From Spiritual Mountain Top to Relational Valley

Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness.
1 John 2:9 (NIV)

A topic of much conversation in our home and circles of friends of late has been that of community. It’s a topic our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been pushing into. In short, we’re talking about how we all do life together and related to one another. It doesn’t take long for the conversation to bring out three common observations:

  • “It is messy.”
  • “It is hard.”
  • “It is complicated.”

Yes. It always has been, and it always will be living East of Eden.

Along this life journey I often encounter those who love the description of believers in the heady first days of the Jesus’ movement as described by Dr. Luke in his book The Acts of the Apostles:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts,praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

This is often held as an ideal to which all of us should strive and aspire. Striving for unity, sharing, and love in life with others is a worthy goal. I have actually had experiences that feel a lot like what Luke describes.

This idyllic experience usually happens at a camp or some kind of retreat environment. It’s that long weekend or week with other like-minded individuals in beautiful natural surroundings. I often hear it described as a “mountain-top experience.” You want to stay there. You want to bottle it up so you can can continue to consume the experience over and over and over again. When you’re at camp having a mountain-top experience you don’t want to leave and go back to “real life.” You’d love to “stay here forever.”

But, that doesn’t happen.

It didn’t happen long-term for the believers in Jerusalem, either. Jesus’ twelve disciples were scattered across the known world sharing the Message. Most of them endured violent ends. Despite the mountain-top experience of that early period of time, history tells us that the believers in Jerusalem eventually faced persecution, conflict, disagreements, strained relationships, and struggle.

Most of the books of what we call the New Testament were originally letters. The letters were by-and-large addressed to individuals or small “communities” of Jesus’ followers. What motivated the authors of the letters was typically problems that were being experienced in community. There were disagreements, relational struggles, theological controversies, moral controversies, personal controversies, persecutions, attacks from outside the community, and attacks from within the community. Leaders such as John, Peter, Paul and Timothy took up their stylus and papyrus to address these problems.

The letter of 1 John is exactly that. A philosophical movement known as gnosticism had sprung up both outside and inside the community of believers teaching things contrary to what John, the other disciples, and the leaders of the community had originally taught about Jesus and his teachings. John was writing to directly address some of these issues. Breaking down today’s chapter, I find John addressing several of them in and between the lines of almost every sentence.

What struck me this morning, however, was John’s bold claim that anyone who claimed to be in “the light” but hated someone in the community, that person was clearly not in the light, but in darkness. In other words, if you are part of Jesus, the “Light of the World” then your life will be marked by love. Jesus taught that we were to love both our friends and our enemies. John is reminding us of the utter foundation of all Jesus’ teaching. Love God. Love others. Everything else is built on these two commands. We have to get that right before anything else.

This morning I’m thinking about some of the disagreements, controversies, relational strife, strains, and struggles I know in my own life, relationships, and community. I experience the “mountain-top” for a moment or a period of time, but eventually I find myself back in the valley of relationship. Community is messy. Community is hard. Community is complicated. John’s reminder is apt.

As a follower of Jesus, I have to accept that there is no exemption from the command to love. If I’m not ceaselessly, actively working to get that right every day with every relationship, I’m not sure anything else really matters.

 

Something to Say

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.
1 John 1:1 (NIV)

My local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been doing something rather novel and exciting over the past couple of years. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to be a part of it.

God’s Message teaches that every follower of Jesus receives spiritual “gifts” from Holy Spirit. Paul wrote to the believers in Corinth, “to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” These “manifestations” or “gifts” are specific yet diverse bents and abilities that are intended to help build up and encourage all the other believers. One of those gifts is teaching.

For the past several hundred years the prevailing paradigm in the institutional church has been that the pulpit and the Sunday morning message at my local neighborhood church is reserved for a person (typically a man) who has received a Masters Degree at a seminary approved by whatever denomination my church belongs to. This person has received a stamp of approval from the denominational board, administration, or tribunal authorizing them to teach from the pulpit on Sunday morning.

Along my journey, here’s what I’ve observed: any individual can attend seminary and get certified whether they have a teaching gift or not. And, I’ve heard some educated and approved teachers who definitely did not have the gift of teaching. By the same token, Holy Spirit can bestow the gift of teaching on any person of any age or gender despite that person never having jumped through the educational and ecclesiastical hoops dictated by  a given denominational institution.

