Last week was a special one for Wendy and me. Our daughter, Taylor, and new grandson, Milo, came for a week while Clayton was in Africa working on a research project. It was awesome to get tons of cuddle time and to be able to help Taylor out as she continues the three-hour feed n’ sleep regimen. Thankfully the Winter Olympics were on pretty much 24/7 so we got to enjoy that. Even Milo got in on the act thanks to his mommy’s amazing graphic art skills. Milo even came with us on Sunday morning and listened to Papa give the message.
I’ll admit that Papa Tom got a wee bit “misty” from time to time as I rocked, walked, cuddled, and sang a few rusty lullabies from 25 years ago.
I’ve had a lot of grandparents give me a steady stream of cliches about being a grandparent:
Last week proved that it’s definitely all true.
If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.
If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing.
If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.
1 Corinthians 13:1-7 (MSG)
It is possible to be religious, but not loving.
It is possible to be righteous, but not loving.
It is possible to be generous, but not loving.
It is possible to be doctrinally sound, but not loving.
It is possible to be right, but not loving.
It is possible to be politically correct, but not loving.
It is possible to be a defender of truth, but not love your enemy.
It is possible to know all scripture, but not love those who mock you.
It is possible to have spotless church attendance, but not love.
It is possible to have spiritual discipline, but not love.
It is possible to have success, but not love.
It is possible to have a million followers, but not love.
It is possible to have good intentions, but not love.
Jesus said there were two basic laws:
1) Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
2) Love your neighbor as you love yourself.
When pressed to define who He meant by “neighbor,” Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan. In the story, the person who had love was a foreigner and an immigrant. The person who had love carried scars from being the victim of racial prejudice, injustice and systemic social, political, and economic ostracization. The person who had love held heretical doctrinal beliefs. The person who had love stood condemned by the prevailing institutional religion of which Jesus was a part. But, the hated, heretical, outcast foreigner had love, and Jesus’ story made clear that love was the one thing that mattered to God.
On this life journey I’ve taken a good hard look at myself, and the prevailing institutional religion of which I am a part.
We still haven’t learned the simple and most basic lesson Jesus ever taught. All of my spirituality, righteousness, and religion is bankrupt without love.
Lord, help me love.
featured image is a detail from the St. John’s Bible
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
1 Corinthians 12:21-26 (NIV)
Along my journey I have lived in a handful of different places from really small towns (e.g. 110-318 people) to larger towns (e.g. 10,000-30,000 people), and a couple of urban regions (e.g. 250,000- 9,000,000 people). Across all of the places I’ve lived I have served and worshipped in a number of churches, both small and large, and of different denominational or theological backgrounds.
One of the things that I’ve noticed is that there has virtually always been at least a couple of special people in every gathering in which I’ve been a part. In the quiet this morning I bring to mind a number of faces and memories I’ve not thought about in a long time. These special individuals are a combination of persons who get labeled “odd duck,” “slow,” “off,” or any number of phrases such as “a few bricks shy of a full load” or “the elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top.”
I’m chuckling to myself as I recall one gentleman named Norman. Norman was a huge grizzly bear of a man, who was cross-eyed unkept. His hair was never clean or brushed. His clothes were always disheveled. He commonly paired an ratty, old suit jacket he owned with his dirty overalls. Norman’s speech was always gravely and slurred. His body odor generally arrived ahead of him and lingered well after he left. He would typically arrive late to the meeting and he was known to belch in the middle of my message with the decibel level of your average 737 at take-off.
Norman was also amazingly sweet spirited, regularly attended, never ceased to display a grateful heart, and he always had a kind word to say to any who would take the time to actually have a conversation with him.
Today’s chapter of Paul’s letter to the believers in first century Corinth is normally interpreted to be about how different individuals in the church have different gifts and abilities and they all work together to make up the whole. When Paul writes the words, The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” it is typically interpreted to mean that we all need each others gifts and talents. At least, that’s the way I’ve typically read it and presented it.
As I read the familiar passage this morning, however, I was struck by what Paul had just addressed in the previous chapter:
…for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing?
In other words, the divisions among the followers of Jesus in Corinth were not just about differences of talent, culture, philosophy and doctrine. The divisions included the “haves” and the “have nots.” This might have been socio-economic status, but also might well have included those who were healthy and those who were sick, those who were “normal” and those who were…special. So when Paul writes, “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor” he was talking about those among us whom we typically marginalize, ignore, shy away from, and from whom we distance ourselves.
