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life. Orbis, 2008. 

Bell, Rob.  Love Wins. HarperOne, 2011. 

Borg, Marcus.  Putting Away Childish Things: A Modern Tale of Faith.  HarperOne, 2010.

Mumford & Sons.  Sigh No More (2009)
Jars of Clay.  The Shelter 
Tim Hughes. "God of Justice"
Once: Original Soundtrack
Switchfoot, Vice Verses (2011)
The Decemberists, The King Is Dead (2011)
David Bazan, Curse Your Branches (2009)
Anything by Matisyahu
Derek Webb, "Take to the World"
Gungor, Beautiful Things (2010) and Ghosts Upon the Earth (2011)
Ordinary Time, "Holy Spirit, Truth Divine"