“I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair. I made them take an oath in God’s name….” Nehemiah 13:25a (NIV)
Along my journey I have, on occasion, found myself amidst those who are legalists as in their faith. In my youth there was a time when I embraced a narrow, legalistic view of faith and life. I learned a lot of valuable life lessons from the experience.
I spent one semester attending a legalistic Bible college. Everything was controlled and dictated by the administration. There were rules about how to could and couldn’t dress. There were rules about how you could and couldn’t wear your hair. There were rules about what you could and couldn’t and drink. There were rules about words, rules about relationships, rules about beliefs, rules about time, rules and there were rules about rules. Behind all there rules were ominous administrators and faculty members constantly and vigilantly on the lookout for rule breakers who would be swiftly punished and branded. As an off-campus commuting student I was immediately branded as suspect as I spent so much time out of the school’s strict control. I found it a silly and sad place.
Life for a legalist exists inside a black and white world defined by a list of religious “dos” and moral “don’ts.” It’s a maddening existence in which the things which are strictly forbidden become even more tempting. The stakes on controlling behavior continually rise. Eventually the rules become more perverse than the behaviors they’re trying to avoid.
That’s what I observe in today’s chapter. Nehemiah tackled a huge project in the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem and the restoration of the temple. Bricks and mortar are one thing. Now he’s tackling a much messier task of trying to modify and control human behavior. He’s trying to make people tow the line with regard to Judaic religious laws. When you get to the point that you’re cursing people, beating people, pulling out their hair, and forcing them to take oaths then you’ve definitely joined the legalistic elite. Nehemiah even has a perverse sense of earning some kind of spiritual merit badge for being God’s behavior police. Four times he repeats his mantra of “Remember me God.”
This morning I find myself thinking about Paul, who came out of the same legalistic Jewish tradition as Nehemiah. In fact, Paul at one time acted much like Nehemiah. When Paul encountered Jesus he had been on his way to the city of Damascus. It was there he desired to arrest, convict, imprison and (he hoped) sentence to death those rule breaking Jews who were following Jesus. He’d already successfully put one of Jesus’ rule breaking followers to death. Jesus changed all that, and within a few years Paul was leading the charge in embracing non-Jewish Gentiles and directing followers of Jesus away from strict Jewish tradition.
I am so glad that my days of legalism are behind me. I’m thankful that, somewhat like Paul, my path led away from silly and sad places where legalism reigns and sucks the Life out of you. This morning I’m grateful to have journeyed to a place where freedom and grace give rise to Life-giving good things.
The family heads among the descendants of Levi up to the time of Johanan son of Eliashib were recorded in the book of the annals. Nehemiah 12:23 (NIV)
A friend dropped off copies of an old program at the house the other day. They had been unearthed in the estate of a local citizen recently deceased. The programs were from the grand opening of our local community center back in 1989 and our community theatre (just a fledgling organization trying to get off the ground at that time) had a part in the festivities. It was interesting for me to look through the program and see who performed, what was performed, and how the community went about celebrating the center’s opening.
When you blog for any length of time you’re likely, on occasion, to have visitors who take an exception with its content. In my humble opinion, one of the unfortunate outcomes of our social media culture is the ability for people to take snarky pot shots at others from afar. I grieve what appears to be our waning ability to have civil public discourse about our disagreements, especially in our political arena. At the same time, how cool that I can daily publish a blog post that can be instantly accessed and read by billions of people around the world. (“Can be” being the operative words as, on a good day, I eke out only 200 or so visitors from those billions of potential readers)
I received a comment yesterday on a very old blog post I’d written years ago, that was from a chapter of the Bible like today’s. The comment began by insulting my intelligence and then proceeded to criticize the chapter, and the Bible as a whole, for not being appropriately addressing the politically correct issues of our day. It then ended with by criticizing the Bible as terrible literature.
Of course, the humble Hebrew scribes who scratched out the words of the books of law and history in the Old Testament some 3,000 years ago were not concerned with literary merit in the 21st century American sense. Neither were they concerned with animal welfare or human rights in our modern way of thinking of such things. Using stylus on papyrus they were simply concerned with preserving historical record. Even in today’s chapter it self-describes the contents as a “book of the annals.” It was no more intended to be a work of literature than the program from our Community Center’s grand opening.
One of the most fascinating, and sometimes maddening, challenges of reading God’s Message is that it is not a literary work in the classic sense. It’s a compilation of historical record, code of law, poetry, song lyric, prophecy, biography, and personal correspondence. It’s more puzzle than prose. It was all written in other languages in ancient cultures on the other side of the world. The story is not told in literal, linear fashion. The story emerges over time and requires patience, and the openness of both brain hemispheres, to perceive and embrace the over arching narrative. Those who wish it to read like a 21st century novel will be understandably frustrated, confused, and disappointed.