I’m reminded this morning that what originally differentiated the followers of Jesus in the first century was that they welcomed everyone to the table no matter the gender, race, nationality, background, health, talent, or socio-economic status. The “everyone is welcome” attitude was breaking down big-time in Corinth, as I observe it has in most places I’ve lived and worshipped.
This morning I’m thanking God for the special people in my midst who are typically difficult to appreciate, often painful to talk to, and sometimes are just plain awkward when trying to make connection. I’m also confessing that I too often shy away and distance myself from those who are different when I should be leaning in, honoring, and loving. Even if they belch loudly in the middle of my message.
“Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him….”
1 Corinthians 11:14 (NIV)
For the past few weeks I’ve been giving messages about traditions here in my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. By traditions I mean those social behaviors or events that a group of people adhere to that are tied metaphorically to a larger meaning. It might be a event or person to memorialize, a teaching or command to follow, or something that brings identity and belonging to a particular group.
For 2000 years those who follow Jesus have had many different rituals and traditions. Those who carry out these traditions can be quite dogmatic about the necessity or right-ness of their particular tradition. Conflicts and division among different groups of Christians have been quite common occurrences over time as one sincere group of Jesus’ followers says “Ours is the right and biblical way to hold this tradition” and another sincere group of Jesus’ followers says, “No! Our way of holding to and observing this tradition is the right and biblical way!”
Typically, groups will point to scripture for heir final authority. The truth is, traditions ebb and flow over time and culture. Take today’s chapter, for example. Paul clearly instructs that women should always have their head covered when they “pray or prophesy.” For the better part of 2000 years women have followed this tradition. A few weeks ago I referenced our local costume shop in a post, where you’ll find hundreds of ladies hats from the early-mid 20th century because women in town always wore hats to church. But, that tradition has changed in the past 60 years in our culture. The tradition no longer carries the meaning that it once did for us.
We pick and choose the traditions we wish to keep. Jesus never said to abandon all of the Jewish traditions and festivals, in fact His example was to observe them. Yet that fell out of fashion as the Church became more and more Roman and the Jewish people fell out of favor late in the first century.
Paul also says in today’s chapter that it’s a disgrace for a man to have long hair. This verse was harped on by the professors of a Bible college I attended one semester. The college had strict, dogmatic rules about how male students should cut their hair based on this particular verse. It was their tradition, and they strictly observed it.
Funny thing. Paul ends his letter to the believers of Corinth by instructing them to “greet one another with a holy kiss.” The school administration seemed to ignore this particular command and tradition. Not once did one of my professors pucker up when I walked into the classroom!
As much as we like to wax self-righteous on being obedient and scriptural, the truth is that followers of Jesus have spent 2000 years following an ever-changing set of traditions and rituals that have ebbed and flowed over time. We can deny this fact and cling to our pride and rightness, or we can humbly embrace that traditions may hold their meaning for a particular time and place only to be released and then, perhaps, rediscovered again. We can let these things divide us, or we can seek to respect and honor the metaphor and meaning others find in traditions and rituals that are foreign to us. Perhaps God might use them to help me find meaning I’d not before considered.
This morning I find myself praying an ancient prayer (a traditional prayer, mind you) given to us by St. Francis: [I paraphrase], “Help me to be less about being understood and more about being understanding.”
Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.
1 Corinthians 10:32-33 (NIV)
Regular readers of these chapter-a-day posts (I’m grateful for the few of you!) will have noticed that my posts have been a bit haphazard of late. Some of it has been a particularly hectic work and travel schedule, some of it has been transitions and added responsibilities, and this week Wendy and I have been host to our daughter, Taylor, and new grandson, Milo. So, the normal routine has been interrupted a bit.
I have observed that so much of my life journey has been about finding balance. If I don’t carve out some time and routine for “filling the well” then all of life’s outflows (family, work, friends, community) leave me depleted and useless to anyone. If I get too rigid and self-righteous about my personal space and time then I end up self-absorbed in filling the well like a hoarder and there’s no goodness flowing out. Even Jesus took time for personal space and rest. He went up the mountain by Himself. He slept in the boat. He sent the disciples off at times. In His humanity, the Incarnate Christ sought to find the same balance of personal energy inflow and outflow.
