Enjoying the freedom of being good enough

Archive for the category “Jesus’ ministry”

Wanting (Part 1)

I’ve written previously about the dynamic of giving voice to our wants (see “What do you want?” on November 29, 2012).

Reading through Mark recently, I noticed that in the second half of chapter 10, there are two occasions where Jesus asks people the powerful question, “What do you want me to do for you?” (vv. 36, 51).

When the author repeats a statement and places them back-to-back in the narrative, we should take notice.

Mark is up to something significant.

The occasions giving rise to the question are different. In the first story, Jesus responds to a favor that James and John ask of him.

In the second, Jesus directs the question to Bartimaeus, who happens to be blind. He’s been creating a commotion in hopes of attracting Jesus’ attention. His efforts pay big dividends. (I’ll discuss this event in a future blog entry.)

Apparently Jesus is interested in what we want and insists we give them a voice.

“What do you want Jesus to do for you?” is a great question to ask ourselves from time to time. It’s also a great question to ask those we lead and serve.

How we answer says a lot about us. What we don’t say may reveal even more.

In the first story, Jesus elicits the disciples’ true desires. It brings to the surface what they may otherwise would never admit.

To their credit, the disciples answer honestly. They don’t censure. They don’t cloak their response with spiritual jargon to make their desires more palatable.

“We want top billing. We want in front of the line. We want power, status and position. Furthermore, we want to beat the others to the draw and be the first to ask.”

I’m pretty sure I would have dressed up my answer. I have enough church experience to know how to make selfish, prideful demands sound more spiritually acceptable. I know how to bury my desires. I know how to lie.

Being involved in church and ministry has contributed to my propensity to cover my true desires and motives.

A good practice is to read this passage and put ourselves in James and John’s place. When Jesus asks us what we want him to do for us, answer with the first thing that pops in our mind–what comes spontaneously, immediately before we have a chance to filter.

If we can’t pull that off, then identify what we choked down. What didn’t we say but wanted to?

In my more honest moments I’d say things like:

  • I want lots of money.
  • I want a big church where everyone cheers when I speak.
  • I want somebody with clout to notice me and give me my big break.
  • I want the sins of my past to disappear without any consequences.
  • I want my life to be easy.

Jesus allows James and John to shoot straight. He invites us to follow suit.

Our wants tell a story. Acknowledging them gives Jesus access to our hearts. Like James and John, voicing our wants opens the door to repentance and transformation.

When I allow Jesus access to my desires, when I sit with him with my wants on the table, I come to realize that what I really want is:

  • I want to know I’m significant
  • I want this season of life to count and have impact.
  • I want to feel secure.
  • I want grace to free me of my shame.

I also begin to repent. What I initially wanted are substitutes for what I really need.

They are my demands to have life my way, on my terms.

They are substitutes for Jesus.

“Those” people

The story of Jesus and the woman at the well (John 4) raises some interesting observations on how we see people who are different than us. We naturally create categories of “us-and-them.” We often label “them” as “those people.”

We all have folks who fit the bill:

  • Those of the “other” political party
  • Those who go “that” church or adhere to “that” theology
  • Those who read “those” authors
  • The poor (or the rich)
  • Those with a particular sin in their history
  • Those from a certain region of the world and ethnicity
  • Those with “that” sexual orientation

The list goes on and on.

Once we identify an individual or a group as being “them,” or “those people,” something significant happens in us. Assumptions, prejudices and judgments automatically kick in. This, in turn, fuels our anxieties. Our accompanying thoughts and feelings dictate how we treat them.

We see this phenomena at work in this story. Jesus and the woman create a natural “us-v.-them” dynamic.

They represent two long-standing polarized groups–religiously, culturally, and politically. Samaritans and Jews long saw each other as “them.”

On top of the differing backgrounds, the woman had a past. She’d been through five husbands. She at least had the honesty to not marry her current beau. Jewish religious folk had names for women like her.

Interestingly, Jesus didn’t see or treat her as one of “those people.” He simply saw her as a person–a person with deep needs.

She, on the other hand, saw Jesus as one of “those people.” He was a Jew. He held to a theology that differed from her tradition. He was a from a different location. He was a male.

The impact of their respective views are noticeable.

Jesus refrains from categorizing and labeling. He focuses on the person. Results:

  • He is able to be fully present with the woman in a non-anxious manner. He’s not reactive or defensive.
  • He is genuinely interested in knowing her, inviting her to tell her story.
  • He does not condemn, shame or judge her. He has no moral agenda or position to defend or enforce.
  • He stays focused on her need–her deep thirst of the soul.
  • His God is open, spacious, available to all, regardless of labels of ethnicity, religion or history of sin.
  • He is able to relax and be himself, relating naturally with her.

The woman is caught up in categories. Results:

  • She questions Jesus’ motives.
  • She argues about which side is better and “more right.”
  • She deflects any discussion about her past.
  • She debates the “right” way, form and place to worship God.
  • She argues the fine points about the Messiah, all the while oblivious of the fact he’s standing right in front of her.
  • She’s defensive, self-protective, provocative, reactive and anxious.

