Necessary Retreat

29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew. 30 Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they immediately told Jesus about her. 31 So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them.

32 That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. 33 The whole town gathered at the door, 34 and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.

35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. 36 Simon and his companions went to look for him, 37 and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!”

38 Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” 39 So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.

Mark 1:29-39 (NIV)

There is nothing better than traveling to a secluded place where you can spend some time recharging. Most individuals spend a large amount of time occupied with work or some type of tasks. There is less and less downtime. The United States Bureau of Labor reports that most workers do not even use all of their vacation time each year. Even when we attempt some vacation, or downtime, our electronic devices keep us connected through emails and messaging applications. It is not uncommon for individuals to respond to work emails or have online meetings while on vacation. We need to start disciplining ourselves to take true times of retreat.

Jesus was not immune from having many demands upon his time. We read today that after spending a full day teaching in Capernum’s synagogue, he goes with four of his disciples to the home of Simon’s in-law. The woman was suffering from a fever. Jesus heals her and that evening is spent physically and spiritually healing many others. Truly an exhausting day of ministry.  Before anyone could seek him out the next morning, he awakes and went to a secluded place. He knew that he needed a retreat to recharge and be in conversation with the Father. When the disciples tracked him down, he was re-energized and ready to continue his ministry in nearby communities.

Jesus once again sets an example for us to follow. Early in the history of God’s people, God established a day of retreat each week when the people were told to take a sabbath. Jesus models for us this as an important part of his ministry. Research has shown us that our productivity and quality of work suffers when we do not have regular times of retreat. Our relationship with the Lord also suffers when we do not have regular times of communicating with and focusing on the Lord.

All of this serves as a reminder to deliberately take time to go to a secluded place. We should use this time to recharge physically, mentally, and spiritually. We can commune with our Lord while communicating in prayer.

The Need for Preparation

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way”—
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.’”

And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Mark 1:1-8 (NIV)

Road construction is something which most of us attempt to avoid as much as possible. It is part of a modern dilemma. Drivers wish to have smooth roads upon which to drive. We also desire enough roads appropriately placed to allow us to avoid congestion and easily access whatever destination is our target. Because of these wishes and desires, road construction is necessary. Part of this work requires preparation. If it is a new portion of road, the ground must be cleared and prepared before the chosen material can be laid. Repairs and resurfacing of roads for smooth and safe travel requires preparation as well. At times broken portions must be removed and/or holes filled as to be ready for other work. Road construction is preparing the way for safe, efficient, and smooth travel.

The opening verses of the Gospel of Mark speaks of preparing the way. Here Mark tells of John, the Baptist, preparing the way for Jesus’s ministry.  John had an unconventional way of living.  John shares with the people the importance of repentance so they can receive the forgiveness which the Lord comes to offer. He also indicated that the one who will be coming has a power and authority greater than his which sets up a transition. The people who come to John are being prepared for the ministry of Jesus which will bring new perspectives and a new way of living.

Like the roads and the people coming to John, the Baptist, we at times need to have our hearts, minds, and lives prepared. Jesus offers to us a way of viewing life and living which is unlike the views of the world around us. Just as John lived in unconventional ways, Jesus asks us to adopt unconventional perspectives and actions. Love is to replace hate, judgment, and revenge. Our neighbors are not our enemies but our sisters and brothers in the Lord. Instead of doing whatever necessary to be greatest we are to be servants to one another.

What have you done to prepare yourself for Jesus’s way of life? What other preparations may be necessary?

Lack of Authenticity

Today I am beginning my new series entitled, “Why Does Church No Longer Work?” For background on this series, please reference my post from last week. The response that I lift up to you today is that the church lacks authenticity.

The definition of authenticity is “the act of being authentic.” A Google search for the definition of authentic produces this — of undisputed origin; genuine. For our purposes, I am going to focus on the last part of that definition, the word “genuine.” My view is that the church is viewed today as not being genuine. This is very important because we have come to discover that one of the most important characteristics that Millennials seek in a person is authenticity, or being genuine.

Author, Karl Moore, writing for Forbes an article entitled, Authenticity: The Way to a Millennial’s Heart states this:

“The authentic self is a goal for all four generations alive today: Seniors, Boomers, Xers, but most especially, Millennials.”

Karl Moore

He continues by quoting from a book written by Sienna Zampino which discusses what authentic leadership looks like and why it is so important to Millennials. This is important to the church because we know that Millennials are exiting the church at a very high rate. In the search for reasons, a sense that there is not authenticity within the church appears to be a strong reason.

Is this a fair claim?

I would say that it truly is a fair claim. One reality which our current generation has inherited is the great fear of being seen as unworthy in the church. I was raised with the value of being best behaved whenever I was in the church building. This value is not a wrong one on the surface but it can create a misguided view that those within the church walls must be perfect, at least in behavior. Striving for perfection can be a noble effort but can lead to a masking of some true realities. When people feel they must be viewed as perfect within the church walls, a group of people with a lot of masks comes into existence. No one wants their flaws and imperfections to be known, so they hide their true selves. This leads to incomplete attempts at healing, reconciliation, growth, and honest worship. We put on our best clothes, best faces, and a surface friendliness then head off to that church building for an hour or so of making attempts at our best performance. It is not genuine, it is not authentic.

