Old Ways Die Hard

“Take the Levites from among all the Israelites and make them ceremonially clean.”
Numbers 8:6 (NIV)

When I was a kid, I remember the feeling that the Reverend of our family’s church was different. There was something special about him. He dressed differently, he was treated differently, and we children were told to be on our best behavior around him. If he came to visit our house it was a special occasion and we were give instructions that didn’t accompany any other visitor.

The idea of priests, pastors, imams and rabbis being afforded special status runs deep in us. In the Judeo-Christian tradition is goes all the way back to the days of Moses and the ancient religious prescriptions we’re reading about here in the book of Numbers. The priesthood was reserved for the descendants of Aaron. Assistance to the priests was reserved only for those men in the tribe of Levi. There were special rituals of consecration for both. The priests were made “holy” and, according to today’s chapter, the Levites were made “clean.” The priests took on special priestly garments, the Levites washed theirs. Blood was applied to the priests but just waved over the Levites. It is a spiritual caste system in the making.

God’s Message clearly points to a radically new paradigm after Jesus’ ascension and the outpouring of Holy Spirit. There is now no distinctions between Jews and non-Jews, men and women, rich and poor, slave and free. Salvation is offered to all without distinction. Each and every one is an essential part of the same body. Every member is part of a royal priesthood. Spiritual gifts are given to all without regard to age, education, status, maturity, or purity. Old paradigms have passed away, a new paradigm has come. The religious caste system is over.

Or not.

People are people. Deeply held beliefs and traditions are hard to break. Along my spiritual journey I’ve witnessed that we continually rebuild systems with which we’re comfortable. We make special schools for “ministry” and then pick and choose who may attend (by gender, by socio-economic status, by social standing, by educational merit, by perceived moral purity). We develop special rituals and hoops for individuals to jump through, and then we treat them special and “different” once they’ve successfully jumped through them.

Having spent time as both pastor in the pulpit and as (seemingly) peon in the cheap seats, I’ve witnessed our penchant for treating pastors and priests differently from both sides. Having a systematic process of education for leadership is not a bad thing, but when the institutional system begins affording special social rank and privilege (by design or default), then it begins to tear at the heart of what Jesus was all about.

This morning I’m thinking about how given we are as humans to accepting certain thoughts, beliefs, and social mores without question. I’ve noticed along the way that some people get less likely to question them the further they get in life. I’m finding myself becoming more inclined to question, to prod, to push. “Old things pass away, new things come,” it is said. But we only have room for new things if we are willing to let go of the old. The tighter we cling to that which is dead, the more impossible it is to truly experience new life.

Left-Brain Development in a Right-Brain Dude

When Moses entered the tent of meeting to speak with the Lord, he heard the voice speaking to him from between the two cherubim above the atonement cover on the ark of the covenant law. In this way the Lord spoke to him.
Numbers 7:89 (NIV)

Confession time this morning. I am an organized wannabe. My whole life I have had a desire for my life to be organized, measured, well-structured and disciplined. In that effort I’ve dabbled in Day-timer, Day-keeper, Seven Habits, Scan Cards, pocket calendars, Palm Pilots, Outlook, and you-name-the-organizational-big-name-fad-gadget-system-of-the-moment-here.

My right brain always betrays me. Just ask my wife, Wendy, who is a certified, card-carrying rock star of the organized world, and also sports an amazingly developed, creative right brain.

Now, in my defense, I will tell you that I’ve progressed a long way in my life journey. I’m more organized and disciplined than, perhaps, ever. My organizational discipline has grown and developed over time and it has developed in parallel with my spiritual journey. Get this: I’ve come to realize that God holds the tension between right and left brain. The Creator is the ultimate fullness of both creativity and order. God is both limitless possibility and infinite detail. The further I get in my spiritual journey of unity with the Creator, the more balanced I find my life becoming in this regard.