The rest of the people cast lots to bring one out of every ten of them to live in Jerusalem, the holy city, while the remaining nine were to stay in their own towns. Nehemiah 11:1 (NIV)
Last night was a beautiful summer evening. Wendy and I shuffled across the street at the invitation of our neighbors Kevin and Linda. We sat in their front yard and sipped cold drinks as the sun set and the stars came out on a cloudless sky. As always, the conversation with our friends meandered into diverse topics. One of the topics was that of community support.
We live in a thriving small town in Iowa. Our little town is a hoppin’ place. When you go to “the square” during the day you’re often going to hunt for a good parking spot. Housing is in short supply compared to the demand of those moving in (another topic of our conversation). Many rural towns our size would love to have such a problems.
There are a number of reasons for our town’s success, but one of them is simply community support. “Buy local” aren’t just buzzwords here. There is a true spirit among residents of supporting local businesses. You feel the expectation, and you generally feel good when you’re a part of making the community successful. Our conversation with Kevin and Linda last night meandered into the sticky wicket that residents face in discerning when to bite the bullet and pay higher prices to support local and when/if it becomes fiscally foolish to do so.
In today’s chapter, the Israelites around Jerusalem were facing similar dilemma of community support. They had restored the broken down walls and gates of Jerusalem. They had resurrected worship at the temple. But, their efforts would be in vain if people didn’t actually live inside the city wall and support the local urban renewal project. So, they cast lots (the ancient version of drawing straws) and chose ten percent of the families from among the tribes. These families were to “support local” and move themselves within the city walls and do their part for the community. The fact that they had to draw lots makes me wonder just how excited those families were about moving into the rubble.
This morning I’m thinking about community. I’m thinking about the support that is required to make communities, small businesses, and community organizations run. Without a spirit of community among the individual members, the whole suffers. Jesus’ teachings of washing each other’s feet and loving others more than we love ourselves is woven into the spirit of community. We need each other.
Over my journey I’ve worshipped in many different places. Growing up, there was a lot more emphasis that people placed on the church building itself. I still remember the Methodist church where I grew up. The area of that altar in the sanctuary was considered hallowed ground along with the “eternal light” that hung above it (which was a light bulb I’m quite sure needed to be replaced on occasion).
As I grew in my understanding as a follower of Jesus, I began to recognize that the special attachment Christians placed on their particular house of worship fell into two camps. The first camp were those who considered their local church building to be some kind of holy place that was, itself, sacred because it was a church. The other camp considered their local church special because the community of believers had built it together. It was communal space for worship and they wanted to take care of it.
In the days of Nehemiah, the temple where they worshipped was a holy place. It had been designated such by God when He gave the plans to Moses and called for its eventual construction. When Jesus came, however, the paradigm changed radically. Jesus made it clear that the times they were a changing. When confronted by the Samaritan woman at the well about where you should worship, Jesus replied, “But the time is coming—it has, in fact, come—when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter.”
With the pouring out of Holy Spirit into the hearts of every believer, our bodies themselves became the temple. Our worship center became wherever we happen to be at any given moment. The focus shifted from bricks and mortar to flesh and blood. We may appreciate and tend to our local church building because we want to be good stewards of the communal worship space, but the church building is not hallowed in and of itself. It’s when I and my fellow believers bring Holy Spirit in with me to worship that makes it a worship center.
Today I’m thinking once again about my body being a temple of Holy Spirit, a vessel in which God dwells. It lends a more intimate meaning to the commitment made by the folks in Nehemiah’s day: “I will not neglect the house of God.”
Summer has begun! And, it’s been a busy couple of weeks for Wendy and me. After my last installment of “The Latest” back in early June, we afforded the opportunity to spend time with Wendy’s family while they were in town for Lucas and Brooke’s wedding.
Wendy, Taylor and I met Court, Becky, Lydia and Suzanna at Principal Park for an I-Cubs game. It was young Lydia’s first baseball game and we had a ball sitting in the sun, eating ball park food, and watching our boys of summer playing ball.