So, our local gather of Jesus’ followers has been identifying fellow believers within our midst who may have a Holy Spirit given gift of teaching. We’re allowing them the opportunity to try out that gift on a Sunday morning in our church’s auditorium. We’re working with them to train them up and develop that gift. I’ve been asked to lead and mentor these individuals. There is, of course, a lot more to it than I have time to explain here. It’s a work in progress, but an exciting one.

As mentor of these inexperienced preachers, one of the common fears and anxieties that I hear from individuals when tasked with teaching a large group is “Who am I to teach these people?” This nagging doubt can be paralyzing during the preparation and presentation of a message.

Just last week while I was driving to Minneapolis I started listening to a series of talks called Something to Say by Rob Bell (available for download; name your own price). One of the things that Rob brings out is the fact that everyone has the authority to speak about what he or she has witnessed and experienced in their own lives. If you’ve lost a child, then you have the authority to speak about that experience. If you swam the English Channel then you’re an authority on that subject. If you’ve been a diesel mechanic your entire life then you have the authority to speak about diagnosing and fixing a diesel engine. If you were on upper Manhattan on 9/11 then you can authoritatively speak to what happened that day from your own experience.

This morning we begin a letter written by John, one of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples, who was writing what scholars believe was a “circular letter” intended to be copied and passed around to all believers. John begins his letter the same way he begins his biography of Jesus,  by stating clearly that he is speaking to what he heard with his own ears, saw with his own eyes, touched with his own hands. “I was there,” John says. “I was with Jesus. I saw the miracles. I heard the teaching. I witness Him die on the cross. I saw Him risen from the dead. I am a primary source witness to it all.”

As I lead and mentor our fledgling group of teachers, I try to instill within them the power of our stories. In my almost 40 years of teaching, preaching, training, and presentations I have rarely had a person tell me that they remember the arcane theological point I made in a message ten years ago. I continue to have, however, a steady stream of people who tell me that they have never forgotten the story that I told even when I’ve long forgotten what it was.

I’m reminded by John this morning that I may not have all the knowledge, education, or professional training this world offers me. Neither did he. I do, however, have my stories. I have seen things, heard things, touched things, and experienced things to which I can bear witness. That means that, like John, I have something to say.

Deepening Darkness, Ray of Hope

So [King] Jehoiachin put aside his prison clothes and for the rest of his life ate regularly at the king’s table.
2 Kings 25:29 (NIV)

It is late September morning as I write this. The temperature is a brisk 52 degrees Fahrenheit. The windows are cracked open. The sun is coming up over the trees whose leaves are already changing color. And, it means that the baseball post season is almost upon us. I love autumn.

I haven’t commented much about our beloved Cubbies this season after posting about the experience of their amazing World Series victory last year. In part my silence is because I’ve enjoyed being able to quietly enjoy the fact that our team won the World Series. I also think that there’s been enough hype and hoopla without me piling on.

Of course, this means that there are big games coming up with a lot on the line. The Cubs are still one win away from clinching their division. As the games get more important, the emotions get stoked to higher levels. It’s part of the fun of being a fan.

The stoking of emotions typically means that my natural pessimistic bent, which I normally try to keep in check, can come roaring out. There were many a moment during last year’s World Series run that Wendy had to challenge (she’s an eight) the dark cloud of doom and gloom hanging over me. I recently acquired a great t-shirt with a cartoon boxer and the words “fight pessimism.” I’ll be needing that reminder.

Of course, in the grand scheme of eternity sports are much ado about nothing. So are most of the things with which we entertain ourselves on this life journey. Jesus espoused “life to the full” and I have no problem fully en-joy-ing the fun of a great game like baseball.

In today’s chapter, the people of Judah have little to en-joy. In fact, a chapter like today lends itself to pessimism. For almost the entire chapter things go from bad to worse. In yesterday’s chapter the King of Babylon besieged Jerusalem and took most of the people and all of the treasure as spoil back to Babylon. Today, the puppet-king who had been left in charge decides to rebel against the King of Babylon. What follows is more destruction, more suffering, more death. The rebellious Judean king is taken to Babylon and forced to watch his children killed before his own eyes before having his own eyes gouged out. Ugh. Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse…they get worse.