In today’s chapter Paul speaks to the believers in Corinth about a prevailing attitude that some in their midst maintained: “I have the right to do whatever I want.” Paul chooses not to argue the point, but to add a layer of understanding over the declaration: “Not everything is beneficial. Not everything is constructive.” He then goes on to point out that this line of thinking is extremely self-focused. It’s all about me, what I want, what I desire, what I have a right to do, and what is good for me from my perspective. It’s hoarding the inflow of God’s grace, mercy, forgiveness, and freedom while shutting off the outflow of love, honor, mercy, respect to those around.
Paul then goes on to explain that among the fractious and divided Corinthians he has sought to let his love and goodness flow out to all – both the stalwart Jewish believers and their conservative religiosity and the Greek believers and their liberal morality. “I’m not seeking my own good, but the good of many.”
This morning I sit in the quiet for the first time in a few days. I feel my soul soaking in the quiet and some one-on-one with Holy Spirit. I’m thinking about inflow and outflow. Since the first of the year it feels like the outflow valve on my personal energy has been cranked wide open. It’s not a bad thing. It’s awesome. My goodness how amazing it’s been this week as we love on our grandson and spend time with our daughter. It’s fubar’d some of the normal routine. But, pouring out is the point, isn’t it?
I just have to be aware to maintain balance.
Some much-anticipated inflow is coming in 10 days.
Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.
This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me.
1 Corinthians 9:1-3 (NIV)
Wendy and I read a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal this weekend. The premise of the article was that while it’s very popular to moan, groan and wax pessimistic about humanity’s rapid descent towards doomsday (a glance at your Facebook feed or a 24 hour news channel should prove this point), a look at actual data shows that life for human beings around the globe are better than they’ve ever been.
I have confessed in previous posts to having a pesky, pessimistic spirit. Ask Wendy and she can give you plenty of examples. It’s very easy for me to slip into doomsday mode with little justification for doing so. I have lived much of my spiritual journey in a form of holy pessimism. I don’t think I’m alone in this.
I’ve typically found that my fellow believers eagerly buy-in to the notion that things were spiritually so much better for the apostles and Jesus’ followers in the first century. They saw the resurrected Jesus with their own eyes. They had all these miracles happening everyday. They were living in the socialistic bliss of their local Acts 2:42 commune. In contrast, things seem spiritually worse today than ever. We’re accustomed to hearing this regularly from the pulpit and the media, and it’s a popular mindset. We’re going to hell in a hand basket. So my preacher and the news stations tell me so.
What’s fascinating is that the further I get in my spiritual journey and the more I study God’s Message the more contrarian I find myself becoming in these matters. I think I’ve spent most of my journey looking at the past, even the Bible, with rose-tinted Ray-Bans.
In today’s chapter Paul hints at a conflict that’s been simmering in the leadership ranks of the early church. The term “apostle” was not a title given lightly to the early believers. It generally referred to “the twelve” whom Jesus had chosen, trained and commissioned. There appears to have been some criteria for claiming the title (i.e. having seen the risen Jesus, having been sent by Jesus, performing signs and wonders, and etc.). Paul claimed to be an “apostle” in all of his letters. He begins today’s section of the letter basically citing his resume for being an “apostle” after admitting that some claim that he’s not. In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul somewhat sarcastically refers to the other apostles as “super apostles.” He gives a similar sarcastic tone to the term “esteemed apostles” in his letter to the Galatians (before calling Peter out and saying that Peter “stands condemned” for his hypocritical actions).
“Something smells rotten in the early church” Shakespeare might have written. I think I gloss over how hard things were for the early believers, how much conflict and strife there was, and how miraculous it is that this fledgling movement even survived.
This morning I’m simply mulling over my own natural pessimism. This past weekend I’ve been thinking long and hard about my penchant for buying into “the past was better, the present is certainly worse and getting worser” line of thinking. I’m not sure the evidence supports that notion. In fact, I’m pretty sure there’s a glass that’s half-full with my name on it within easy reach.
“Trust me. You won’t like it,” my pessimistic spirit whispers to me.
Arrrrrghhh. Happy Monday every one.
Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.
1 Corinthians 8:9 (NIV)
Along my faith journey I’ve encountered a whole lot of silliness as it relates to fellow believers’ attitudes and beliefs. I’m reminded this morning of the sweet old woman who was dead-set that the King James version of the Bible was the only true version. “If it’s good enough for the Apostle Paul it’s good enough for me,” she said.
“Um…ma’am…oh, never mind.”
We’ve been talking a lot about the word “honor” among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. The word picture that always accompanies that word for me is “to attach worth” to someone or something.
