CJ's Blog

by CJ Alderton of Patrick Crossing

May 25

INTRINSIC

We’ve spent a good bit of time out on the Sea of Galilee and in so doing have had occasion to backfill the story with help from the other gospels. We now return to the Gospel of John and listen in on a conversation between Jesus and a large following of groupies, a beach sermon as it were:  When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”

Hmm. Busted. The prospect of tagging along behind a man who could provide lunch at the drop of a hat would definitely tempt a chap to get some religion. But the religion that was being offered was on Jesus’ terms, not theirs. They could be bought off. He could not.

“Alright then,” they thought, “if He wants to get all religious on us, then what are the terms – because that was some tasty bread and fish! What hoops would he have us jump through?” They were accustomed to hoops – hundreds of hoops. What would this man require of them to keep the kitchen open: Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus gives them an unexpected response that was both simple and surprisingly vexing: Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

Just believe. Sounds easy enough. In fact, it sounds too easy. And that is one of the great offenses of the Christian faith. Our good works do not merit the affections of heaven. Nothing makes us stand out. We are not picked for the team because of our abilities. We are chosen because we are loved – as is. Our worth is not accomplished, it’s intrinsic. We’ve not been loved like that since we were infants. And, the remembrance of that has long been sand-blasted from our spirits, or at least greatly diminished, by an exacting world that measures our worth by what we can bring to the table. There is none of that in the kingdom. We are loved. That’s what we must believe. And yet, because of the backstage view we have of ourselves, we know how undeserving we are of such a notion. Sounds too easy. It makes us suspicious. We are the quivering, stray pooch who runs in terror from the kind hand offering an unimagined abundance.

May 24

Go!

The floating pig carcasses told the story of the recent power encounter. Jesus, the man who had performed a miracle of mercy toward the man inhabited by evil, was asked to take His show on the road. The locals could deal with the crazy bloke howling about the graveyard. What they couldn’t handle was this equable Jewish chap from across the sea. What lesser permutations of evil might He have a go at? What secrets might He yet uncover amongst the non-possessed Gadarenes? One holy man turned out to be way more disconcerting than a legion of demons.

Jesus met their dearth of gratitude by turning and walking back to the boat. The man who was now sane and in his right mind followed. It was understandable. In his former state he had been accosted and placed in chains. These countrymen of his had been powerless to help – but it was not for lack of cruel effort.

And now something extraordinary takes place:  As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.

It took me three years to obtain a Master’s Degree in Divinity. Three years of work, toil, loss of sleep, commuting in heavy San Francisco traffic, etc. This former demoniac had been a follower of Jesus for maybe an hour and Jesus commissions him as a missionary! His assignment was simple: Go and tell everyone your story. He needed no 12-Step program to avoid a demon relapse. With Jesus it was a 1-Step program.

May 23

No! No! No!
I once heard a very motivating pastor from India speak at a conference. He had endured beatings at the hands of radicals in that country who didn’t like the cut of his jib nor the content of his message. America was a bit of shock to his system. Just going to the grocery store left him flummoxed at both the volume and variety of choices adorning the shelves. What really set him back was the conspicuous consumption on display by the American church. He knew very well the impact just a few dollars could make when it was stewarded well in his country. Here he would witness massive architectural wonders being alternately heated or cooled throughout the week – depending on the season – for a building that was mostly used just one day a week. The utility bill for one month from this one church where he was speaking would fund over 40 pastors for several weeks.

His message was humble and blunt. He had faced evil of the variety we have been looking at the past couple of days. Real devils. Real possessions. Real power encounters. The Bible makes a lot more sense when set in the framework of less developed countries. Our western devils are mere caricatures, Hollywood inventions – worthy to be mocked by serious minds. Theirs are real. We listened politely as the air conditioner hushed out its reassuring, white-noise background. I felt unworthy then. I feel the same today. This guy carried the smoke of battle. I was a poser.

What was interesting about his message was his personal, empirical take on demons and such. He was not dramatic. If anything, he bordered on the clinical. When it came up, he dealt with it. Just another day at the office. The biggest problem he faced wasn’t demons, but willful, stubborn human-beings. He shared this story from his American tour: “A woman came up to me after I spoke and asked for prayer. I gladly agreed to do so and inquired about her need. She said that she wanted me to cast out the demon of nicotine. I told her, ‘No! No! No! – That is not a demon. I cannot cast out your flesh! You smoke because you enjoy it!”’

