What is Justice?

This is a continuation of conversations started a couple weeks ago in the postings My Journey Into Racism and What Can I Do? As we continue this conversation, let me be clear as to the reasons why I decided to address racism in a blog-site focused on practical theology. My reasons are (1) to not remain complicit through silence, (2) to work through my own understanding of systemic racism and the role I play, and (3) to invite fellow Christ-followers to do the same.

The term Practical Theology implies an understanding of God, his worldview, and how that informs the way we live our lives – the way we relate to others.

What could be more practical than gaining an understanding of God’s heart for all people, not just the predominant group? We do not need to spend much time in scripture to become aware of God’s desire for justice and mercy is for all his people, not just the predominant group (thus Micah 6:8 – And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God). We do not need to spend much time with Jesus to see that he walked away from the predominant group in order to seek the outsider (see Jesus’ Mission Statement).

We cannot act justly, let alone love mercy, if we do not have a clear biblical understanding of justice. But what is the biblical/theological understanding of justice? Fortunately, the BibleProject has created a six minute video that paints a very clear picture of the biblical understanding of justice. Enjoy – it’s captivating. Then be watching for my next post, What ELSE Can I Do?


When Life Throws Us a Curveball

I never got to play baseball (as I have mentioned previously). It wasn’t conducive to life on a dairy farm. So, I never learned how to field ground-balls or hit fastballs and curveballs. My college roommate was a really good fast-pitch softball pitcher. I asked him how good. Russ’ response: “You’d never be able to get a hit off me. In fact, I bet you never even get a piece of the ball.” Game on! How fast could he possibly be?

I was soon to discover that speed wasn’t his strength. It was his curveball. I stepped to the plate ready for a fastball. But Russ threw me a curveball. Keep in mind that as a batter, I’d never seen a curveball in my life. I swear it moved 3-4′ left to right as it came to the plate. Since I hadn’t ever seen a curveball, my instinct was to get out of the way of the ball that I was sure was headed right for me. I took one step forward and, thud, the 80 mph ball hit me square in the thigh.

Fast forward to March 2020 – life has certainly thrown us a curveball! A curveball, indeed! A mere three months ago, an animal novel virus mutated and infected a human. Now, a few mutations later, we are experiencing a pandemic that has disrupted life as we know (knew) it.

I have often wondered what attracted first century followers to Jesus. I suspect one of the attractions was the way he lived life. He lived and ministered during a time of tumult and uncertainty – religiously, politically, and economically. He lived amidst urgency. Thousands flocked to him for healing and comfort – many more than he could accommodate. Yet he never appeared frantic or overwhelmed.*

Recall Jesus sleeping in the stern of the small fishing boat that was about to be swamped by a storm (Mark 4:37-40), causing his friends to ask, “Who is this guy?” He possessed a peace that transcended normal understanding – a peace which people desired. He passed that peace onto his followers, anticipating they could live likewise – “Peace be unto you. As the father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21) with the charge to develop other disciples (see Matthew 28). So, how do we, as subsequent Disciples/Christ-followers/apprentices, do life during a life-disrupting pandemic?

Two of my grandson’s play baseball through the MN Blizzard Baseball Academy. Since I have accompanied them to various out-of-town tournaments, I receive some of the same Blizzard emails that my grandsons receive. This week Adam Barta, the owner of the MN Blizzard, sent an email to the kids with some reminders of who they are as young leaders and how they can live well during this time of uncertainty. I want to share a few of his thoughts, based on the Blizzard Academy’s Big 5:

  1. We’ll control our attitude, our effort and our preparation. Playing catch with our family isn’t cancelled.  Learning the game isn’t cancelled.  Working out, eating right and getting a good night’s sleep isn’t cancelled.  Talking to your friends isn’t cancelled.  Life isn’t cancelled.  It just threw us a nasty curveball on an 0-2 count and we will keep fouling it off.
  2. We’ll keep the faith! Keep the faith that everyone will do their part in this crap situation.  It takes a team to win a game and we are ALL teammates now.  We are down 10-0 in the first inning.  We’ll all keep playing hard the rest of the game, keep clawing our way back and walk this thing off in the bottom of the 9th.  And ‘yes’, this is the only time we can talk smack to the opponent – The Coronavirus.
  3. Your CHARACTER is what you are doing when no one is watching and how you deal with adversity.  This is not the time to play the ‘too bad, so sad” card.  Everyone can handle hitting a bases clearing double and striking out someone with the bases loaded.  How you going to handle striking out in a big situation?  Throw your helmet or suck it up and get ready to play defense.
  4. Synergism – The total is greater than the sum of it’s parts. We cannot win a game or this situation alone.  Nor do we have to.  Everyone is going to do their part – including the Blizzard.  We are going to be great, not good.
  5.  Kaizen – Getting better in small increments every day. This is going to give us all a chance to get better at something else whether it be a better brother, better worker, better anything.  We’ll get better for this.  Sometimes it may not feel like that on the front end, but we will on the back end.

