Balak’s an Idiot (and so am I)

Then Balak’s anger burned against Balaam. He struck his hands together and said to him, “I summoned you to curse my enemies, but you have blessed themthese three times.”
Numbers 24:10 (NIV)

Yesterday morning, after writing my post and finishing my quiet time, I settled in at the breakfast table. Wendy was just finishing reading our previous chapter as she waited for me.

Balak is an idiot,” she said with a chuckle and shake of her head.

I laughed, and agreed with her. The narrative clearly portrays the Moabite king as not being the sharpest tool in the shed. Balaam the seer clearly spoke the terms up front to Balak. He would say only what the Lord told him to say, no matter how much treasure Balak offered Balaam to say what he wanted to hear.

Nevertheless, Balak makes Balaam view the Hebrew encampment from three different vantage points, expecting Balaam’s prophetic message to change with the view. When the prophecy doesn’t change to his favor, Balak tells Balaam that he’s not going to pay. Duh. Balaam reminds Balak that he knew that up front.

It is out of Alcoholics Anonymous that we got the popular notion that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. It appears Balak could have benefitted from the Twelve Steps.

In the quiet this morning, however, I’m reminded that I can often find my own reflection in the individuals I criticize. There are stretches of my own journey in which I was looped in endless cycles of brokenness. Truth be told, I have found that significant spiritual progress usually requires breaking systemic negative patterns of thought or behavior. The further you progress the deeper, more intimate, and less obvious those negative patterns are to the casual observer. Recovering Alcoholics will tell you that they once thought drinking was their problem. Journeying through the Twelve Steps you discover that your addiction is just the tip of the iceberg.

This morning as I laugh at King Balak’s idiocy, I have to humbly confess that I am also laughing at myself.

Have a good weekend, my friend.

Line Gisters and Line Nazis

Balak said to Balaam, “What have you done to me? I brought you to curse my enemies, but you have done nothing but bless them!”

He answered, “Must I not speak what the Lord puts in my mouth?”
Numbers 23:11-12 (NIV)

I have found among actors that there is a rarely discussed spectrum. It parallels the ongoing legal debate about our Constitution here in America, between those who interpret the Constitution as a “living document” versus those who interpret it in context of its “original intent” as written.

On one end of the on-stage spectrum are those who memorize their part of the script and present the general gist of a line. They call it good. Let’s call them the “Line Gisters.” At the other end of the spectrum are those we will lovingly refer to as “Line Nazis.” Line Nazis are rabid defenders of the script, word-for-word, as written.

The playwright wrote these words for a reason,” a Line Nazi will passionately admonish his/her fellow actors. The Line Nazi then explains that changing a word or two here or there can change the entire interpretation of a line (and thus the play itself, and the intent of the playwright).  In my experience it’s at this point that the “Line Gisters” proceed to roll their eyes, the Line Nazis grumble in frustration, and the rehearsal continues.

I’ll confess to you that I have spent most of my theatre journey at the Line Gister end of the spectrum. Then, I actually wrote a couple of plays and had the privilege of watching them being produced. For the first time I began to feel personally what my Line Nazi brethren had been preaching to me all along. I was suddenly on the other side of the spectrum seeing things from a different perspective. Line Gisters would memorize and deliver a loose version of the words that I had written. Sometimes it wasn’t a big deal, but other times I had specifically crafted that line for a reason! Just getting the “gist” of it didn’t cut the mustard.

In today’s chapter, the mysterious seer Balaam continues his cameo role in the story of the Hebrews wilderness wanderings. King Balak of Moab hires Balaam to curse the Hebrew hoard camping on his borders. Multiple times Balaam speaks the words God gives him, and each time it is not what Balak paid Balaam to say. Rather than cursing the Hebrews, Balaam blesses them.

Must I not speak what the Lord puts in my mouth?” Balaam asks his prophetic patron.

Balaam understood that it was important to deliver the line as written.