Grand possessions of the kind described in the gospel of Mark are rare. While we should give the devil his due, when appropriate, it is essential to keep in mind that our greatest battle always lies within – a mirror glance away.

May 22

Piggycide

Jesus politely asks the name of the afflicting spirit. You’ll recall that this spirit, this demon, was actually saying some rather flattering things about Jesus: “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” The response to Jesus’ inquiry was a heart-stopper: “My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.”  By Roman army reckoning that could be anywhere between five or six thousand malevolent spirits. That certainly helps explain the broken chains. That’s a whole lot of evil to pack about.

The story grows more distant and peculiar to our modern ears. Evidently the demons liked the region where they were encamped. They knew they were about to get evicted from the poor, bleeding and naked host. So, they pled for a spontaneous quid pro quo with Jesus: And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area. A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.” He gave them permission, and the impure spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned. Not unlike a slice* of lemmings – a mass piggycide takes place.

This causes no small amount of excitement in town. Besides the tragic loss of bacon, the power demonstrated by Jesus to order demons around and cure the town crazy, results – not in gratitude or adoration – but rather, fear: Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man—and told about the pigs as well. Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.  “Jesus…we had gone to all this work to deposit our demons in one location. And now you’ve gone and let them loose. Not only have we no clue as to where they’ve got off to, but you’ve driven up the price of ham!”

The locals had made a tortured peace with their regional demons. In their minds, this foreboding Jewish sorcerer was just too much to countenance. If they were unable to restrain the man filled with a legion of demons, what were they to make of one who could order that legion around?

(*Curiously, “a slice” is the correct term for a group of lemmings.)

May 21

“And though this world, with devils filled…” A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, v.3 ~ Martin Luther

“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.” ~ C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
 
A few years ago an American psychiatrist produced two improbable books. Between the first and the second book, both New York Times bestsellers, he became a believer in Jesus and was baptized into the church. And, between the first and second book he became a believer in the devil as a reasonable explanation of evil. The name of the first book was entitled: The Road Less Traveled and the second, People of the Lie. His name was M. Scott Peck. He was Harvard trained and steeped in the tenets of a secular education and worldview. Much like C.S. Lewis a generation before, each carried the scholarly credentials to challenge the “settled science” of the modern mind with their smug incredulity concerning all things demonic.
 
I’m not certain all of the disciples were believers in the dark world. The Sadducees, one half of the leading religious power players of that day, certainly did not. They spurned even the idea of heaven. Religion to them was a profession and a means to an end; namely, the control over the pleasure and purse of their underlings. 
 
If the disciples had a bit of the Sadducee infecting their theology as they made land, they were quickly disabused of those notions by the Gadarene concierge who welcomed them ashore. Before them stood a howling, bleeding, naked man – an Incredible Hulk type of figure. The broken chains about his hands, feet and neck told the story. Here was a man totally at one with evil. The disciples weren’t likely in the mood for another ministry moment with the Master. What they were ready for was to see how fast they could fling rocks at the monster as they made their escape.
 
But Jesus didn’t budge. He stood calmly, awaiting the beast: He had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!” For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you impure spirit!” Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” “My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many. Mark 5:5-9
 
Perhaps one of the things that turns the modern mind away from the possibility of devils is the sensationalized Hollywood version of such encounters. The good man or woman doing battle against evil seems always in need of a vial of Holy Water, a Crucifix, a silver bullet or some such. But, need we mention that Holy Water, Crucifixes and silver bullets had not yet been invented? The response of Jesus is understated and oddly conversational. “You’re hurting this man. You need to leave. By the way, I didn’t catch your name.”  The lessons for the disciples were piling up. A follower of Jesus need not be intimidated nor impressed by evil.

May 20

Next In Line

The boat ride ended with the disciples still in the prone position of worship. Experienced as they were with the rhythms of the sea they were not at all alarmed as the boat made gentle purchase with the sandy shore. They were on terra firma. The more firma, the less terra! Here was the familiar. The worldly terror of the storm coupled with the metaphysical trepidation of being a passenger with Yahweh drained away as two of the middle-aged fisherman made fast the craft. They had landed in mostly Gentile territory – the country of the Gadarenes or Gerasenes, which literally meant: “Those who came by flight.” It was a fit description of their recent passage: They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes.  Mark 5:1

The next order of business would be to make camp. Someone would fetch wood and build a fire. Others would fish or visit a nearby village for food. These common, daily activities would help restore not only a sense of peace, but also of useful purpose. None could lay claim to the handy and supernatural wherewithal to calm a storm, but they could round up some grub!