I can imagine Jesus giving his followers a similar talk as he prepared them to spread the message of the Good News of God’s Kingdom having broken into history, an adversarial history at that. He at no point suggested it would be without trouble. In fact he warned them that there would likely be trouble and no one would be immune. He also told them that he would be with them in the middle of it all: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). Keep the faith. Keep fouling off those curveballs.

* Look for an upcoming post entitled “Uncharted Waters.”

Adam Barta (far left) and grandson Oran (front row, third player from the left)
Grandson Jackson and Satchel Paige

Which Jesus do we “Follow?”

Over the past 15-20 years, many people have preferred to refer to themselves as Christ-followers rather than Christians, of which I am one. However, what following looks like has everything to do with who we understand Jesus to be and what he is up to in the 21st century.

In the last post, I suggested that there is a significant difference between “believing” and “following.” I would further suggest that we consider the difference to be related to who we understand Jesus to be, rather than a mere definition differentiation of the two terms. It is important that we distinguish between cognitive belief, typical of 21st century western thought, and pisteuō, the Greek New Testament word often translated as “believe.” It might have more to do with who we want Jesus to be in our day-to-day lives.

What if I view Jesus in a transactional manner – meaning, he came, died and rose for the forgiveness of my sins with my acceptance of his action as a completion of the transaction? How might that affect who Jesus is to me? How might that affect daily life? I would propose that a transactional understanding of faith leads to a ‘static’ Jesus – he came to earth, did his job, and returned to heaven awaiting our arrival (unless he comes back to get us first). It’s the Jesus of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism! Consider what a static Jesus looks like…

In truth, the “Jesus card” (above) that we gave the confirmation kids depicts a static Jesus – he’s not moving. Since he’s not moving, I can move toward and away from with ease and regularity. If I need him, I know where to find him – he’s right where I left him (i.e., I can leave him at Church and come back to see him the following week(s)). A static Jesus is safe and predictable and will not mess with my world. This is the Jesus of western cultural Christianity, the one we manipulate* so we can live a nice, civilized life. His job is to make us happy. With this Jesus, it’s mostly about me and sometimes about him. This Jesus won’t ask much of me. This Jesus will randomly ask us to serve others to appease him and to feel better about ourselves. I can’t follow a static Jesus (he’s not moving!). I can only “believe” in him. This all begs the question: “How can I have a dynamic relationship with a static Jesus?”

In reality, Jesus is on the move, advancing the kingdom work he inaugurated 2000+ years ago. As confirmation classes progressed, we helped the kids understand this. What changes for me if I see Jesus as present and on the move? Everything!

The Jesus depicted above is not static. He invaded our world 2000 years ago and turned things upside down.  This Jesus is on the move and has invited me to join him in his movement – the advancement of his kingdom.  If I choose to walk away from this Jesus for a while, he moves on without me because it’s not about me – it’s all about Him.  This Jesus asks for a lot – all of me.  This Jesus says that our primary purpose on earth is to serve others.  This is the Jesus of Christ-followers.  This Jesus is worth following and makes my following worthwhile.  This is the Jesus of scripture.  THIS IS THE REAL JESUS. Oh, and I can have a dynamic relationship with this Jesus!

I would suggest that if we find ourselves with a static Jesus, we don’t really know him. We have built a faith primarily on knowing about him. Consider that the Pharisees primarily had a static view of God. We certainly don’t want to align our theology with the Pharisees, but many of us have. How we follow is affected by how we view Jesus. Which Jesus do you “follow?”

For Your Consideration:

“It was the good (and extremely dangerous) news that the living God was on the move. Jesus came to Galilee as a wandering prophet, not a stationary one. Jesus’s contemporaries trusted all sorts of things: their ancestry, their land, their Temple, their laws.  Even their God – provided this God did exactly as they expected him to” (my emphasis). (From NT Wright in Mark for Everyone – comments regarding Mark 1:14-20.)

* The most accurate definition of idolatry is “conscious manipulation of God.”

