Believing: Achieving or Receiving?

I don’t remember a whole lot about being born, do you? I don’t think anything was posted on Facebook, at least. We have a few pictures, but cameras in the 70s weren’t the same as they are today. I do remember that I was born 3 weeks late, so I’ve never, ever been small for my age. Yet I must say, despite my overly-large head, I was pretty cute. And pretty helpless. Besides cuteness–and let’s face it: not all of us get this gift in equal measure–a baby’s defining characteristic is sheer helplessness. From my observations (and I was there when each of our 4 bundles-of-joy arrived) a baby’s resume is limited to: cuteness, eating (and associated bodily functions), and crying. Babies are not high-achievers, but needy receivers.

Perhaps this is what Jesus had in mind when he said: “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:15). He said this kind of thing more than once, by the way, as similar sayings are recorded not once but twice in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (that’s 6 times, if you’re keeping score). Whenever something is repeated multiple times in the Bible, we’d better pay close attention.

Jesus’ teaching on receiving the kingdom like a child is immediately followed by a rich guy who apparently missed Jesus’ point entirely (see Mark 10:13-31). It is easy to be distracted by the man’s excitement, since he runs up to Jesus, kneels, and asks him about eternal life. A careful reader might notice this is the first person in the gospel of Mark to ask Jesus THE big question. But take a look at how he asks: “…what must I DO to inherit eternal life?” This man, although apparently eager to follow Jesus, starts off on the wrong foot. Jesus just said “receive… like a child” and the man asks “what must I do?”

Little children can only receive, yet this poor man can only wonder what he can achieve. That’s a little like me buying my kid an awesome bike for her birthday, and then she turns around and asks me how much she owes me for it. Gifts by their very nature cannot be earned or achieved, they can only be received, and so it is with God’s gift of Jesus and his kingdom: we can’t earn it, we can only receive it like a tiny child.

God knows that we try to achieve what we can only receive, and he loves us anyway. In the middle of Jesus interacting with the rich man it says Jesus looked intently at him and he loved him, and then he lowers the boom: “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21). With deep love, Jesus calls on the man to let go of the one thing that is holding him back: his money. His wealth taught him that he must achieve to get ahead and stay ahead, so that’s how he approached Jesus: what can I DO to earn my way into your kingdom? But that’s not the way of Jesus, who calls us to ask: how do I receive you and your kingdom?

Maybe for us the issue isn’t money (although we are living in the most affluent culture in human history, so it might be), but the question behind all the issues is the same: what do I need to let go, so I can receive God? Pride, self-reliance, independence, self-sufficiency, achievement–it has many names and faces: “I’m a pretty good person…I’m doing my best…I’ll make my own way…I don’t really need saving…I’m doing fine, thanks.” When we say these things–and we all do one way or another–Jesus looks at us intently and loves us. He calls us to let go of what keeps us from receiving him, and lovingly says: “Come, follow me.” Will you?

Bob Wiegers is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Bennington (601 Main Street), which gladly welcomes all to come hear the call of true spirituality: the call to follow Jesus.

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Cat Poster Theology

catposterbelieve.jpgI’m only a little embarrassed to admit to you that one of my favorite movies is The Lego Movie from way back in 2014. There’s too many reasons to list why I like it so much, but perhaps the best reason is its many witty lines and subtle cultural commentary. So whenever I come across someone or something that encourages me to “Just Believe!” or “Believe in Yourself!” I always think of these lines from the movie: “…the only thing anyone needs to be special is to believe that you can be. I know that sounds like a cat poster but it’s true.” I’m tempted to get a cat poster just like the one in the movie, where a cat is jumping (or falling?) and it simply says BELIEVE! across the top. We all just got to believe a bit more, right?

My favorite part of the Bible that talks about belief comes from a desperate dad who is pleading with Jesus to heal his son (you can read it at Mark 9:14-29). This guy, whose name we’re not given, knows enough about Jesus to give him a shot, but things don’t start off well. First he tries to get some of the disciples to heal his boy, but they unfortunately fail (Jesus is up on a mountain at the time).

To make things worse, the Scribes get in the mix. These were the experts in religious law whose favorite hobby seemed to be giving Jesus and the disciples a hard time. They apparently turn the failure of Jesus’ disciples to heal this suffering boy into an opportunity to start a theological argument. If I’m this dad, I’m getting discouraged, frustrated, and angry. My only son has suffered his whole life, and I heard these guys can help, so I’ve come all this way, only to be faced with failure, frustration, and fighting.

Then, finally, Jesus shows up. He comes down the mountain fresh off a supernatural encounter with the ancient prophets Elijah and Moses, and the voice of God the Father ringing: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” (Mark 9:7). So the man brings his own broken and beloved son to the Beloved Son of God, begging for help. As Jesus interacts with the man, we get a window into his desperation, and his doubts, as he says, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus, never one to miss an opportunity, immediately challenges the man’s doubt: “‘If you can’?! All things are possible for one who believes.” The man, with a refreshing burst of honesty, replies: “I believe! Help my unbelief!”