Such are the peaceful thoughts of the practical and the lovers of the normal, which includes most of us. “Well, that was something. I thought we were goners for sure. Then Jesus said three words and the lake turned to glass. I am so ready for a big meal, a flask of wine and a good night’s sleep!”  Normal. Peaceful. Predictable. Routine.

And then: When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an impure spirit came from the tombs to meet him. This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones. ~Mark 5:2-5

Perfect. The boat had managed to make port in a graveyard. Could it get anymore creepy? It’s dark. You’re wet. You’re hungry and exhausted and the adrenaline is just now seeping out of your muscles and tendons from the previous excitement.

I would imagine at this very moment the disciples were already hot-footing it back to the boat and casting off. “Terror at sea and now this? A large, naked, bleeding and howling man with remnants of shackles hanging about his neck, wrists and ankles? If he can snap chains what could he do to my neck? No thanks.”

The problem with being a follower of Jesus is that Jesus takes us to places we would avoid – at all costs. The storm had providentially pushed their craft to a place of desperate need. It was exactly where Jesus wanted to be. And, it was exactly where He wanted His disciples to be. And, heads up – we can be certain that He will do the same with us.

 

May 19

Brevity

It is a common thing with committees, with politicians, with schools, with churches – with most everything – to add layer upon layer of complexity to most anything. If we’re not careful we lose sight of the original mission or purpose and confuse busyness with accomplishment. One can become preoccupied with mastering, managing and manufacturing any number of details and miss the big picture. Moreover, there are some who have elevated looking busy to an art form. That can become an invisible wall constructed around one’s life. Busy people are often anaesthetized from the onerous task of human interaction. Sequestration, not productivity becomes the unspoken goal. Such solitude is one definition of hell, as is bureaucracy.

We’ve spent the last few days on a boat with Jesus and the disciples. They’ve ridden out a storm and witnessed both Jesus and Peter take a stroll upon the water. While these represent two different trips across the Sea of Galilee, there is a quiet insight shared by each that I do not want us to miss. It is summed up by one word: brevity.

Jesus, in response to Peter’s request to allow him to join the walk on water walkabout, simply says: “Come.” It is a monosyllabic rejoinder to the most remarkable of requests. When asked to do something about the storm, he arose from a nap and said, “Quiet! Be still!” That’s two miracles and a total of five syllables.

I wonder, sometimes, if we “out pray” heaven. We craft our public and even our private prayers as if we are auditioning for a part in a play. Perhaps the volume and the style of our words will carry more weight with heaven? But, it’s not at all how Jesus rolled. In fact, He said this: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive greater condemnation.” ~ Matthew 23:14 So, long prayers are pretentious. Simple, direct and brief prayers are not. The Father doesn’t need information about our circumstances. He is not won over by an abundance of words. He’s not impressed with a sales pitch. All He desires is a simple request. One syllable is sometimes sufficient.

May 18

The Wisdom of Curly

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is? [holds up one finger] This.

Mitch: Your finger?

Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean (expletive deleted).

Mitch: But, what is the “one thing?”

Curly: That’s what you have to find out. ~from the movie City Slickers

Getting our fears sorted out and subdued is the reward of applied faith. We learn, over time, that heaven proposes to us an incredible offer: We need only fear one thing. In a world where psychologists have catalogued well over 500 phobias, (In all honestly, they admit the list is endless) that certainly simplifies things. I don’t have to fear everything. I’ve a choice to not live out my days listening to the tyrants in my head urging caution, self-protection, defensiveness, greediness and all of the possible ill fortune that might lie ahead. They will tell me all the things that could, might, maybe will go wrong. Faith lets me see the possibility of what could go right. The proper use of daily fears is to employ them as servile advisors: “Don’t pick up the rattle-snake by the tail.” says my fear servant. I reply, “Good one. Brilliant. I shan’t.” But when the voice continues with: “You should fear all snakes and have nasty dreams about them.” I reply, “You’re fired.” To the extent that fears provide wisdom, they can be helpful servants. But know this, they always wish for more. They are usurpers at heart. They should never be crowned King.