Wendy and I headed down to the lake the next day for our first real extended time of relaxation this summer. Wendy and I worked remotely during the day, but took the opportunity of getting out on the boat and enjoying the unseasonably warm weather. Kevin and Becky joined us for what has become our annual kick-off to summer weekend (10th year in a row!). They arrived on Thursday evening and we enjoyed a long moonlight cruise in the boat. On Friday we slathered up and headed to Bear Bottom for sun in the pool and a late lunch on the deck. Beck wasn’t feeling great in the evening so she called it a night while the three of us watched Green Lantern. Saturday was another beautiful day and we headed back out in the sun to Bulldog’s. As always, we enjoyed great conversation and mourned having to depart.
This past fall Wendy and I stepped down from the Board of Directors of our local community theatre, Union Street Players. As the past President I’m responsible to stay on as an ex-officio member of the Board for one year to help with the transition which I have done. Now Wendy has had her turn to extend her service. As past Treasurer, she had been asked to audit the books for the group, which resulted Wendy’s appointment back to her old position. So, much of the past two weeks has found every minute of Wendy’s free time getting a handle on things. I told her that I thought she missed her calling. She should have been a forensic accountant.
We headed to Des Moines a week ago Friday for a quarterly company staff lunch. Wendy and I took the opportunity of being in Des Moines to run a few errands. We connected with Kev and Beck in the late afternoon and, for the third year in a row, enjoyed an evening watching Kennedy’s dance recital.
The following morning I enjoyed a bit of a treat. I discovered on Memorial Day that our friend Rob K was a disc golf player. I also found out that Central College actually has an 18-hole disc golf course on campus (who knew?). Rob and Vandy are moving to the Carolinas but Rob wanted to show me the course before they left. I spent a lot of time in high school and college playing disc golf. When I was a youth pastor I taught it to a whole crew of youth because it afforded time to hang out talk, and it was FREE! But, I hadn’t actually played an actual course in over 12 years. So, I pulled out the discs and enjoyed the morning walking through the woods with Rob and Vandy. Don’t even ask about my score. It was awful.
After 16 months being in our house, Wendy and I have been working hard on actually getting some things up on the walls, especially in our basement. We did a DIY project together making four 8 foot gallery shelves. I assembled the shelves using two 1x4s and one 1×2. Wendy then primed, sanded and painted them. We now have 32′ of shelf space in the V-Dub Pub for displaying our collection of posters and prints from all our shows. Wendy also did a little summer wreath project for our front door, which I think looks awesome.
It was a fairly normal work week for us this week. On Friday I had a business lunch in Des Moines. Wendy came along to run errands while I was in my extended lunch meeting. We then got together with Taylor for an early birthday celebration. Her birthday is on the 4th of July, but I’m traveling next week and then we’re headed to the lake. She’s heading to Scotland right after her birthday, so this was kind of the best chance we had to celebrate with her.
Wendy and I enjoyed getting a tour of the Catholic Worker Community in Des Moines where she lives. We saw her room and meet the eclectic mix of wonderful human beings at the worker who live there and serve the poor in Des Moines. The team at “The Worker” were just getting ready to serve the first of their two daily meals to the homeless that so we got to experience that, which was cool. I noticed on the bulletin board that there was a picture of Taylor and right above it a picture of Wendy’s cousin Kathryn, who has volunteered there. Small world.
Taylor introduced us to the laying hens
Fun in the sun at Art Fest!
Checking out the art work at Des Moines Art Festival
On the bulletin board at “The Worker” there was a pic of cousin Kathryn right above a pic of Tay!
Taylor and Wendy on the porch at Catholic Worker House where she lives.
A flight of Exile craftsmanship for Taylor’s Birthday party
A little birthday smooch!
We celebrated Taylor’s birthday by spending the rest of the afternoon at the Des Moines Art Festival. We had a blast looking at all the art, and we all agreed that our favorite part was the local children’s artwork. We then walked down to Exile Brewery for dinner. After dinner we went back to the Festival and listened to a bit of the Gin Blossom’s concert (from afar) while dipping our feet in the water of the fountain near the Des Moines Central Library.
Madison continues to build a life in South Carolina. In the past few weeks she’s suffered the scariness of getting food poisoning and having to deal with health care alone in a new city. She survived with flying colors. She got to fly to Texas and experience her first big sales training in her job with Laura Geller Cosmetics. She FaceTimed us from Myrtle Beach yesterday where she had been working all day. She posted some gorgeous sunset pics she took after enjoying dinner on a patio overlooking the water.
As I mentioned, Taylor will head to Edinburgh, Scotland after the 4th and will participate in commencement at Queen Margaret University and officially receive her Master’s Degree. She will then stay in Edinburgh and work the Fringe Festival from late July through early September. For those who have never heard of “The Fringe,” it is among the largest and most prominent arts festivals in the world. It will be a great opportunity, will look great on a resume, and will afford Taylor the opportunity to network there. She has applied for some 60 jobs in the arts world since returning to the U.S. and finds herself in the no man’s land between “you’re over qualified” and “you don’t have enough experience.” Praying for something awesome to open up for her.