God’s Message is just like the Constitution or any playwright’s script. Words can be interpreted in context or out of context. Lines can be quoted verbatim or butchered in an effort to communicate the gist. The words end up in the hands of the expositor and out of the control of the originator and/or author.

As a reformed Line Gister I confess that my years on that end of the spectrum were rooted in a generous portion of laziness and a general lack of discipline. This morning I find myself appreciating Balaam’s fidelity to deliver the words as given to him by God, heedless of the reaction of his patron. I find it honorable. I’m not sure you can call me a full-fledged Line Nazi (still working on that laziness and self-discipline), but it is a character trait I increasingly desire to exemplify in my own life, both on stage and off.

(Line Nazis Unite!)

Mysterious Ways

But Balaam answered them, “Even if Balak gave me all the silver and gold in his palace, I could not do anything great or small to go beyond the command of the Lord my God.
Numbers 22:18 (NIV)

Wendy and I went to see The Color Purple in Des Moines a few weeks ago. It is one of our favorite musicals. The story of a young African American woman on a journey of discovering just how beautiful and strong she is has been a source of fascination and conversation for us since we first saw it years ago.

The musical begins with a raucous gospel song in which we are told that the Lord works in Mysterious Ways. What proceeds is a story of a young woman who finds herself on an unconventional path out of unspeakable circumstances to discover what a beautiful and beloved child of God she truly is. The Color Purple is not a neat and tidy morality play residing inside the safety of religion’s comfortable box. True to the message of its opening song, the musical reminds us that God, the Creator of this universe, often works outside the boxes we create to put Him in for our our comfort.

Mysterious Ways flitted through my head this morning as I descended the stairs to pour my first cup of coffee after reading this morning’s chapter. Numbers 22 is one of the strangest, most mysterious chapters in the entirety of the Great Story. It is the story of Balaam, an ancient seer. Balaam is not a Hebrew. He is not Jew. He is a non-Jew living Mesopotamia. The Moabites, fearful of this massive wandering nation of Hebrews heading their way, reach out to Balaam to divine some help from the Almighty.

We quickly learn that Balaam takes a night to seek the LORD’s guidance. Balaam says he will report what the LORD tell him. When he reports to the Moabites that the LORD won’t let him curse the Hebrews, they offer him a huge wad of cash. Balaam reports that no matter how much cash he’s offered he can’t go against what the LORD has told him to do.

Time-out. Back the truck up.

This Great Story we’re journeying through is about God working through the Hebrews. They are “God’s people.” So who is this bit player named Balaam who suddenly appears from the wings for this important cameo moment? Where did he come from? How on earth did he forge a relationship with God, which it is clear he has, outside the box of the Great Story?

And we aren’t even to the strangest part of the story yet; The part where Balaam’s donkey speaks to him.

The further I get in my journey the more appreciation I have for the fact that God is, and does, “exceeding, abundantly above all that I could ask or think.” Whenever I think I’ve got God figured out inside the neat and tidy box of my religious doctrine I, like Job, am confronted on the cosmic witness stand as God stands me up and asks,

“Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades?
    Can you loosen Orion’s belt?
Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons
    or lead out the Bear with its cubs?
Do you know the laws of the heavens?
    Can you set up God’s dominion over the earth?”

No, sir.

This morning I am both fascinated and humbled by the sudden appearance of the perplexing character of Balaam and his miraculously anthropomorphic ass. I am reminded that God is not, and can not, be confined. Balaam, much like The Color Purple, reminds me that the Good Lord works in mysterious ways.

Family is Family

 They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way;
Numbers 21:4 (NIV)

My maternal grandfather, Claude Hendrickson had a particularly difficult childhood. Grandpa Spec’s father committed suicide after learning he had tuberculosis. It was assumed that Perry Hendrickson wanted to spare his family the medical costs and difficulties associated with a long, terminal illness. My grandfather, the eldest of three siblings, was farmed out to his maternal grandparents to be raised. His mother retained custody of the younger siblings.