This is the last chapter of 2 Kings and it’s the end of the story for the Kingdoms of Israel. Exile. Jerusalem lays in rubble. Solomon’s Temple is razed to the ground. The glory of the nation wiped out and looted. The people who had once been delivered from slavery in Egypt and brought to the promised land now find themselves kicked out of the promised land and back in forced servitude. Talk about a downer of an ending.

Then I get to the very end of the chapter and the last few verses. It records that the King of Babylon (Nebuchadnezzar’s son) brings Judah’s King Jehoiachin  out of prison. The king of Judah is given an allowance and seated at the King’s table. In the deepest darkness of exile this is an optimistic ray of hope. The King of Judah, the line of David, is still alive. The scribes of 2 Kings end this dark chapter of the story with a sliver of hope.

This morning I’m mulling over my pessimism and my own story. Reading the awful events of the exile and thinking about the awful events and realities being experienced by people all over the world on this very day are sobering. It puts the silliness of sports, and the very thought of being pessimistic in the amazingly blessed life circumstances I get to en-joy each day in much-needed perspective.

Pessimism be damned. Jesus said, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

In the deepest of darkness, there is always a ray of hope (if I choose to see it).

[Go Cubs!]

Exile

He carried all Jerusalem into exile: all the officers and fighting men, and all the skilled workers and artisans—a total of ten thousand. Only the poorest people of the land were left.
2 Kings 24:14 (NIV)

This past Saturday evening Wendy and I gathered with our local community theatre for an annual awards celebration. It was a gala affair and several people gave acceptance speeches for awards they received. I had several people comment to me that they picked up a theme in the speeches. Many members of our local theatre community moved into our small town from elsewhere. They spoke about their feelings of struggling to find a place where they belonged in the community and the theatre provided that for them. I  relate to that. It was 13 years ago that I moved to Pella and found myself auditioning for a show, hoping to meet people.

In today’s chapter we read about one of the most climactic events of the story of the nation of Israel. The Babylonians lay siege to Jerusalem, eventually destroying the city, Solomon’s Temple, and carrying everything of value, people included, into exile in Babylon. Jeremiah’s poem of Lamentations speaks his grief over the event. The events of the book of Daniel and the prophecies of Ezekiel tell of life in exile. Psalm 137 is an angry blues song grieving life in the Babylonian exile and expressing the desire for violent retribution on their captors.

Exile is a theme in our stories, our histories, and our life journeys. At some point in life, perhaps multiple times, we find ourselves unexpectedly stranded in unknown territory feeling like a stranger and in a strange place.

But in our epic stories there is always purpose in the exile. Harry Potter’s awful upbringing at the hand of his aunt and uncle planted and cultivated the seeds of the courage, endurance, and perseverance that would be required of him later. Aragorn lived in exile as a ranger for a hundred years, traveling the known world and living with different peoples, but it became essential to him becoming the man who would reclaim his throne. Even in the Great Story we find Israel learning important lessons that resonate in their culture to this very day. Even baby Jesus was taken into exile in Egypt to escape a murderous Herod.

Exile is an important theme in our journeys.

This morning I’m thinking about my own move to Pella. Without going into the story I will tell you that it was unforeseen and unexpected. There was a part of me that never wanted to be here. But, now I look back on the road I’ve traversed, where the journey has brought me, and I am so grateful for where the exile brought me and how exile taught me all about new things (including rediscovering my love of the stage). Exile is never easy, but it does have purpose in making me the person I’m called to be if I will choose to lean in and learn the lessons.

Personal Faith & Systemic Conscription

The king stood by the pillar and renewed the covenant in the presence of the Lord—to follow the Lord and keep his commands, statutes and decrees with all his heart and all his soul, thus confirming the words of the covenant written in this book. Then all the people pledged themselves to the covenant.
2 Kings 23:3 (NIV)

I was a young man when I made a decision that I would be a follower of Jesus. I was a normal teenager who did the normal things that teenagers do when testing the boundaries of parents and other systems of authority. Looking back at that boy from 40 years down life’s road, he seems rather innocent and naive. But I still remember that with my decision to follow Jesus came a responsibility to make some changes.

In today’s chapter we read the story of King Josiah’s great reform of Judah. After the scroll with the law of Moses is discovered during renovations to Solomon’s Temple, Josiah calls for a national gathering. The Law of Moses (e.g. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) is read to all the people. Josiah makes a decision and a commitment to follow God and keep the Law. He makes an ancient form of binding contract, called a covenant, to do so. The people follow suit.

