Words are tricksters. Meaning can change from intended to insulting with a subtle inflection or a less than ideal choice when delivering a word. Groups develop code words and unique vocabularies that exist inside a larger language. Young adults move words around and conjure new meanings for existing literary stock thereby creating an inclusive/exclusive boundary. It used to be that a museum had a Curator who acted as a content specialist caring for the body of work in the museum. Now, thanks to the emergence of the hipsters, everything is curated. There is a company in New York that will, for $125, curate your picnic experience. A basket and related picnic gear (which must be returned) is paired up with food and beverages (which do not need to be returned) so that the urban hipster can enjoy a picnic without the burden of say, making a sandwich or putting some fruit in a bag. The important thing is that the whole experience is curated – an expansion of a use case for a word.
Corporations develop words that convey power and knowledge of the organizational machinery. And generic corporate speak is a great substitute for actual communication. Walk into a corporate meeting room and declare that you plan to “maximize synergies across matrixed orgs in order to build a agile ecosystem that will capture incremental market share” and you may get some nods of agreement. What you would have said is that you are going to try to get people to work together in order to sell more stuff quickly. But the encode-decode process creates a group identity similar to that experience in certain private schools or college conferences – shared knowledge and experience that translates into specific language.
I do not shop at indoor malls. I am not hating-on those who do shop at malls; I am just saying that for me the experience and aesthetic does not work. But I do like movies and occasionally the mall serves as a conduit to the movie theater. And so I recently found myself walking through a JCPenney’s (or JCP, as it is now known) for the first time in years. I cannot recall the last time I intentionally entered a JCPenney store. I do recall hiding in the center of the clothing racks as a child – to the initial dismay and later irritation of my mother. “Someone took him” quickly changed to “Get out here this minute!” That was a while ago. And so I was surprised to walk through a JCP on the way to the theater because the store seemed empty. Gone were the sections crammed to the edges with clothing. Gone were the narrow aisles forming complex pathways through juniors, men’s and women’s clothing. And in its place an open floor plan with shelves, small racks with just a few items hanging on metal hangers and a modern couches for hanging out. I was intrigued. Another micro-shop inside the JCP housed all things denim. There were bar stools and warehouse lights and pine barn board displays. I decided to dig into this change.
It turns out the JCP board felt that the brand needed to be refreshed. They needed to inject some cool into the stores and attract the – well you know – the young people. And who better to inject cool and relevant than a guy from Apple. Some of you probably know how this story ends so I will just bring us all up to speed in preview. JCP hired an executive from Apple. He changed everything at JCP to align with the Gospel of Apple. It didn’t work. The board fired the Apple executive and brought back his predecessor.
It took a year or so for Ron Johnson – the Apple store executive – to go from hero to zero. A close look at his actions is interesting because it nearly perfectly illustrates the challenge of context. Johnson hired a team of leaders picked from Apple and Abercrombie. The new folks refused to move to the JCP HQ in Texas – so they commuted from California or New York. The existing team and the new team did not mix. And it seems that the new decision making criteria boiled down to “if it worked at Apple or Abercrombie it is good; if it is currently in place at JCP, it is bad.”
Out with sales, out with “unstylish” clothing lines (unstylish according to Apostle Ron), out with coupons. In with flat pricing, in with “stylish” clothing, in with refreshed stores. And, as an unintended result, the changes also resulting in JCP leaving out revenue, customers and profits.
How is it that the gospel of Apple could not bring salvation to JCPenney? And what in the world does this have to do with matters of faith?
It turns out that stories are not always portable. The notion of what “works” in one situation is dependent on a complex set of variables that cannot be simply repeated. And truth has many facets.
What is the gospel?
There are four books in the biblical canon that start with the phrase “The Gospel According to…” What is The Gospel? The word means “good news” or “good story”. The most honest answer to the question – it depends. The classical theological answer:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.
There are four “gospels” or good stories canonized in Christian scripture. There are other ancient texts that use the term gospel in their title (Thomas and Judas each had a good story). Let’s focus on the four gospels in the biblical canon. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John each write from different perspectives. Matthew was a tax collector who experienced a radical life transformation as he followed Jesus for several years. Luke was an educated Greek who studied medicine in his day and brings an historian’s perspective to his writing. Mark was not one of the 12; he travelled with Paul and Barnabas on missionary journeys and writes a story of action. And John was, according to tradition, close with Jesus and focused on relationships. Scholars disagree on exact authorship – a modern problem, no doubt. So what if many voices contributed to one work?
Each good story is incomplete.
25 Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.
So where do we come in?
What makes a good story?
Stories have a shelf life. We give a hall pass to some people and allow them to tell and retell the same story. But honestly, when someone launches into a story that you have heard a thousand times it is difficult to avoid the eye roll. A story can evolve – it should evolve. And it can be layered. And new material can blend with old. But like the story of the gospels that extend into the Epistles and Acts, a good story is personal.