“Spec,” as he was known this whole life, experienced a strict upbringing with his grandparents. There was, however, discipline and faith. He managed well, got married, worked hard, and made a decent life for his family. Meanwhile, his siblings suffered their own difficulties as their mother, Olive Hendrickson, went through a string of failed marriages. Spec’s brother Ralph, an alcoholic, came looking for a job from his older brother. Spec agreed to hire his brother, but explained that he would fire him the first time he found his brother drinking on the job. When that eventually happened, Ralph was fired and promptly returned family in Illinois where he spread malicious lies about Spec among the family there. Spec felt ostracized by much of his family from that point on.

Spec and Ralph remained estranged, yet when Ralph died Spec drove to Illinois to pay his respects and to face a family who thought the worst of him because of Ralph’s malicious stories. Imagine my grandfather’s horror when the funeral director handed him the bill for his brother’s funeral. As “next of kin” the family expected him to pay the bill for his estranged brother who had caused him so much trouble. My grandfather paid the bill, returned home to Iowa, and let it go.

Family is family,” I can hear my grandfather say from his rocker, chewing on a cigar.

This story came to mind as I read today’s chapter. There is a subtle, recurring theme through the story of the wilderness wanderings of the Hebrews. It appears again today when the nomad nation takes a circuitous route to avoid the land of Edom. Skirting Edom to the east meant living in an extremely desolate area east of the Dead Sea.

Back in Deuteronomy God had told Moses to leave Edom alone because the land of Edom had been settled by Esau, the twin brother of Jacob (aka Israel). The story of the twins is back in Genesis 25. Esau had been Jacob’s older twin, but Jacob had deceived Esau into giving him his birthright. The result was “bad blood” between the brothers and their descendants.

It has been some 600 years since the days of Jacob and Esau, and now the nation of Israelites are living in a desolate desert wilderness clawing out their survival because God had ordered, through Moses, that they leave Esau’s land alone. The people weren’t happy.

“Family is family.” There has always been an unwritten human principle about being faithful to family, to provide for family, to be true to family. In my life journey I believe I’ve seen the power of this sentiment slowly fade in our culture as families spread out over larger and larger geographical areas. Yet, I’m not sure it will ever fade completely. There’s something that’s built in our DNA. It’s why millions of people are doing DNA tests and searching out their roots to understand who their family is and “where I come from.” There is a part of us and our life journey that we realize is only understood in the context of the family from which we spring.

This morning I’m thinking about our human family and the things that connect us. I continue to marvel that modern genetics has definitively shown that all of us descend from what scientists refer to as “Genetic Eve.” We are all part of the same human family. Like the Hebrews, over time we feel less and less connection. Despite the fact that God reminded the Hebrews that the Edomites were “family” they didn’t think of the Edomites in those terms. They saw their distant cousins as enemies who refused to allow them to pass through the land. The Edomites didn’t see the Hebrews as distant cousins but as a threat to their very existence. Along the way our self-centered fears and desires turns human family members into mortal enemies.

Then there are those like Grandpa Spec. Despite having every reason to save his money and walk away angry from his brother’s funeral, he simply paid the funeral bill and let it go.

Family is family.

Indeed.

Micro Aggressions; Macro Issues

The Lord said to Moses, “Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink.”

 Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff.
Numbers 20:7-8, 11a (NIV)

I’m currently doing character study for a play my friend and I are producing next year entitled Freud’s Last Session. The script is a “What if?” play that imagines an ailing Sigmund Freud inviting a young C.S. Lewis for a visit in his study in London. Freud escaped Nazi Germany to England where he worked and lived out the end of his life. The play is set on the day Britain entered war with Germany. The two intellectuals match wits for an hour on matters of life, death, faith, and the impending war.