And there you have my favorite prayer: “I believe; help my unbelief.” Or, perhaps you could paraphrase it: “I trust you Jesus, as much as I’m able, but I have my doubts. Help me overcome my unbelief!” I can’t count how many times I’ve prayed this prayer or something like it. I hope I’m not the only one who trusts God at least a little, but finds all this other junk mixed in. “Yes God, I know you’re good, and I know you’re trustworthy, but I’m not so sure if you can help this…” You fill in the blank: this disease, this depression, this death in the family, this anger, this broken relationship, this addiction, this loneliness, this anxiety, this dead-end job, this whatever. Do you have any “if you can”s? Can you bring your “if you can” to God and say, with this dear man, “Help my unbelief!”

In the story, there is no further delay after the man’s pronouncement of faith-and-doubt: Jesus heals the boy. Somehow, amazingly, the key to accessing the untold power and love of God is found in faith. Call it belief, faith, or trust if you’d like, but the point isn’t the strength or frailty of our faith, but the strength of the one we’re trusting in: Jesus himself. Apparently we don’t need a pure, high-test, super-strong faith to come to Jesus. We only need a little, even if it is frail, even if it is mixed with doubt.

The cat posters of the world command us to believe in ourselves or to just generally “Believe!” There is much to be said for healthy self-worth and self-esteem. But trusting primarily in yourself is a different matter. If I trust in myself more than anyone else, I won’t get very far. I will never get beyond my own skin, never get to the heights I was meant to reach. But if I can humble myself enough to come to Jesus, even with my cocktail of faith and doubt, God’s amazing grace, power, and love through Jesus will open wide. Pray it with me, my friends: “I believe! Help my unbelief!”

Bob Wiegers has lots of pets, but no cats. He is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Bennington, whose faith in Jesus, while mixed with doubts, continues to grow, by God’s grace. All are welcome to join us on the journey.

Blessed are the Poor in Spirit

Last Friday the good folks at Greater Bennington Interfaith Community Services did our community a great service by hosting the “Bridges Out of Poverty” workshop. What follows is one guy’s reflections on the day. Full disclosure: I grew up as a generic white middle-class suburban kid. Stability was rampant. We never had a ton of money, but we never really did without. I’ve since flirted with the federal poverty line and received my share of help, but so might anyone who works for a non-profit and has a large family.

Money is only one factor of poverty. “Bridges” defines poverty as “the extent to which an individual does without resources” including: financial, emotional, mental, spiritual, physical, support systems, relationships, and “knowledge of hidden rules.”  Deep down we know that we can be rich in money, but poor in faith, hope, and love, and worse off than the “needy.”

The workshop was essentially cross-cultural training for people like me, who have mostly-middle-class experience and values. Like many, if not all, in the room, I long to be a blessing to my community, to my neighbors, and to whoever God sends my way, but I often don’t know how to relate to those who “aren’t like me.”  Do I just give up and stick with my own tribe? Tempting, but Jesus has a much broader definition of who my neighbor really is (which is the lesson of the story of the Good Samaritan, found in the Bible at Luke 10:25).

One of the goals of the workshop was to give me a “new lens” to see the world through, especially the world of those experiencing generations of poverty. Like the inevitable results from an overdue visit the eye doctor, it was time to have my lens adjusted. For example, I learned that “every action takes five-to-seven times longer to complete” for someone lacking resources. At first glance this seems absurd. But take the example of laundry: some of us spend just minutes doing a load of laundry (load it up, and do something else while it runs), but others need to take hours (pack up the kids, walk to the laundromat, and wait). Some of us spend a couple hours a week getting groceries (piling it all in the van), and some of us spend a couple hours every two days (you can only carry so many bags). The list goes on. The takeaway from this lens adjustment? Patience, understanding, empathy.

Another: life in poverty is generally one of constant “survival-mode.” I’ve had a few rounds of survival-mode, mostly due to health crises, but to be in survival-mode as a constant way of life is exhausting to even consider. This leads to constantly living-in-the-moment, and each aspect of life is under stress yet interconnected. Baby gets sick? If you have little help, you may lose your job, and the web comes unraveled. The surprising take-away from this lens adjustment: a life of survival-mode leads to being motivated by relationships. Whether your relationships are good or bad, when it all hits the fan, they’re all you’ve got. Aunt Betty needs my last $400 to make her rent? No hesitation. She, or someone else, will get me next time.

While I doubt many of us would sign up for the grind of constant survival-mode, something about being motivated by relationship caught my attention, especially when I contrast relationship-motivation with middle-class achievement-motivation. How many of us on our deathbeds are going to savor our achievements over our relationships? Relationship is essential. Achievement is optional. We often think of those “stuck in poverty” need to be “lifted up” to join the middle-class (the achievement class), where birth-rates are lower, paychecks are higher, but misery-rates are about the same.

Your high-achieving neighbor may have access to all the resources she needs, but is her soul stable? Your dirt-poor neighbor may have little, but is his spirit content? Jesus himself was materially poor, but spiritually rich. Is it not possible to thrive as a human being no matter our circumstances? I think Jesus would say “Yes” because he lived, died, and rose again so anyone who has life-transforming faith in him can be brought out of spiritual poverty, and forever be blessed by God. Does this means following Jesus will bring you out of material poverty? No, but being set free from guilt, shame, and fear, and being adopted into a loving spiritual family is priceless and life-changing.

So we as a community can do much to overcome the barriers to resources, and help more of our neighbors thrive. I earnestly hope we can continue to do so, but without the unspoken drive to make others look and act more like us. I earnestly hope we remember what Jesus said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”