Getting Close to Jesus…

Spoiler alert. This is part one of a two (or more) part series of posts. I am committed to keeping posts short for readability, thus the need for multiple editions. You’ll understand the reason as we continue…

A dozen years ago, I was prepping for a confirmation retreat for about 50 kids and their leaders. The intent of the retreat was to provide the kids with the opportunity to respond to what they were discovering about Jesus. Our hope was that they might choose to follow the Jesus that came for us – the One who died on the cross for the forgiveness of sin and was resurrected, paving the way to life eternal. In light of the discussions of the last post, we did NOT want to present them with the typical invitation to declare a cognitive belief. We did not want to lead to the misconception that the Christian faith is primarily a transactional act. So we tried something different…

At the beginning of the weekend, we gave the kids a card with “Jesus” on the center. We asked the kids to put an “X” on the card to describe how close they thought they were to Jesus, then discuss with their small group. There was a girl in the group who knew all the Jesus stories, having attended Sunday School all her life and now confirmation. She placed her “X” right next to Jesus, a bit proud of her knowledge of what Jesus had done for her in dying for her sins so that she could go to heaven.

Then there was Levi (not his real name). He placed a tiny “x” in the lower left-hand corner, as far away from Jesus as possible. I think he might have actually placed it on the backside of the card, had that been an option. When asked about the placement of his “x” on the “Jesus Card,” Levi explained to his small group that he knew very little about Jesus and what he did know came mostly from his first semester of confirmation. He wasn’t opposed to Jesus, just far away.

As the weekend progressed, we helped the kids understand belief/faith in terms of pisteuō (trust, reliance, adherence). We helped them understand that pisteuō is really a following term and that following implies direction (i.e., if I’m following someone, then I need to go where they are going). So we had the kids put an arrow on their “X” indicating direction in relation to Jesus. The exercise was transformative for many of the kids, especially Levi and the girl (we should give her a name – let’s call her Judy).

Judy sadly had to admit that she was actually moving away from Jesus. Though she was knowledgeable about Jesus, the exercise caused her to realize that she had no interest in following Him. She was focused on what Jesus could do for her (see Moralistic Therapeutic Deism) and wasn’t interested in giving him permission to run her life. Levi, on the other hand, was elated to to discover that he was actually moving toward Jesus. In fact, his arrow was fat and long in order to communicate to his small group that he was well on his way.

Yes, Levi was well on his way. He began to follow Jesus that weekend, learning to pisteuō Him, continuing the journey today. Judy struggled. She wanted to stand on what she cognitively believed, but did not want to give Jesus the reigns. Transactional (or positional) belief in God is not what Jesus calls us to. In fact, I would suggest that it gets it the way of actually following Him. You’ll want to come back to the next posting in which we will compare and contrast “belief” with “following.” In the meantime, think about how you might have marked the “Jesus Card” in the past. Or in the present.

I’m Back…

After a hiatus of several years, I’ve decided to re-enter the world of blogging. Fifteen years ago I created a blog with the original intent of staying connected with young people I knew through church youth ministry or Young Life. In time the audience grew to a diverse mix of people with whom I had a relationship – young and older. Looking back, blogging was a healthy way for me to process what I was discovering as a Christ-follower. However, that blog came to a grinding halt four years ago as coursework ramped up in the Doctorate in Educational Leadership (Higher Ed.) program which I participated. I’m finding that I miss the opportunity to write and ponder. So, reentering the blogging sphere is for my benefit more than anyone. Feel free to join me in this journey.

Practical theology. What do I mean by that? Actually, I am figuring it out as I wander into this process. I have always described myself as a practical theologian, using the term theologian loosely. In my thinking, a theology that doesn’t play out in one’s everyday life is impractical, or of no real use. A ‘practical’ definition of theology is the attempt to understand God, what he is up to, and then joining him in his work. This blog will focus on how we join God in his work – both globally and in that part of the world where he has landed us. So, join me as we work together to figure this out. I do not intend to make this about theological stances. If that is what you are looking for, you will be disappointed. I do intend to help us see God and the life to which he has called us from new perspectives. And different perspectives are always healthy as this old saying reminds us…

If I keep on choosing what I've always chosen,
then I'll keep on wanting what I've always wanted.

If I keep on wanting what I've always wanted,
then I'll keep on thinking what I've always thought.

If I keep on thinking what I've always thought,
then I'll keep on perceiving what I've always perceived.

If I keep on perceiving what I've always perceived,
then I'll keep on seeing what I've always seen.

If I keep on seeing what I've always seen,
then I'll keep on doing what I've always done.

If I keep on doing what I've always done,
then I'll keep on getting what I've always gotten.

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