In the end, Jesus wins the day. Large numbers of Samaritans choose to believe in him. His open, relaxed posture convinces many.

It’s interesting that many of us in the evangelical world seem to be trying our hardest to get Jesus’ results by using the Samaritan woman’s methods. We categorize, attack “those people,” self-protect and act otherwise very anxious around those who we target as needing conversion.

Hmmm . . .

What do you want?

The story of Jesus healing the man at Bethesda (John 5) intrigues me on several levels.

The obvious is the remarkable healing. The man’s affliction had severely impacted him for 38 years. No doubt all hope had been long lost. Things weren’t going to get better. He just as well accept his fate and move on with life the best he could.

Jesus apparently didn’t get that memo. He isn’t limited by what conventional wisdom says is a hopeless cause. Jesus has no problem healing this man.

I’m also intrigued by the man’s difficulty in giving a straight-up answer.

When Jesus asks him if he’d like to be well (v. 6), the man launches into a lengthy explanation of why he hasn’t been able to get into the pool (read vv. 2-4, for the background on the significance of the pool). It was a simple, yes-no question. But the man never gives a clear answer.

Later some Jewish leaders corner the man on why he was carrying his pallet on the Sabbath. Such a simple task violated their strict interpretation of Sabbath laws.

The man again ducks and dodges. Rather than owning his own actions, he shifts responsibility (another way to say blame) to the “man who made me well” (v. 11).

The leaders want to know who that healer could be. Curiously the man doesn’t know the healer’s name. I don’t pretend to know the full contextual nuances here, but I can’t imagine there being too many options other than Jesus.

Regardless, what strikes me is the man’s difficulty in finding his voice and speaking what is true in his life. Perhaps he wasn’t in touch with his own soul.

This particularly seems to be the case in Jesus’ initial question. Jesus straightforwardly asks him, “Do you wish to get well?” This is a no-brainer. A slam-dunk.

The man has been lame for 38 years, for goodness sake. Why would Jesus even need to ask such a question?

Yet the man doesn’t answer. He can’t say what he wants.

I can relate. Sometimes the most difficult question to answer is when I’m asked what I want.

Shame, insecurity, distorted spirituality, and the fear of becoming responsible for my desires intertwine to make seemingly obvious, straight-forward question complex and difficult.

I’ve gotten better at owning and stating my wants, but I’m not there yet.

Finally, I’m intrigued at Jesus’ use of words in his dialogue with the man.

Specifically, I find it significant that Jesus asks, “Do you want to get well?” and not, “Do you want to walk?”

Again, I’m not a contextual or linguistic scholar here. So I may be barking up the wrong tree. But Jesus’ choice of words speaks to me of different levels of desire and need.

Level one is walking. At the risk of minimizing what walking means to someone who hasn’t walked for 38 years (probably this man’s entire life), walking can represent a superficial level of well-being.

Competency in walking can mask underlying incompetence. Many who walk are crippled emotionally and spiritually.

Walking accomplishes a lot of things, but it doesn’t meet the real needs of the soul. It can, in fact, numb us from feeling the pain of our emptiness and meaninglessness.

Level two is being well. This speaks of a deeper, more holistic view of healing. It reaches into the core of our beingĀ  to create meaning and purpose. It deals with significance, security, mission and value.

One can be well in this sense and still not walk. It’s not conditioned on walking.

I recognize that many times when Jesus (or anyone else) asks me what I want, I tend to answer in level one terms. I want a good job, a decent salary, good health, a fulfilling marriage and cooperative kids.

I’d rather walk than be well.

But Jesus insists on making me well.

When level two is in place, level one tends to follow. Without a solid level two, level one won’t ever satisfy.

What do I want?

The Zaccheus principle

In previous posts I’ve discussed my current reading of the Gospels with an aim to become better acquainted with Jesus. I find this challenging, because I’ve been programmed to read the Gospels (and the rest of the Bible) for information–Bible truths, principles, precepts, theology and life answers.

Truth be known, Bible information often hides Jesus.

In my quest to read with a different set of eyes, I came across the story of Zaccheus in Luke 19. Luke identifies three things about this man.

  • He collects taxes.
  • He is rich.
  • He is short.

All three are significant. They speak of the public shame Zaccheus experienced, particularly at the hands of the religious community.

The Jewish public deeply resented tax collectors. Taxation reminded them of Roman occupation and control–a constant reminder that things weren’t the way they were supposed to be. To collect taxes for the hated Romans represented the ultimate betrayal.

Adding insult is the fact that Zaccheus is rich. He’s darn good at what he does–ripping people off. He does so for Rome’s benefit as well as his own. The only thing that chaps us more than someone taking advantage of us is when they seem to get wealthy doing it.

Finally, Luke takes note that Zaccheus is short. God has nothing against being short, but society tends to marginalize based on physical appearance. Tax collecting was so abhorrent in Jewish culture that town folk couldn’t find enough reasons to dislike, shun and marginalize those who stooped so low.