The rest of today’s chapter is a blow-by-blow description of Josiah wiping out all of the competing local and regional deities. Reading the chapter we begin to understand how prevalent the worship of these gods had become. There were male prostitutes (which were quite common in idol worship in ancient times) who were operating out of Solomon’s Temple. There was child sacrifice to Molech and the worship of the golden calves that Jeroboam had set up when he led the northern tribes to secession hundreds of years earlier. Josiah purged the land of all of it, and pledged that the nation would follow the God of Moses alone.

As I read the chapter over my first cup of java this morning, there were two prevailing thoughts that struck me.

First, we read that Josiah called the nation together, made a covenant to follow God, and the people followed suit. Did they choose to follow Josiah’s lead of their own free will? Did the people even have a choice? A study of history would lead me to conclude that they did not. It was quite common for ancient nations and empires to follow whatever religion the king chose. That’s why Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 313 A.D. When Caesar Constantine became a Christian, then all the people of the Empire became Christians as well. I would argue that the results were not good.

I find this an important point. At the end of today’s chapter we read that Josiah’s son led the people right back to the worship of the local and regional gods. In our journey through 2 Kings we’ve read what seems to be a  game of religious ping-pong. One king follows the God of Moses and the people follow. The next king follows Baal and the people follow. Back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth.

National religion and forced adherence to faith is not really faith at all. It’s conscription. When I chose to become a follower of Jesus it was my choice and my decision. To this day I find that human systems (i.e. families, denominations, communities) use subtle forms of conscription and social pressure to ensure that the members of the system (i.e. children, grandchildren, neighbors, community members) adhere to the system’s sanctioned form of religion. That’s when personal faith is diluted down to blind religion. Jesus spent his entire earthly ministry fighting against that dilution. Blind religion nailed Him to the cross.

The second point that struck me this morning was Josiah’s reform. When I became a follower of Jesus there were some things that I was doing in my life that needed to change, as silly and innocent as some of them seem in retrospect. There were some unhealthy teenaged behaviors that needed to cease, and some healthy mature habits that needed to be developed. When faith is personal, it transforms the person.

This morning I’m thinking about my own children, and my grandson whom I can’t wait to meet in a few months. I don’t want my legacy to be religion instilled by force, conscription and systemic pressure. I want our daughters and our grandchildren to follow Jesus because it’s their own decision, their own choice, their own personal faith. The best thing that I can do to ensure that is not to instill rules, regulations, and mandatory religious observance. The best thing I can do is to model exactly what Jesus did and calls me to follow: love.

My Eternal Mystery, My Forever Friend

Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the temple of the Lord.” He gave it to Shaphan, who read it.
2 Kings 22:8 (NIV)

Occasionally I have had people ask me how my “chapter-a-day” journey began. It goes much further back than blogging. The roots of it go all the way back to early 1980s. I was in high school and had only recently struck out on my path following Jesus. I had an after school job, and my boss was also a follower. He invited me to join him in studying God’s Message together, and the first thing he asked of me was to memorize Joshua 1:8:

This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success.

I did memorize the verse,  and I took it to heart. As I meditated on the verse during the memorization process, I came to mull over the word “meditate.” It struck me in those early stages of my journey that God’s Message was to be more than something I give a nod to on Sunday morning when the pastor refers to it. It was supposed to be more than a routine duty that I check off my daily task list of religious self-righteousness. God’s Message was the guide. It was the constant companion and the mystery to be endlessly understood. It was something to ingest and digest on a continual basis. It was something to dive into, excavate, mull over, and apply to my every day circumstances. Success in the spiritual journey came through the conduit of meditating on the Message.

Thus, what became this chapter-a-day blog began in a young man wearing Forenza parachute pants and sporting a righteous mullet. I’ll let that imagery sink in while I transition back to today. 🙂

The setting of this morning’s chapter is Solomon’s Temple. It is the Temple of the Lord built to the exact specifications prescribed in God’s Message through Moses and by plans developed by David. It was built to be the worship center of YHWH whose first command was “don’t have any other gods before me.”