What is the good story in your life? What is good news? What was good news when you started to follow Jesus? That story is the start – build from there. What is the story of God intersecting, driving or altering your life, our lives? What is the Gospel According to Us?
“I never learned to count my blessings; I choose instead to dwell in my disasters.” Ray LaMontage, “Empty”
The last are first, the empty are full and the weak are strong. We fall up. We climb down. It is all backwards for those that follow Christ. But is this upside down life something to be pursued? Experienced? Think about the process of learning. Intelligence seems to be a balance of ability and training – there are smart people who remain uneducated; there are educated people who are not naturally smart and then there are smart people who are educated. But intelligence is morally neutral. One can be a smart tyrant or a smart saint. So it is something more than training and building that brings us closer to Christ in our walks.
Emptiness is my starting point. What does emptiness mean? How does one move from a life that is consumer driven (and therefore, fullness driven) towards a life that is inclusive (and therefore, about movement)? Consider what happens when prayer moves from an activity of fullness towards an experience of emptiness. There are risks – as Ray LaMontage voiced. Risks that the quiet of emptiness fills with self-criticism, regret or doubt. But even those risks are worth the cost.
1. Prayer moves from outcome focused to completely unfocused.
2. Growing in grace means that dualism dies and inclusion grows.
3. Maintaining the container – the rituals, performances, and traditions – gives way to gathering what is wild.
I have good news. You are not a seed being blown about by the wind, but have been
planted in good soil! God, who planted you, knows what you need to flourish, and
is both patient and understanding. God also has a purpose for your life, and it
involves bearing the fruits of repentance...this is where we usually flinch.
The church reformer Martin Luther defined sin as "incurvatus in se" which means "curved in on oneself." It is a powerful and challenging image. We are curved in on ourselves when we are unable to empathize with the plights of others, when our activities all circle around our own happiness and comfort, when we are protective of our own people (family, friends) at the expense of those who are not "our people," and when we consider our resources to belong to us, rather than God. The apostle Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians that our lives do not belong to us because we have been bought at the price of Christ's blood, and if our very lives belong to Christ, how much more our resources?
In the parable of the barren fig tree, Jesus invites us to consider that blessings experienced in this life may not be a sign of God's approval, but rather God's gracious attempt to give us a final chance to bear the fruits of God's kingdom. Next time you find yourself saying "I am blessed," ask yourself, "is this a pile of divine manure heaped upon me because I'm a lousy fig tree?" Our greatest blessing is the knowledge of Christ Jesus our Lord, and we can be confident that if we let Jesus change the curvature of our lives, he will not leave us empty, but will fill us with the love which Psalm 63 tells us "is better than life."
Pastor Fred Choy
Today is the second Sunday in Lent. It is a time when many Christians participate in “fasting.” Traditionally, fasting involves not eating food for a certain period of time so that people would be reminded of their weakness and dependence upon God. But these days people will fast from other things; like watching TV, coffee, or the internet. I’ve even heard some people say that they are fasting from chocolate. Whatever you’re fasting form, it’s good to practice some spiritual discipline. In the midst of Lent and fasting, I want to share a passage with you from Isaiah 58:3-9. Spend a little time reading and thinking about it. It’s quite a challenge.
As Jesus was going toward Jerusalem and the cross, he taught and healed many people. In his teaching, Jesus quite often offended the rich and the powerful. Whether it’s to get Jesus and his offensive comments out of their community or in sincerity, the religiously powerful Pharisees tell Jesus to get out of town because Herod is trying to kill him. In response, Jesus says, “I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” What does all this mean?
Watch this sermon video and more on SCC's YouTube channel.
Dr. Casey Cerretani
“Some who think they trust in God actually sin against hope because they do not use the will and the judgment He has given them. Of what use is it for me to
hope in grace if I dare not make the act of will that corresponds with grace? Therefore, if I trust in God’s grace I must also show confidence in the natural powers He as given me, not because they are my powers but because they are His gift.”
“No Man is an Island”
Being religious – about anything– is risky. The notion that a process must complete on a regular schedule regardless of context or special circumstances risks elevating process over relationship, love and effectiveness. Think about a time when all events lined up and followed plans exactly. Keep thinking. Is it a stretch to call it an anomaly when plans and events line up perfectly? Breaks, cracks and gaps are the norm. Yet there is a strong pull to define and refine processes to address everything from behavior to the flow of traffic. We are process beings. What are we trying to accomplish?
There is something safe about repeatability. And good process is essential for a significant part of modern society. We need traffic lights to follow a process –green for one direction while red for the other is part of the contract. Medicine, science, technology, building trades, physical therapy, and musical composition – a process sits underneath routine tasks, novel creations and hybrid compositions. Narrowing complexity helps our minds organize and prioritize so that a distant end goal is attainable in a series of small steps.
But process adds risk. Steps one through five do not always work out as planned; expectations are dashed, projects are stalled, or, worse, ruined. And the famous insanity quote comes into focus (doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results).