We come across two words for fear in this portion of Mark: He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”

Jesus asks the disciples, a gangly lot of manly men, why they are so afraid, it is: δειλός (dā-lo’s) which means: timid. To be described as timid is rarely, if ever, flattering. Mousy might work as a synonym. “Hey disciples, why are you, many of whom are sailors, acting so mousy?” The Greek changes when the camera turns to the disciples: “They were terrifiedThis word brings it home. It is: φοβέω (fo-be’-ō) which is, of course, the word that has been commandeered by the mental health industry to describe abnormal fears. In the context of this passage, φοβέω means: to treat with deference, to venerate. That is not an abnormal fear. That is a healthy fear.

What do you do when you’re on a boat with God? You bust out with a bit of φοβέω. The only fear to which we must acquaint and allow ourselves is this sense of reverential awe for the Creator. To see His bigness, His timelessness, His ableness has the happy effect of diminishing those other fears. If He is for us, if He is with us, and if this life is just a weigh station – that the few years we have here are simply the narthex to eternity – then really, what is there to fear? Here, have a listen:

May 17

EEK!

In the gospel of Mark there is another story of a sea crossing. It is not quite in sequence with the one we began telling that started in the Gospel of John and rounded out in the book of Matthew. Nonetheless, it is worth a look.

Once more we find the disciples and Jesus on a small boat making their way across the Sea of Galilee. And again, a storm arises. The seafaring mates are panicked. Jesus is more than merely docile, he is engaged in a pleasant power nap. The disciples are nonplussed by His lack of concern: Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

It is difficult to remain logical and to maintain faith in the midst of crisis. Whether that involves a storm having its way with a boat, a paycheck that doesn’t stretch far enough, a cascade of health issues, or a determined prodigal child, etc.  A crisis by definition is immediate. It is a moment in time. Each feels like a storm. And we, like the disciples, feel that heaven is snoring away and oblivious to our calamity.

Jesus responds: He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

A choice will lie before us all of our days between two competing interests: fear or faith. The first is easy to succumb to. It takes no effort. It is visceral. It is hard-wired. It is normal and natural. The second requires effort, the effort of the pregnant pause. We must, if we’re to be people of faith, face our fears and tell them where to get off. It plays itself out with a sort of theological/historical checklist. “Is God really unconcerned with my situation? Has God provided timely and abundant deliverance in the past? Is God able to do anything, anytime, anywhere? “ The answers are: No. Yes. And, YES, YES, YES! It is the necessary and ongoing internal pep talk of a child of God.

Faith is sustained, in part, by remembrance of the past. When Jesus says: Do you still have no faith?”, He is making this very point. “Disciples, after all you’ve witnessed with your own eyes, do you think the Savior of the world is going to be lost at sea? Think back! Remember!”

Recalling God’s faithfulness is the collateral we use to invest in a hope-filled future. We sometimes rightly ogle and envy the miracles of Jesus. Yet, having faith that God is in control in the midst of our trials is itself a fine demonstration of the miraculous. It is no less supernatural than Jesus causing a storm to be stilled.

May 16

Platitudes 

All the many sermons I’ve heard in respect to the walking on water episode come down to this most obvious of insights: Keep your eyes on Jesus in the midst of the storm. It becomes a platitude, something you might see, and most likely have, adorning the side of a coffee mug – albeit a Christian coffee mug. A born-again mug. A holy grounds mug. But platitudes, as grating as they might be, arise for a reason: They happen to be true, obviously so. We often like to be thought original. CS Lewis, one of the most original thinkers I’ve ever encountered, once said that the only original person is God. I can’t help but agree. But having said all of that, I do believe that we should make an attempt to tell old truths in fresh ways – to see how the old truths have sluiced about in our personal mining pan as we sift for the gold. I would not bother to write were that not the case: And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down.

That was it. The lesson was in the books. Jesus had demonstrated power over nature by walking on water. He allowed nature her free hand just long enough to squeeze in a tutorial with the ever eager disciple, Peter. When the two climbed aboard, the storm subsided and there they all were, face to face in a gently rocking boat. What do you say to this person…this being…this entity…this thing that is your shipmate? A different type of fear begins to manifest. One of those sayings of old comes to mind, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs 9:10) You’re a disciple and you are staring into the face of a man who has multiplied the loaves and fish, who has walked on water, who has calmed the storm. You get that he is a man. He eats, he sleeps, he drinks. You have touched him. You have given him the kiss of greeting. You see the wet mattes of hair about his face. He is just a man, yet…

Out of the corner of your eye you notice one of your mates sink to his knees and, in a synchronized wave of spontaneous motion, all follow, yourself included. The lesson wasn’t just for Peter, the erstwhile water strider, it was for the whole crew: Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

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