“In view of all this, we are making a binding agreement, putting it in writing, and our leaders, our Levites and our priests are affixing their seals to it.” Nehemiah 9:38 (NIV)
One of the benefits of studying God’s Message over time is that you eventually begin to make connections and see patterns across the Great Story.
In today’s chapter we have the Israelites gathered together. They’ve been defeated and enslaved by the Babylonians for 150 years, but the King has allowed them to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls. They return, remember anew the Great Story and renew their commitment to God and His laws. They make a “binding agreement” to be faithful.
Just like when they were gathered in Sinai and Moses gave them the law to begin with…
Just like the multiple times they got rebellious and stiff-necked during their forty-years of wandering and renewed their commitment…
Just like at the dedication of Solomon’s temple…
Just like during the time of King Josiah when the law of Moses was found and read for the first time in a generation because the people had abandoned their faith to pursue pagan religions…
Just like…me… and the countless “binding agreements” I’ve made with God at camps and conferences and workshops and worship services through the years, only to prove myself faithless again and again.
One of the themes of the Great Story is the same theme I see in my own spiritual journey. People are people. No matter how hard I try and however many well-intentioned “binding agreements” I make with the Almighty, I always fall short of keeping them. But, that’s the point:
[Jesus] saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3:5)
…if we are faithless, [God] remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.(2 Timothy 2:13)
When in my repetitive, never-ending, cyclical faith-less-ness I finally stop trying to earn my spiritual merit badge, then I finally begin to understand the depths of God’s mercy, grace, and faith-full-ness. That’s when I truly begin to understand the Great Story. That’s when real Spirit-ual growth begins to occur.
Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law. Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” The Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for this is a holy day. Do not grieve.” Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them. Nehemiah 8:9-12
Along life’s journey I’ve grown increasingly fascinated with words. Words, in and of themselves, are creative expression. At the root level they are metaphors. A series of squiggles on a page that correspond to a series of vowels and consonants which mean something to any who can read or understand the language. Words come in and out of fashion. Words you never heard before suddenly become “buzzwords.”
Over the past couple of years, I’ve heard the words “inflection point” used a lot in business. It’s become a bit of a buzzword in some circles. It’s a great little term from the world of calculus. It describes the point at which a curve moves from being concave (downward) to convex (upward), or vice versa. Businesses have adopted the term to describe the point at which a trend (in sales, for example) stops rising and starts declining, or vice versa. The inflection point is the point of change. It’s a change of direction.
I think the term “inflection point” has strong spiritual connotations, as well. God’s Message repeatedly calls people to make a sudden change of direction. Turn from darkness towards the Light. Turn from evil ways and embrace that which is good. Turn away from hatred and pursue Love. Turn from sin and pursue God. Spiritual journeys are all about inflection points.
In today’s chapter, the walls of Jerusalem have been rebuilt. The gates are back in place. As a way of celebrating, Ezra brings out the scrolls with the law of Moses. It’s likely that the words of the law of Moses had not been widely read or heard publicly since Jerusalem and Solomon’s temple had been destroyed some 150 years earlier. Many who lived in Jerusalem may never have heard it. Perhaps no one in their families had heard it since the days of their great-great grandparents.
The reading of God’s story and the law of Moses becomes a spiritual inflection point. The people realize how far they have spiritually wandered away from God’s path. They weep. They grieve. Their hearts turn towards God.
I love the response of the Levites to the people. “Don’t grieve. Feast. This is a moment of joy!” I can’t help but think of the prodigal son returning to his father in humility and shame, and the father’s contrasting expression of joy. That’s the way spiritual inflection points work. They are a moment when grief and turn to joy.
This morning I’m thinking about all of the different metaphorical ways the term “inflection point” applies to life. I’m thinking about the inflection points I’ve experienced, both positively and negatively. Fiscal inflection points, relational inflection points, vocational inflection points, and spiritual inflection points. I’m meditating on the inflection points that still need to occur in my spiritual journey. Followers of Jesus often talk about their conversion as the inflection point of their life. While I certainly look back on that moment as monumental, I’ve found that following Jesus is a never ending series of inflection points. I don’t mature or progress unless I experience them.