In the play Freud makes an argument against Hitler’s use of Christianity and religion to support his fascist regime. Lewis concedes that the institutional church is an easy target. History is filled with evil done in the name of God.

The truth is, however, that what is true on a macro level (e.g. the institutional church in Germany supporting Hitler’s evil regime) can also exist on the micro level (e.g. me doing the wrong thing and cloaking it in spiritual motives). I have no control over the macro level concerns of the institutional church, but I do control my own thoughts, words, and actions.

In today’s chapter, the Hebrew tribes are once again in grumbling mode. The wayfaring nation is camped in the desert and there is no good water source. A couple million people wandering in the desert require a lot of water to survive. Let the rebellion commence.

Per the systemic pattern that’s been well established at this point, the people’s grumbling complaints prompt Moses and Aaron to go before God and throw themselves on the ground in exasperation. Also well established by this point is the fact that God has proven to come through with provision when the survival of the people is at stake. God tells Moses to “speak” to a rock there in the camp and it will miraculously produce flowing water.

Moses, however, goes on a bit of a rant against his grumbling people and “raises his hand” to strike the rock. In his rage Moses strikes the rock not once, but twice.

Moses actions are a micro level spiritual problem with macro implications. God was very specific about speaking to the rock. Moses lost his temper and went postal on the thing. My first impression is that it seems a small matter for God to get upset about, but as every psychologist knows micro aggressions hide macro issues. As Freud explains to Lewis in Freud’s Last Session, what his patients tell him is not as important as what they don’t.

This morning I’m doing a little spiritual inventory. Are there places in my life where I’m striking when God has directed me to speak? Are there places in life in which I’m speaking or acting for my own self-centered motives and cloaking under a guise of “doing it for the Lord”?

Touch and Cleansing

“Anything that an unclean person touches becomes unclean, and anyone who touches it becomes unclean till evening.”
Numbers 19:22 (NIV)

There is an old saying that “cleanliness is next to godliness” and the saying may well be rooted in the religious rituals God gave to the ancient Hebrews in the book of Numbers. The theme of today’s chapter are the things that made one “unclean” and the rituals for making them “clean” again. While there is certainly spiritual metaphor at work here, there is also practical application for keeping a nation of nomads alive approximately 3500 years ago.

Throughout today’s chapter I got the sense of reading an ancient hygiene manual. Being around things like dead bodies (which may carry all manner of contagion) make a person “unclean.” You had to remain outside the camp for seven days (we call that quarantine), ritually wash, and then wash your clothes before you could be enter the camp once more. Through the ritual, God protects the community from that which could harm it.

By the time Jesus arrived on the scene in history 1500 years later, the “clean” and “unclean” designations of Moses’ law had morphed into systemic religious and social prejudice. Rules had been made to define the rules. Religious Hebrews weren’t using the “unclean” designation to protect the community, but to separate themselves from lower class individuals and those with whom they didn’t want to mix socially.

Read Jesus’ story and you’ll find that time and time again He was breaking the rules. He broke the rules for working on the Sabbath. He touched that which the Hebrew religious leaders said was “unclean” (e.g. a leper, a woman bleeding, a woman caught in adultery).

One of the most powerful stories is when a leper falls before Jesus and says, “If you want to, you can make me clean.”

He didn’t say “you can heal me” or “you can take my leprosy away” or “you can make me whole.” He said you can make me “clean.”

The leper was an outcast, and he was required to shout “Unclean!” wherever he went so that everyone else could avoid him. No one was to touch him. Every day the social system ensured that he repeatedly confirm his unworthiness, dishonor, and shame. All day, every day he would repeat “Unclean! Unclean! Unclean!” and watch people’s faces contort with disgust. He would watch mothers hurrying their children away from him. He watch people cross the street to walk on the other side of the road. This is why you still hear the phrase “social leper” in context of a person who has become an outcast of society.