Any fabricated flaw justified their contempt. “He’s short? All the more proof that he’s scum!”

Enter Jesus.

As Jesus walks into Jericho, crowds begin to line the streets. There’s such commotion that it becomes difficult to get a view of Jesus as he makes his way through town.

Especially if you are short.

Not to be deterred, Zaccheus climbs a tree. We discover a fourth description of this man. He is a seeker of Jesus. Twice Luke tells us that Zaccheus is intent on “seeing Jesus.”

Perched on a branch, Zaccheus not only gets his desired view, but Jesus walks directly under the tree and invites himself over for the evening.

What is Jesus doing here?

If we’re not careful, we’ll immediately rush to theology and biblical principles.

  • Jesus is making a statement about prejudice and how we are to love the most despised and shunned people of our society.
  • Jesus is demonstrating inclusion.
  • Jesus is showing us that God operates on a different economy than we do and extends his grace to all, even the most undeserving.

All these are beautiful realities. But I think there’s something more basic and real going on here. If we simply settle for theology, we’ll miss Jesus.

Jesus genuinely likes Zaccheus and wants to hang out with him. This is the real point of the story.

I can’t see Jesus going into this with other motives. Jesus doesn’t spot Zaccheus in the tree and say to himself, “This would make a great teaching moment. I’ll blow everyone’s mind and go over to that guy and see if I can get him to invite me over for supper. That will drive home the point to these self-righteous religious leaders. Imagine the sermon illustrations this will make.”

Nor can I see Jesus saying to himself, “Hey, if I go over to that short guy in the tree, it will make a cool song for Sunday school kids. I can hear it now, ‘Zaccheus was a wee-little man, a wee-little man was he . . .'”

If these are Jesus’ motives, then he’s just using Zaccheus. He reduces Zaccheus to an object lesson.

Jesus is in the moment. He loves Zaccheus and naturally wants hang out with the guy. He can’t seem to help himself from taking the initiative and inviting himself over for the evening.

To add to the beauty of the story, Jesus no doubt knows all about Zaccheus’ background and lifestyle. But they don’t seem to matter a lick to Jesus.

Later, we hear Jesus laughing with delight, celebrating Zaccheus’ repentance and new-found faith. No one is more thrilled than Jesus to see salvation come to this ‘wee little man.” Zaccheus will no longer be known as a filthy rich tax collector.

Jesus becomes even more clear against the contrasting response of the respectable Jewish community. They’re indignant and incredulous. “How could Jesus stoop to such depths by hanging out with such a scum of a low-life? ”

They certainly don’t like Zaccheus. They don’t want anything to do with him. The only good purpose Zaccheus provides is sermon fodder for what sinners look like.

This leaves me questioning myself. Why do I extend myself to others? Why do I do this thing we call “ministry”?

  • Do I tell someone about Jesus because I genuinely care about them and like them, or because it will make a cool story to tell my Christian friends?
  • Do I give my money to Christian ministry because it’s a genuine expression of love for Jesus and others, or is it more about trying to live by biblical principles?
  • Are my acts of generosity and compassion calculated efforts aimed at setting good examples or satisfying my conscience, or are they authentic demonstrations of love?

Hopefully as I keep hanging out with Jesus in the Gospels, I’ll find myself relating with other like Jesus did with Zaccheus.

The audacity to stand up straight

I continue to be impressed with how audacious grace is.

In Luke 13:10ff, Jesus encounters a woman who’s been bent double for 18 long years. Jesus breaks all kinds of rules by initiating a conversation with her, touching her, and healing her of the affliction. She stands up straight and begins to worship God.

All this in the synagogue. And on the Sabbath day, to boot.

It just isn’t proper.

Jesus is duly reprimanded by the synagogue official. The official, after all, is responsible to ensure that rules and order are maintained.

  • Sex-roles.
  • Social propriety.
  • Religious rituals and regulations.
  • Tradition.
  • Respectability.

Either Jesus isn’t aware of such propriety, or doesn’t care. He has one concern–a woman stooped under a burden of infirmity. She’s carried the load long enough.

Compassion locks Jesus’ focus on her need. All the concerns the official thought so important fades into Jesus’ periphery.

Grace doesn’t care if her healing is proper. Isn’t concerned if it obeys the rules. Doesn’t listen to the religious arguments of why it isn’t the time or place. Doesn’t question if the woman deserves her affliction or merits her healing.

Grace restores and heals and liberates. Everyone and anyone is a candidate. Any time, any place. No prerequisites required.

What have we been carrying around that has us bent double? How long have we been under its load?

What rules, regulations and expectations tell us that we have to keep hauling it around?

What are the voices we fear will criticize us if we let it go?

Jesus has the audacity to release, forgive and heal now. He doesn’t demand we jump through hoops first.

His grace has one intent–to empower us to stand up straight and get on with a life that brings delight and glory to God.

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