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

Perspective

Several years ago I facilitated a training session of volunteer youth ministry people in the community in which I lived. We talked about how perspective is important to what we do and to the outcomes we hope for. In an earlier post I included a worthy saying that reminds us that perspective affects how we see things, which in turn affects what we do, which naturally impacts outcomes. My point was this: If we want to experience different outcomes in life or ministry, that only happens with a changed perspective, not just by doing things different.

To drive the point home, I showed the group the drawing of the woman below. The participants were given the task of planning an evening with her. What might they do and talk about? One younger person said she would ask this older woman what life was like as a teenager “back in the day.” An older gentleman (60ish) in the group, looking puzzled, said, “I was thinking of asking her, as a young woman, what she thinks her life might look like when she is my age.” Each person planned an evening for the woman based on their perception of her age. What they planned to do was based on their perspective.

Old or young woman?

Our perspective as to why Jesus came to our planet has a huge impact on how we do life, on all that we do. Of course the orthodox understanding is related to our salvation (or soteriology, to use the theological term). I suspect the overarching soteriological perspective of western evangelical Christians is this: Jesus came to save us so that we can go to heaven when we die. Actually, it probably sounds more like this: Jesus came to save me so that I can go to heaven when I die. We call this good news because it is. But the Good News of Jesus is much bigger.

If my perspective is “Jesus came to save me so I can go to heaven when I die” then what do I do with the rest of my life while I wait to go to heaven? If I have already accepted Jesus into my life or given my life to Him (or whatever terminology we choose to describe how we participate in his saving work), then what is there left to do? I suspect if we are honest, far too many of us simply live out life, waiting to go to heaven, maybe wishing we could go sooner than later. We hear it all the time – life will be so much better in heaven.

But then guilt sets in. We should be doing something, shouldn’t we? We hear a sermon that suggests we aren’t doing enough. Or we read a scripture that suggests a need to change something we are doing (or not doing). So we try to make changes to what we do. We work on changing the behavior that seems to need tweaking (we all need to change, right?). Problem is that behavior modification leads to moralism and moralism doesn’t work!

What if our perspective is wrong or, at least, incomplete? What if being a Christian is much bigger than simply going to heaven when we die? What if heaven is only a slice of a bigger pie? NT Wright would suggest a perspective amiss: “people often imagine the main purpose of Christianity to be getting people to heaven and teaching them to behave along the way.” * He goes on to reminds us that heaven is a big deal, but it’s not the end of the world.

So, what perspective did Jesus want his followers to come away with after hanging out with him for three years? It’s important to understand because it affected all they did and said as they went “into all the world.” Jesus did not tell his disciples to go into the world and tell people how to get to heaven. It was never his message. Read the Gospels – its not there! Jesus did not leave his disciples with a self-focused perspective of simply getting to heaven.

Here’s the thing – A theological perspective that Jesus simply came to save me so I can go to heaven when I die will not serve me well in this world. Nor will it serve those around me. Moralism is the natural outcome. Moralism doesn’t lead to loving neighbor well. And it certainly doesn’t lead to loving our enemies. We all would agree that American Christians don’t love our enemies well, which should tell us something is amiss. I would suggest it’s our perspective. The result? The Good News simply becomes good advice and the world is left wanting.

* Wright, N. T. (2017). Simply good news: Why the gospel is news and what makes it good. New York:Harper One. P. 22, Kindle Edition

The Great Reversal

I remember when I first learned, as a youngster, to drive a tractor in reverse. It took a while, but I finally figured it out. Ultimately, operating in reverse became second nature – on a tractor. Not so much with vehicles of speed. When watching action movies, I am always amazed at the speed with which the “Jack Ryans” are able to operate a vehicle in reverse. Ever try it? Don’t!

One of my favorite authors and the writer of the paraphrase, The Message, is the late Eugene Peterson. A life-long pastor, Peterson said he didn’t set out to write a paraphrase of the Bible. It came from naturally translating and interpreting scripture for his parishioners on a weekly basis. In his writings, Peterson had the ability to say things differently, causing the reader to pause and reflect. Several times in the Gospels of The Message, Peterson used the term Great Reversal. In all cases, the term is capitalized, which certainly causes one to pause and reflect…

The context for Peterson’s use of the term Great Reversal is related to the upside-downess of life in God’s governance – “the last in line put at the head of the line, and the so-called first ending up last.” Seen from this context, we discover that much of what Jesus said and did was indeed a Great Reversal. The first words attributed to Jesus in Mark’s Gospel are laced with reversal language: The time has come at last – the kingdom has arrived. Repent and believe the good news [gospel] (Mark 2:15). This might be one of those passages that we are over-familiar with and easily miss the intent. So let’s unpack it a bit, starting with the end point – the good news.

How was Jesus’ announcement of the arrival of the kingdom good news to the first century listener? We see some of the answer in Jesus’ description of his mission in Luke 4 (see Mission Statements). He made it very clear that that kingdom was for everyone, a complete reversal of the accepted religious thought of the day. Outsiders now had access to the kingdom – the poor, the sick, the oppressed, their enemies – ciphers and non-entities in the first century religious system and worldview.