Let’s be honest. Today’s chapter is a slog. It’s the longest chapter in the five books known as the Torah (a.k.a. Pentateuch, Books of Moses, Law of Moses). The chapter is incredibly ordered, detailed and repetitive as it describes the pageantry of the dedication of the traveling temple tent (called the Tabernacle) that the Hebrews carried with them on their march out of Egypt and to the promised land. In orderly fashion the leader of each of the twelve Hebrew tribes brings their offering to the Tabernacle. Each tribal leader brought the same gift, listed in the same order in detail. They brought the gifts in the same order given for the organization of their marching and their encampment around the Tabernacle. Today’s chapter is a left-brain’s dream on steroids (as the right brain reaches for a bottle of five-hour energy).

I’m reminded this morning of Paul’s letter to Jesus’ followers in Corinth where he writes:

Let all things be done decently and in order.

The kicker comes at the end of today’s chapter (if you make it that far) when it reports that after the orderly pageant God’s presence and voice became manifest to Moses when he would enter the inner sanctuary of the tent before the ark of the covenant [cue: Indiana Jones Theme]. In other words, God’s power, presence, and voice came at the end of well-ordered offering and dedication.

This morning I’m reminded of the description of the Temple of Solomon (designed to replicate the basic structure of the Tabernacle tent) the we read back in 2 Kings just a few weeks ago [here’s the post]. No order. The scroll with the law of Moses had been lost for years. The Temple of God had become an unruly farmer’s market style carnival of religious idols, complete with temple prostitution. No order. No discipline. No presence.

Despite the groaning from my creative, go-with-the-flow right brain, I’ve come to acknowledge along life’s journey that detail and organization are a critical, spiritual component. There is a certain peace, power and presence of Spirit that accompanies life and worship when things are managed in a detailed, disciplined, orderly way. And so, I press on in the development of my left-brain.

Now, does anyone know where I put my phone?

Another Season Ends

It was a gorgeous autumn weekend in the Ozarks this past weekend. For a decade we have kicked off our annual lake season each spring with friends Kevin and Becky. It’s always such an enjoyable weekend together that a few years ago we decided to add a weekend in October to end each lake season as well.

The weather is unpredictable during Ozark autumns, but more often than not the sun is every bit as warm as it is during the summer during the day. The mornings and evenings, however, are cool enough to require a sweatshirt or jacket. Plus, the autumn colors are starting to come out, adding a whole new layer of beauty to the landscape.

It was a much needed weekend of “R&R” for the four of us. Plenty of laughter, conversation, and camaraderie accompanied with good food and drink. We watched the Cyclone football team win (yay!) and the Cubs lose (boo!). We took a boat ride, grilled some great food, and spent hours on the deck.

Wendy and I will likely be making another trip south to shut things down for the long winter months. The season of sun and fun at the Playhouse is over for 2017. It was a good season of family and friends. This past weekend was the perfect way to bring it to a conclusion.

 

Special Vows

“Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of dedication to the Lord as a Nazirite….”
Numbers 6:2 (NIV)

I run into some of the most interesting people in my job. Years ago there was a Customer Service Representative (CSR) for a client company who stood out from the crowd because he had the longest hair I’d ever seen on a man. The man was tall and thin and had incredibly straight, long hair that most women would envy. It went all the way down his back. It was so distinctive and prompted such curiosity that one of my colleagues went out of his way to ask the man about it.

It turns out that this man was a follower of Jesus, and he had a friend who was in prison. He wanted to find a tangible way to express his love and loyalty to his friend, and so he informed his friend that he was making a special vow to God, and his friend, that he would not cut his hair until his friend was released from prison. It had obviously been several years, and he was obviously committed to his friend and to God.

The CSR’s vow was a modified version of a voluntary, “special vow” that the ancient Hebrews called a Nazarite vow, as described in today’s chapter. The idea of the Nazarite vow was a way for individuals to “dedicate themselves to the Lord” for a particular period of time for a particular reason that may have been very personal between themselves and God. The reasons can be as diverse as the persons making them, but I have come to believe that there are stretches of life’s journey when a special vow can be an opportunity for incredible growth of spirit and/or witness.