What does this have to do with faith? As Merton said, our natural powers are gifts that we are to use with confidence. So understanding the balance of process and experience is important. How do we come to terms with the mystery of faith? There is the classic formulation:
“Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”
In that simple cadence we find the essential points of Christian faith, the principles if you will, without the process. We as the community of faith are left to appropriate those concepts to the arc of history in total and the arc of history that makes up our own life. There is no neat process for doing that work. It is an act of doing that requires judgment.
There is a section of the Gospel that has a failed process and two bad judgment scenes in succession. The whole scene is interesting because the motivation behind the conversations is first failure and then fear and then judgment. The conversations start in the wrong place – in the how-to mode – and end with mixed results. To set the context, Peter, James, John and Jesus had just wandered down from a mountain (likely a small hill for us Cascade dwellers) following the transfiguration of Christ, the visitation by Moses and Elijah and the hearing of the voice of God.
Process Failure #1: Using the Wrong Tools
And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. And he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”
(Mark 9:14-29 ESV)
The disciples are arguing with the crowd over their failure to heal a boy. That always goes well – two groups shouting at each other. It is not clear what the disciples were doing in their attempt to cure this boy but it didn’t work. Jesus comes in, demonstrates how to get the job done and provides an after-miracle training program. “This kind…” is a phrase that should have stuck in everyone’s mind. Saying “this kind” implies that there are other kinds of afflictions and there was some way to discern or identify the kind. Maybe I am overstating the significance but Jesus seems to suggest that there is a triage process but it requires a different kind of question and assessment.
Following the transfiguration and a healing experience, the process failures continue.
Process Failure #2: A Question must be Asked even to be Unanswered
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.
(Mark 9:30-32 ESV)
We are told in school that there is no such thing as a dumb question. But then we have all heard dumb questions so we know that is not true. Question asking is tricky. Some ask questions to prove their own intelligence, others to hear their own voice and still others really don’t understand. Faith is, by definition, an unanswered question. There is no failure in holding onto open questions; there is tension in doing so, but no failure. Maturing in faith is, in part, a process of acknowledging and carrying the unknown without any sense of impropriety.
Process Failure #3: Organization Charts do not help in Matters of Faith
And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?”But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them,“If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”
(Mark 9:33-37 ESV)
The all important org chart. What is the reporting structure, the decision tree, and the hierarchy of an organization. Does my title trump your title? Does my level of authority drive more effective work? Who gets the final say? Those of us working in a business, educational or non-profit environment know the over-stated significance of the org chart. PowerPoint has an add-in specific to the task of creating a chart with the leader at the top, executives on the next wrung and on down the line to the entry live “individual contributor”. Merit based promotions, signature authority and organization span appear to reflect importance.
Not so much in matters of faith. It is somewhat amusing that a group of guys with no credentials, no formal religious studies background, no church planting experience and no organization development training allowed their conversation to wander into the swamp of hierarchy. And it is refreshing to see the early church in Acts adopting a team leadership style.
Jesus reframes the process – up is down. Seeking last place is our process.
Process Failure #4: Judgment is Tricky
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward.
(Mark 9:38-41 ESV)
A missed prayer, a fight with a crowd, a significant question unasked and an embarrassing power play conversation. What else could happen on this walk? How about some early denominational flag waving? Jesus doesn’t seem to need any brand protection and is not worried about idea infringement. In fact, Jesus
seems to offer a means to becoming a follower. Practice, experience, taste and see – it will difficult to speak ill of God when your natural gifts accomplish something extraordinary.
It seems John was working to protect the authenticity of the teaching. Historical texts suggest that then, as now, many claimed to have God’s ear on many matters. So one way to ward off false religions is to shut down those who cannot articulate an Orthodoxy that is approved. Jesus seems less concerned with formulations. Simple works, simple acts.
I like the notion of faith as improv. To improvise one must have some background, some skills or at least some guts. Performers who succeed at improv develop a deep well of creative ideas and learn to string them together quickly and then adapt to changing conditions.
“Good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment.”
That quote is from one of the best mountain climbers of our time. In climbing, the bad judgment that doesn’t kill you today becomes the experience base on which you attain the next peak. Skills develop. Reflexes and muscles learn the drill. And yet there is always a push to a new first. And the ground under your feet is always in motion. Climbing is improv; preparation and training meet a dynamic set of conditions that require constant adjustments to the route, pace and plan. Is faith so different? Is there really a formula or process that encompasses all that we face as people of faith? Of course there is not. We adjust. We turn around sometimes. We persevere other times.
“Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
-Jesus (Mark 9:50 ESV)
Process is useful. But it can also be a trap that keeps us from maturity, from awareness and from relationship. Having salt in us is having confidence that is loosely held in the openness of the unanswered. Do we know for sure? No. But we can be willing to serve and act from a place of peace. That seems to be a path up the mountain that is both adventurous and maturing.