Matthew is careful to record (Matthew 8:3) that Jesus reached out and touched the leper. This was not a casual touch. This was breaking the rules. This was supposed to mean that Jesus would be unclean, too. But Jesus’ touch healed the man’s leprosy. The touch made him clean.

This morning I’m reminded of the many times and circumstances along my life journey when I’ve felt unclean. Despite the common misperception of those who’ve never really read the story, Jesus didn’t come to perpetuate systemic uncleanliness. He didn’t come to double down on societal rules, stigmas, and shame. He didn’t come to tell me how terrible, unworthy, and unclean I am. I’m well aware of my uncleanliness without having to be reminded.

Jesus came to reach out with grace and love and compassion and power. Jesus came to touch the unclean person and make them clean. Present company included.

Corporate Changes; Eternal Brand

The Lord said to Aaron, “You will have no inheritance in their land, nor will you have any share among them; I am your share and your inheritance among the Israelites.”
Numbers 18:20 (NIV)

I’ve recently taken on new responsibilities in our company that began with leading a strategic planning effort this past month. As part of that process, I’m evaluating the way our business does things and considering changes, enhancements, and improvements. I don’t want our team to simply make changes for the sake of change. There’s got to be good reason for the things we do that accurately reflects who we are and contributes to what we are called to do as a business.

As I think to the future and the road ahead for our group, I also find myself being mindful of the legacy of our founder’s mission. I don’t want to lose sight of what the company was created to be. There are some things that don’t change with regard to our brand. If anything, some things need to become enhanced. It’s simply who we are.

In many ways, the book of Numbers that we’re journeying through a chapter-a-day was God’s spiritual business plan for the ancient Hebrews. It’s an organizational manual for how God was establishing a system of worship. Things were not structured haphazardly. There are reasons that God, the founder and CEO, is structuring things a particular way.

One of the curious decisions God made was to make sure the priests and Levites, who were in charge of the temple, the offerings, and the sacrifices, could not own land or have an inheritance. “I am your share and your inheritance,” God said.

There is a very important purpose in setting up the team this way. Those who were part of the priesthood, the ones who were the spiritual conduit between God and humanity, were to understand and constantly maintain an eternal perspective. To quote the old bluegrass classic, “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ though.” The priests and Levites didn’t own land and didn’t have inheritance passed between generations because they understood that ultimately this whole earthly journey has an eternal destination. The world and all the stuff get left behind. The priest and Levites were invested in that which is beyond this world, those things which are eternal, the things that the Founder and CEO are really all about.

Times changed over the course of history. The system changed. The spiritual marketplace went through a great depression. Legacy ways of doing spiritual business in this world changed. Jesus came to be the ultimate sacrifice once for all. Holy Spirit was poured out into all believers. It was a new economy for spiritual business, and God’s spiritual business plan was getting a face lift. Old religious practices passed away like the telegraph, the ticker tape, and the IBM Selectric. New sacraments and paradigms were put into place.

But some things don’t change.

The legacy concept of the priests not having an earthly inheritance did not go away as part of the updated business plan. In fact, Jesus made it clear that God being the “share” and “inheritance” was a foundational, core part of God’s brand. It was a corporate value that was no longer limited to one team in the organization, but shared by all. It was part of every team members job description. In speaking to all the shareholders on the mountainside, Jesus said:

“Don’t hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or—worse!—stolen by burglars. Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it’s safe from moth and rust and burglars. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.” Matthew 6:19-21 (MSG)

The CEO was updating the business plan, and the old business silo of the “priesthood” was being functionally expanded to include everyone in the organization (1 Peter 2:9-10). Along with it, everyone in the organization was to understand that this world, and the things of this world, have zero eternal value. The world, and the things of this world, in no way contribute to the mission and goals of the organization. They will not help the organization be successful in implementing the strategic plan. Therefore, this world and the things of this world are not where members of the organization are to invest our resources, our energies, or our corporate concerns.

This is the legacy from the Founder. This is the brand.

It’s simply who we are, and who we are to be.

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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