This morning I’m thinking about the special vows individuals make from choosing a monastic life, to a lenten fast, and even to a chapter-a-day journey.  The thing I appreciate about special vows is that they are not compulsory or demanded. Special vows come from a special place of the heart. They are Spirit led and Spirit driven. They may be for a brief period of time, for the remainder of the journey, or somewhere in between. That’s between the person making a special vow and God.

Years after our relationship with the client ended my colleague told me one day that our CSR friend had contacted him. The CSR reported that his friend had finally been released from prison. He was there to meet his friend at his release. Together, they went to the barber shop. To this day my heart smiles to think of what that moment must have meant to both of them. For me, it illustrates what special vows are all about.

For the Good of the Whole

The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: ‘Any man or woman who wrongs another in any way and so is unfaithful to the Lord is guilty and must confess the sin they have committed. They must make full restitution for the wrong they have done….'”
Numbers 5:5-7 (NIV)

Many of the client offices in which I’ve worked over the years are cramped quarters. Numerous people work in confined spaces with little barrier between desks. During the winter months it is quite common to hear stories of entire departments decimated by the flu or other viruses that spread quickly with little or no warning. Over the years when I’ve found myself with a nasty bug I have felt compelled to call clients and explain, “You don’t want me visiting you right now.” I can’t remember a single client who wasn’t grateful for me being considerate of their operation and team members.

When reading through the ancient marching orders for the Hebrew nation in the book of Numbers it’s easy to for me to find myself perplexed in the simple reading of the text. It is so easy to read it from a 21st century American perspective and scratch my head. There is little connection between me (the modern, western technological age reader) and a nomadic nation of semitic people in Arabia around 3500 years ago.

Stepping back and looking at today’s chapter as a whole, the rules prescribed through Moses had to do with things that were threats to their community, starting with that which was physical and easy to see and ending with that which was relational and much harder to judge.

It begins with that which was physical and quite easy to diagnose. In that time period infectious disease could wipe out an entire people in little or no time. While my cold virus might wreak havoc on my client’s workforce and productivity, in the days of Moses a nasty virus could bring death and plague to the entire nation. So, those who showed clear physical sign of what might be a disease were to be quarantined outside the camp. Next came the broad category of “wronging” another member of the community. I think of this as the type of neighborly disputes that might end up in small claims court at my local courthouse. Finally, the bulk of the chapter deals with the most intimate and difficult things to know or to judge: marital infidelity.

It’s easy as a modern reader to get mired in the struggle to understand rules made for an ancient, middle-eastern culture. Wendy and I had a fascinating discussion over coffee last week about the historical and cultural contexts of these rules. Still, I walk away from today’s chapter reminded that all cultures need laws, rules, and regulations that protect the good of the community.  Infectious disease, personal disputes, and the breakdown of marriage all have consequences that  radiate throughout the community. God through Moses prescribed very specific ways to determine and deal with them for the good of the whole.

This morning I’m thankful to live in a community with a strong system of law that protects our community, state, and nation as a whole. I’m also reminded this morning of my individual responsibility to be considerate of my community as a whole. In fact, I report for jury duty in two weeks.

That Which I am Gifted and Meant to Do

So Moses, Aaron and the leaders of Israel counted all the Levites by their clans and families. All the men from thirty to fifty years of age who came to do the work of serving and carrying the tent of meeting numbered 8,580.
Numbers 4:46-48 (NIV)

Along life’s journey I’ve come to understand that the organization of human beings to accomplish a particular task (or tasks) is an art form in and of itself. Anyone who has had to lead any kind of large scale endeavor understands this. There are numerous models and theories for doing so.

In this morning’s chapter we find the Hebrew clan of Levites were dedicated to the care, maintenance and moving of their nation’s mobile temple and all its furnishings. They alone of all the Hebrew clans set it up, took it down, carried it on the march, and did the work of the Temple while encamped. If you were born into the Levite clan you would not be a warrior, you would work be assigned religious duties the rest of your life.