I was recently challenged by a friend to embark on this exercise that they’d been working on as part of an identity statement they were developing for a class. Quite simply, you pick three people who are “heroes” or individuals you greatly admire. It can be almost anyone, but should be someone famous and someone you don’t know personally. For those who happen to be followers of Jesus, it was asked that He be excluded from this particular exercise.
I’ve been thinking about it for a few weeks, and it lends itself to a a good blogging challenge. There were a handful of finalists but I finally narrowed it down to three. As it happens, I have photos of these gentlemen taped on the front of my old, worn, paperback Bible (see the featured image of this post).
Today… it’s Winston Churchill.
The more I’ve learned about Churchill over the years, the more I’ve come to appreciate and admire him. Here are a few of the reasons off the top of my head:
Churchill steadfastly held to what he believed to be right. After World War I, when the nations were high on the notion that it was “the war to end all wars,” a young Churchill believed that greatest deterrent to another war was Britain’s strong defense. When the Chamberlain administration was bent on appeasing Hitler and holding that the upstart German dictator didn’t pose a threat to Britain, it was Churchill who was willing to be the loudest, loneliest voice of warning. Churchill reminds me of the strength and character required to stand firm for what you know is right.
Churchill understood, perhaps better than any 20th statesman, the power of words and oratory. He was a master at crafting a speech and delivering it for powerful and memorable effect. During the dark days of World War II when frightened Britons huddled in the dark of night as German bombers rained terror from the skies, it was Churchill’s words that shored up their resolve and inspired their courageous defiance. I am sometimes complimented for my speaking abilities, but Churchill reminds me how much I have yet to learn (and the inspiration to keep working at it).
Churchill was an artist. When he wasn’t changing the course of human history and saving the free world from tyranny, he was outside in nature, in front of a canvas, with a brush in his hand. He reminds me that one can make a living at business or politics while still making a life with art.
Churchill struggled. He didn’t have a particularly happy childhood or home life. He had financial struggles. He had major, public failures. He was the object of ridicule and scorn. And, he never let it stop him.
Churchill enjoyed life. The biographies I’ve read of the statesman make it clear that he enjoyed good company, good cigars, good Scotch, and good discourse. I would love to have enjoyed a long meal, good drink, and an after dinner stogie with the man as we discussed a plethora of topics.
In the person of Winston Churchill I find a cocktail of character, conviction, creativity, leadership, communication, and life. It is a mix that I would love to emulate in my own journey.
Then my God put it into my mind to assemble the nobles and the officials and the people to be enrolled by genealogy. Nehemiah 7:5 (NRSV)
What do you want to be when you grow up?
Astronaut, athlete, soldier, doctor, teacher, fire fighter, actor, engineer…
I sometimes think that many take for granted what freedom, rugged individualism, and the American experience have meant for those of us who’ve been blessed to grow up here, whose families have been here for generations.
My great-grandfather came by himself from the Netherlands as a teenager. He started as a carpenter, helped found the Co-op in Boyden, Iowa. He then started his own hardware store. My grandfather went to college and became an educator. His sons worked in meat packing and accounting. My dad’s children have worked in restoration and architectural arts, education, ministry and business. My children are finding their way into art and event management along with cosmetic sales.
What do you want to do with your life?
For the ancients in Nehemiah’s day, your family of birth often determined what you would do as an occupation. To quote Fiddler on the Roof, it was tradition. Only descendants of Aaron could be priests. Only descendants of Levi could work in the temple of God. If you were a “son of Korah” you were a musician. The genealogical record that Nehemiah referenced was critical to their society. Your family told who you were, and what you would be when you grew up.
The destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman in 70 A.D. was a momentous event in Jewish history because all of the extensive genealogical records of the Jewish people were destroyed. In the global diaspora of the Jewish people over the centuries the Jewish people lost track of which family and tribe they belonged to. Those orthodox believers in Israel today who wish to see, and are actively working towards, the rebuilding of a temple in Jerusalem face a legal dilemma in the law of Moses. If only sons of Aaron can be priest and only Levites can serve in such a temple according to God’s law, how do we know who the descendants of Aaron and Levites are? I wouldn’t be surprised if there are DNA experts in Israel working on an answer.
Today, I’m thinking about how awful it would be if I was stuck in the original family business of my great-grandfather. I’d be a terrible carpenter, and a very depressed adult. The same goes for being an accountant like my father. Both of those men were good at what they did, but my passion, gifts, and abilities lie elsewhere. I wonder how the ancients did it.
I’m grateful for the unique passions, gifts, talents and abilities God gives to each of us. I’m equally thankful to live in a land of freedom where I can choose to pursue those passions … or not.