In today’s chapter Paul addresses an issue that was relevant to the followers of Jesus in first century Corinth, but rather a strange notion in the modern world. Corinth in 55 A.D. was a major trade hub for the Roman Empire and there were a lot of travelers from all over the known world passing through. As such, there were a lot of pagan temples in town. When animals were sacrificed to a Greek or Roman god at one of the local temples, the meat was first used to provide food for the priests and priestesses of the temple. Any excess was sold in the local market as a source of revenue.
This raised a hot moral debate within the new Corinthians believers. It it okay to eat meat that got butchered as a sacrifice to Apollo or not? I can imagine at least one person claimed that an Apollo pot roast was “of the devil.”
Paul makes it clear in his letter that there was nothing wrong with eating the meat, but he made one major addendum for mature believers to follow. If you know that a fellow believer in your midst gets the spiritual heebie-jeebies from eating Apollo pot roast and considers it personally reprehensible, then you should honor his/her belief (literally attach worth to what you consider a silly, worthless superstition). Don’t cause a “weaker” fellow believer to go against their own conscience. In essence, it’s not my job to convince someone they are being silly. That’s Holy Spirit’s job. My job is to extend honor, love and respect for a fellow believer’s sincere belief.
This morning I’ve been taking stock of my own track record on honoring fellow believers who have a very different conscience than mine. On the whole, I’d like to think that I am, and have been, an honoring person. That being said, I realize in the quiet this morning that along they way I’ve sometimes made distinctions between those Paul would call a “weaker” brother or sister in his/her immaturity, and a brother or sister who should have matured and needs to be challenged to grow up. I’m not convinced my discernment between the two has always been correct.
And then there’s the old lady whose convinced that the Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians in the Medieval English of King James.
Sometimes it’s best to just let it go.
Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches.
1 Corinthians 7:17 (NIV)
My friend Matthew is a marriage and family therapist here in our small Iowa town. This is a great little community founded in 1847 by a Dutch pastor and his devout group of Jesus’ followers. After 170 years our community retains a strong culture of Christian values, and I would daresay that a majority of our town’s citizens would claim to be believers. Nevertheless, I’ve noticed over the years that my friend Matthew never ceases to be booked solid with clients. My quiet observation is that even among those who sincerely seek to follow Jesus, relationships are a never-ending challenge.
Today’s chapter reads like a modified bullet list from Dear Abby as Paul advises those who are married, those who are single wishing to be married, those who are widowed, those who are separated from their spouses, and those who are married to unbelievers. He weaves in and out of stating what he knows from Jewish laws and tradition, and what he believes in his own opinion as the first century believers struggle to determine what it means to live as a follower of Jesus in a rapidly developing faith tradition. Based on what he has already established earlier in his letter, Paul is addressing a fledgling group of Jesus’ followers from diverse cultural traditions living in what is primarily a pagan Greek town in the first century Roman Empire. Most of what the Corinthian believers knew of Jesus’ words and teaching was transmitted orally by the Apostles. It is likely that none of the Gospels had even been written when Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians.
I’m an amateur student of history, I’ve come to accept that every generation of believers in every culture have struggled with all of these relational and marital issues. Courtship, sex before marriage, marriage, sex within marriage, infidelity, separation, divorce, widowhood, sex outside of marriage and remarriage have always been challenging issues. They have always spurred intense debate and emotional turmoil for individuals, families, churches, communities, and nations. I believe they always will this side of eternity.
As I read through today’s chapter and couldn’t help thinking of real people I know in very real and very unique life situations. It spurs questions of “Yeah, but what about….” God’s Message through Paul provides a general guide for believers, but it certainly isn’t exhaustive and it doesn’t come close to addressing countless specific situations. Being a divorced and remarried follower of Jesus, I have grappled with my very own relational struggles and failures. I have received (both solicited and unsolicited) diverse opinions from other sincere believers ranging from grace and forgiveness to judgment and condemnation. [sigh] Life gets messy on this earthly journey.
This morning I find myself grappling with my own past. I have continuously journeyed through and studied the Bible for almost 40 years. I have sought to increasingly live as a sincere believer of Jesus, though I regularly fall short. The failure of my first marriage and all the personal shortcomings that led to it are right up there at the top of my failure list. Yet, there are a few things Holy Spirit continually whispers to my soul when my shame rolls in like the tide:
The good news for my friend Matthew and his colleagues is that they will have job security as long as imperfect human beings date, get married, and seek to successfully live together in this fallen world.