Throughout history this paradigm has also been followed by many societies. A father is apprenticed into a trade by his father, and teaches the trade to his son. You were born into your occupation just as sure as you might be given the surname of that occupation: Miller, Thatcher, Farmer, and Doctor.

Had things still been done this way, I might be a carpenter today, just as my great-grandfather was apprenticed to be before he came to America as a young man. Anyone who has experienced my carpentry skills knows that this would be a tragedy. While I am capable to do some basic projects, you definitely don’t want me building your house!

In today’s paradigm, we are taught as young people that we “can be anything we want” and this is somewhat true. In our culture we are free to pursue any trade or occupation. I have noticed, however, that just because you desire to pursue an occupation doesn’t mean that you are gifted at that occupation. I have witnessed for years those who desired to pursue certain ministry tasks or roles within the local church only to frustrate the entire congregation by their lack of skill or giftedness. I’ve known preachers who can’t preach their way out of a paper bag, singers who can’t carry a tune with a handle on it, and directors of worship who are consistently lost and unable to capably give direction to anyone.

Just as the generational paradigm had its weaknesses, so also does the “you can do whatever you want” paradigm. Desiring an area of giftedness does not necessarily make you good at it.

This morning I’m thinking about my experiences in leadership with business, church, community organizations, and even the project management required of producing or directing a show. I’ve come to believe that one of a leader’s critical tasks is helping people find their areas of giftedness and helping them both embrace and develop those areas. Sometimes there is a journey of acceptance required to bring us to a waypoint of understanding that I ultimately find joy when I am doing what I am gifted and meant to do.

Thoughts on Birth Order

…for all the firstborn are mine. When I struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, I set apart for myself every firstborn in Israel, whether human or animal. They are to be mine. I am the Lord.”
Numbers 3:13 (NIV)

A lot has been made of birth order through the ages. In modern society psychologists have famously argued that certain traits seem to commonly accompany children born in a particular place within their family’s birth order. Some of it is attributed to how parents commonly respond to children in each place of the order, while some is attributed to the unique psychological development that happens for children in each place within the order. An only child typically has their own distinctive traits, as does the youngest child in the family (I’m one of those) no matter the number in the order.

In the ancient days of Moses the firstborn was set apart (e.g. “hallowed” or “sanctified”) for God. This is why Mary and Joseph took Jesus, as the first born, to be dedicated according to the law when Simeon and Anna prophesied over Him (Luke 2:22-38). The practice goes back to the events of the Exodus and the Law of Moses, as we read in today’s chapter. Throughout history, the firstborn male has been afforded special significance in many societies, especially when it comes to matters of inheritance.

The differences in birth order are fascinating to observe and discuss. Any parent can tell you stories about how different children are in different places in the birth order, and groups of parents will find that there is commonality in certain traits. Along life’s journey, however, I’ve found that it’s foolish to make too much of such things, just as it’s foolish to dismiss them entirely.

Through the Great Story there are significant characters from different birth orders. Jacob/Israel was the second born and usurped the birthright of his firstborn brother. Joseph and David were both the babies of their respective broods. And, so on.

This morning I’m thinking about birth order. One article I read this morning gave this set of common traits to mark the baby of the family:

  • Fun-loving
  • Uncomplicated
  • Manipulative
  • Outgoing
  • Attention-seeker
  • Self-centered

Ha! I want to embrace a few of the traits on the list and deny the others, though I have to own up to the fact that an argument can be made for every one describing me in some way, especially as a child. It doesn’t make me better or worse then my eldest sibling, just different, and perhaps suited for very different roles in life.

C’est la vie.

While God set the first born apart in ancient days for a particular significance, it doesn’t diminish the unique role each person plays in the story. Psalm 139 says each one of us are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Our place in the birth order doesn’t make us better or worse, though it may uniquely develop us for a particular role. I’ve learned in theatre that a key lesson in life is to fully give myself to, and enjoy the role I’m given, no matter the size of the part. Embracing this is the pathway to a tremendous amount of joy and contentment.

Just another wayfarer on life's journey, headed for Home. I'm carrying The Message, and I'm definitely waiting for Guffman.

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