But, over time the temple had become a multi-cultural interfaith religious center filled with the worship of all sorts of local dieties, some of whom practiced all sorts of nasty things we can scarcely imagine today. The scroll of God’s Message had been so long forgotten that the High Priest didn’t even know where it was nor remember what it said. When the scroll is discovered during some Temple renovations, it is a major find. When King Josiah tells the priest to “Inquire of the Lord for me concerning this book,” the priest has to scour the city to find a lone prophetess named Hulda who was “keeper of the wardrobe.” [Note: I’ve learned in theatre to always trust the costumers. They make a lifetime of keeping track of things long forgotten by others!]

The Message had been packed away, put aside, and forgotten. The words that were to be the guide for the journey weren’t even known and barely remembered. Without the guidebook, the people naturally wandered until they found themselves spiritually lost.

This morning I’m reminded of the simple principle that came out of meditating on a verse that I was asked to memorize as a kid:

If I’m going to be successful in this journey of following after God then I have to do my best to do what God’s Message says. If I’m going to do what God’s Message says then I have to constantly discover what that is and what it means. The Message has to become my source material, my constant companion, my eternal mystery, my forever friend.

Taking Measure of Life

I will stretch out over Jerusalem the measuring line used against Samaria and the plumb line used against the house of Ahab.
2 Kings 21:13 (NIV)

It’s been about two and a half years since Wendy and I moved into our new house. I think we grow to appreciate it more as time goes on. We’re incredibly grateful for our home.

It has been an interesting experience for me to move into a newly built house and see how the structure stands the process of settling and the test of time. The contrasting heat of Iowa summers and cold of Iowa winters makes for a tremendous amount of expanding and contracting. As we sit and have breakfast in the mornings we watch the sun coming up in the eastern sky and can hear the little structural creaks of as the suns rays warm the house and things expand. Moulding that was flush when we moved in now shows a hint of a gap. You begin to see a house’s strengths and weaknesses when measured against time and the elements.

In today’s chapter the scribes record the words that the prophets (they don’t specify who) spoke about King Mannaseh’s life and reign. They use a word picture that God shared through the ancient prophets repeatedly. The metaphor was a measuring line and/or a plumb line:

  • I will make justice the measuring line
        and righteousness the plumb line (Isaiah)
  • This is what he showed me: The Lord was standing by a wall that had been built true to plumb, with a plumb line in his hand. (Amos)
  • Who marked off [the sky’s] dimensions? Surely you know!
        Who stretched a measuring line across it? (Job)
  • “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when this city will be rebuilt for me from the Tower of Hananel to the Corner Gate. The measuring line will stretch from there straight to the hill of Gareb and then turn to Goah. (Jeremiah)
  • He took me there, and I saw a man whose appearance was like bronze; he was standing in the gateway with a linen cord and a measuring rod in his hand. (Ezekiel)
  • Then I looked up, and there before me was a man with a measuring line in his hand. (Zechariah)

Both a measuring line and plumb line are construction tools used to make sure a structure is measured correctly and on the level. Different versions are used to this day. My friend Doug is a master carpenter. Despite all of the modern technology available to him, I’ve watched him pull out his trusty, dusty old “plumb bob” when he’s hanging a door just as carpenters have done for thousands of years.

It’s a powerful metaphor when you think about it. Does my life measure up to what I say it does? Are my intentions, thoughts, words, and actions on the level with what I profess to believe? Even Jesus used this word picture parallel between life and construction. It eerily apt this morning in light of watching coastal homes destroyed by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in recent weeks:

“These words I speak to you are not incidental additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living. They are foundational words, words to build a life on. If you work these words into your life, you are like a smart carpenter who built his house on solid rock. Rain poured down, the river flooded, a tornado hit—but nothing moved that house. It was fixed to the rock.

“But if you just use my words in Bible studies and don’t work them into your life, you are like a stupid carpenter who built his house on the sandy beach. When a storm rolled in and the waves came up, it collapsed like a house of cards.” Matthew 7:24-27 (MSG)

This morning I’m prompted to take an honest “measurement” of my own life. Mannaseh was King of Judah and a branch of the tree of David, who was “a man after God’s own heart,” but Mannaseh’s life and actions didn’t measure up. His life was “off-plumb.”

What about me? Where has time settled me into behaviors that have slowly left me off-center? Where have the elements and circumstances of life revealed weaknesses in my foundation? Where is my life creaking? Where are my relationships worn?

One of the things that I’ve learned as a homeowner is that its far easier and less expensive in the long run to catch small, “off-plumb” problems and fix them before they become disastrous headaches.