What amazes me about this dynamic is that it stands so extremely counter to the Gospel and the example of Jesus. All within the church claim to be, and I would say most are striving to be, following the example of Jesus, the Christ. Yet, here is one area where we miserably fail. I think that one of the significant reasons that Jesus appealed to so many people is that he was authentic. Jesus did not wear a mask. Jesus’ actions and attitudes were out there in the very open. In fact, he spoke against putting on masks or airs.

As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”

Mark 12:38-40

“I have spoken openly to the world,” Jesus replied. “I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret. Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said.”

John 18:20-21

Jesus taught authenticity but the church teaches through actions, and sometimes words, inauthenticity.

The reality is that we are sinners who are in need of the healing and reconciling love of our Lord. Churches should be gathering places where we can honestly and openly admit this truth, not just in a corporate sense found in the worship liturgy with the confession, but in the midst of the relationships we have with one another. A person should come to the gathering knowing they will be there with others who are imperfect, who admit these imperfections, and who experience the forgiveness guaranteed to all in the Gospel. If someone enters the gathering and only sees people who are trying to present a perfect image, how can they ever admit their imperfections and need of God’s grace?

In addition, the attempts to put up a false front does not work, no matter how hard we try. Our attempts to hide our imperfections easily melt away when pressure is applied. Perceptive individuals can quickly detect the fake. An especially wary generation as the Millennials are can see through our facade in a little amount of time. Not because they are any better perceiving than previous generations, who knew all along they were participants along with everyone else in a false image, but because this is a generation which is not afraid to state the truth of what they see.

This pattern of the church MUST change. In order for the church to fulfill the call placed upon it by the Lord, those who are followers of the Lord must strive to be authentic. We must create a space where it is safe to be authentic. Individuals must be able to admit that they are one of those about who Paul writes, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Then together we learn how to be forgiven and to strive to do a better job the next. 

What Must I Do

What must I do?

This question is often asked by someone who is trying to earn something or be allowed something. In the context of a classroom setting, the question is usually asked by a student when speaking with the teacher of a course in an attempt to determine how to achieve a certain grade. If the question is asked in a work setting, the employee may be wanting a pay raise or a promotion. When the question is raised in a faith setting, the one asking is usually seeking favor or a reward from a deity. An example of this is found in the Gospel of Mark.

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Mark 10:17

This approach is based on the understanding that works earn favor with God and thus rewards. Humans have come to believe that rewards and punishments meted out by a deity or deities is the way to understand how life is experienced. If you have done something pleasing for (fill in here the name of a god or gods of your choice) then you will be rewarded in such ways as a bountiful crop, wealth, fame, good health, a supportive spouse, a wonderful house, and the list can go on based on desires. Naturally, the opposite is true. If you cause displeasure then you will be punished with natural disasters, poverty, hunger, illness, hatred, abandonment, and again the list can grow. This provides answers to two questions, “How did that person acquire that?” and “Why did this happen to me?” The viewpoint is reinforced by our encounters with other humans and their responses to us.

In theology this viewpoint is often summarized in the phrase, works-based faith. Throughout the Greek, Roman, and Jewish cultures this was the guiding force which led to rules being implemented to aid individuals in navigating away from displeasing the gods and toward bringing pleasure to the gods.

Faith alone

Jesus in his teachings gave us a new understanding which the Apostle Paul would spend most of his life trying to help people understand. This new understanding is that finding favor with God has NOTHING to do with our works but instead with our belief in the relationship we have with God.

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

Mark 10:27

Jesus was responding to the question quoted above. After Jesus gave the man a task which he was unwilling to complete, the man went away feeling defeated and unable to gain the reward which he sought. Seeing and hearing the interaction between the man and Jesus, the disciples also felt it would be impossible for them to receive salvation. Jesus’ response basically says that they are correct in their observation yet adds the “but” which changes the perspective and upends a whole way of thinking.

The first thing to note here is that the “doer” has changed here. Instead of the person doing what it takes to make something possible, God is the one who makes something possible. In this particular situation it is salvation. Now the focus is on God and not on the person.

The truth is that no one has to earn God’s favor. Every person already has God’s favor. Both in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Testament of the New Covenant, the reader/hearer is told of the love which God has for each creature that God created. This love was present even before the person came into existence. Our works, positive or negative, cannot take this love, this favor away from us.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:38-39

Works are not the way we receive God’s love and favor because they have already been freely given to us. (This is the concept of grace which I will discuss in a future post.) We need to change the way in which we think. Instead of thinking about how I can achieve the reward of God, I need to realize that I already have it because God has already given to it to me. I need to believe this is true. As Paul states the idea:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.

Ephesians 2:8-9

A different way to live

Living by faith changes what we do and why we do it. We are no longer living a performance-based life. Our worth, our success, our purpose is not based on the work that we do. (Sorry to those with a true Puritan background.) Instead, all these items find their basis in the fact that we are favored, loved, by God. We live in a manner which shows we believe this fact.

Our belief in this fact leads us to respond, a response of gratitude. Living a life of gratitude obtained by our faith directs our actions. We care for the well-being of other individuals not because it will earn us anything from God but a way is available for us to express our gratitude to God. We give of our time, money, and skills not because it earns us anything but because the giving is an act of gratitude. We strive to follow Jesus’ teachings and to learn more about them as an expression of gratitude not to gain some reward.

The answer

I hope that by now you have gained understanding into the first question which started this post. The answer is NOTHING. There is nothing you must do. You already have the favor of God and all the rewards which God’s love provides. Anything which you do you are doing as a response to living in God’s favor.