What did Jesus mean when he said to repent and believe this good news? Repent is a word we can easily misunderstand as simply remorse. Though remorse is certainly part of the definition, its far more than that. The first century listener would have understood repent as both a reversal of one’s thinking (change of mind) and a reversal of one’s direction. Twenty-first century understanding of repent stems from an individualist, Western worldview to which we have added Christian as an adjective. From that viewpoint, repent is understood as changing one’s mind about who Jesus is, changing direction, walking toward Him, and thus securing eternal life (usually understood as heaven). Though there is certainly truth to this, it is not what Jesus was proclaiming in the Gospel of Mark.

Jesus was proclaiming to the first century religious crowd the need to rethink their worldview, which was an insider/outsider and a we/them political worldview. Their worldview pushed others to the back of the line. Jesus’ admonishment to repent also demanded a change of direction accompanying the change of mind, implying some type of action. In the context of Great Reversal, Jesus could have been saying something like, The time has come at last – the kingdom has arrived. Change your worldview. Go bring people up from the back of the line. That would be good news indeed.

How might this play out today? We need to recognize and admit that we have been shaped by an extremely individualistic version of Christianity. For the past half-century, the mantra of mainstream Western evangelicalism has been, “God loves me and has a wonderful plan for my life”– a non-biblical, self-focused, individualistic viewpoint. If we operate out of an individualistic worldview, would it not make sense that we would tend to move to the front of the line, pushing others further away from the kingdom? Might it also make sense that we might not even see the people at the back of the line, the marginalized, the non-entities, our enemies? Jesus would ask us to repent.

Does this stretch your thinking? If so, I might suggest reading through the gospels with the express intent of discovering how much of Jesus’ message and actions displayed Great Reversal construct. We might be surprised to discover its prevalence. It might make us rethink some things. We might find the need to repent and believe in this [new found?] good news/gospel.

Mission Statements

Organizational mission statements are a more recent phenomenon – maybe the past 40ish years. Personal mission (or purpose) statements, less so. Stephen Covey challenged readers to consider developing such a statement in his best selling 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, first published in 1990. The book caused me, over a period of a couple years, to consider my personal mission, my niche in God’s kingdom, landing on this: “To know Him and make Him known.”

Why are mission statements important to a Christ-follower? Why is the exact reason! If we don’t know our why, then we will automatically focus on the whats and hows of life, which are important, but secondary. Simon Sinek reminds us of this in his TED Talk, How Great Leaders Inspire Action. So here’s a question: Did Jesus have a mission statement? Absolutely!

After his baptism and wilderness experience, Jesus was attending synagogue in his home town, as was his custom. Apparently it was his turn to read and expand on scripture that particular sabbath. He was handed the scroll containing the writings of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where this was written…

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
(Luke 4:18-19, NIV).

Jesus sat down to explain the passage and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Using the Isaiah passage, he rolled out his mission statement. Initially the people marveled at his teaching (“Isn’t this Joseph, the carpenter’s son?”). Ultimately, they grew angry, forcing him to leave town. Why?

It is important to understand first century cultural Judaism that had been shaped by the religious leaders (the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the teachers of law). The religious leaders made it very clear to people who were either poor, sick, blind, or prisoners that their condition was their own fault. This cause-effect focus on people’s behavior created an oppressive religious system (the Isaiah passage did mention setting the oppressed free!). They were basically told that God didn’t favor them so much.

Jesus was stating that his mission was to proclaim the good news to those oppressed by the religious system. His mission was to communicate to the oppressed that God was indeed interested in them. What better news could there be for someone who had for years been treated as an outsider!? Jesus was turning cultural Judaism upside down. After stating his mission, Jesus went about living it out.

If we read the subsequent chapters in Luke, we see Jesus, not preaching the good news, but healing and caring for the types of people listed in Isaiah. In doing so, he was proclaiming the good news. Religious teachers did not venture out of their comfortable religious world in order to minister to the religious outsiders. Jesus did. As a religious teacher, he wandered into the world of the poor, sick, blind, and oppressed. His very presence was good news to those he encountered. His very presence was a proclamation of the good news that God indeed showed favor toward them.

What’s in this for us? If we want to heed Jesus’ directive “In the same way the Father sent Me, I am now sending you” (John 20:21), there are couple things we can take from this. There’s a word that makes us shudder – evangelism. We feel like we need to be telling people about Jesus, yet live with much guilt because we don’t do that so well. Evangelism (which is derived from the Greek word, euangelion, meaning good news) is easier than we can imagine. It’s as simple as leaving the comforts of our religious world and stepping into the world of the “other,” the outsider. That we can do – we do it every day. Maybe we should call it good newsing.

This also shows us the importance of knowing our mission, the job God has entrusted us to do as workers in and for his kingdom. Jesus knew exactly what his mission was – to proclaim the good news that the kingdom had arrived and it was for everyone, even those who thought they were outside that possibility. Good newsing, indeed!