Category Archives: Chapter-a-Day

High-Fidelity Follower

Greet Apelles, whose fidelity to Christ has stood the test.
Romans 16:10 (NIV)

During the holidays my niece excitedly announced to the family that she’d purchased her first vinyl record. I find it both fascinating and wonderful that vinyl records are making a comeback. Years after most of us trashed our collections of 45s and LPs, sales of vinyl records experienced double digit sales growth in 2018. It’s a good trend.

Growing up I remember that “High Fidelity” was a tag that graced most album covers, especially the old Dave Brubeck, Frank Sinatra, and Stan Getz LPs my parents still had sitting around. Just say the words “High Fidelity” and it conjures up images of a mid-century modern font and little starburst graphics.

Fidelity is kind of an old fashioned word. It comes from the Latin fidelis which we usually translate as “faithful.” In the world of music, the connotation of “High Fidelity” (sometimes abbreviated as “Hi-Fi”) was that it was “true to sound.” In other words, the music you hear on the record is a true reproduction of the music as you would have heard it had you been sitting in the studio listening to the band.

In today’s last chapter of Romans, Paul offers personal greetings to numerous individual members of the Jesus followers in Rome. I was struck when I read his greeting to Apelles “whose fidelity to Christ stood the test.” I thought it odd that the translators chose to use the word “fidelity” rather than the more common “faithfulness.”

As I’ve been mulling it over in the quiet this morning I love the connotation in relationship to a musical recording. Apelles was an authentic replication of Jesus; A reproduction that is “true to sound” with the original. What a great word picture, and what a compliment to Apelles.

As I get ready to enter into my day, I’m mindful of the ways I want to tangibly be a “Hi-Fi” follower Jesus (complete with mid-century modern font and graphics).

Rock on, my friend.

Grace in the Journey: Given and Received

We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up.
Romans 15:1-2 (NIV)

Annoying to be around. That was the bottom line. Abrasive, abrupt, and usually off in left field in most matters. I can still remember the silly arguments and petty details that occupied this person’s thoughts and conversation at, seemingly, all times. It was hard not to roll my eyes and want to head for the nearest exit when the mouth opened and the judgmental, legalistic rhetoric began to flow. Nevertheless, this person was a sincere follower of Jesus. Truly, despite all the annoyance. And, this person was a part of my local community of Jesus’ followers.

Sometimes the Message is ill-served by the way early scholars divided it into chapters and verses. One of the best study tools I’ve experienced is to read the different books and letters without all the chapter breaks and verse references. It’s amazing what you see differently. When I’m reading a chapter-a-day, I can easily forget that today’s chapter is connected to yesterday’s chapter as well as being a lead-in to tomorrow’s chapter. When I read it in prescribed, daily chunks it’s easy to lose context.

Today’s chapter is like that. In yesterday’s chapter Paul addressed the conflicts that can arise because of differences in culture, background, heritage, and traditions. People from different tribes have all sorts of differing, non-essential rules about food, clothing, special days, rituals, and the like. These aren’t necessarily bad things, but they’re by no means essential to being a follower of Jesus.

The first two verses of today’s chapter are really a summation of yesterday’s chapter. Paul ends this conversation by saying that those believers who have the grace and maturity to see that all of these rules, customs and traditions don’t matter to God, should bear with those who do. We could argue about it, get self-righteous about it, and then watch the emotions escalate as the conversation sinks into anger, name calling, discord, division, and even to hatred. Paul urges the mature believer to graciously channel the fruit of Holy Spirit towards those who are stuck in their traditions and rituals: love, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control.

In my memory banks this morning are a number of fellow believers, like the one I described at the top of this post, who I’ve shared part of my journey with in this or that community. I’m seeing their faces and laughing to myself at some of the memories.

In the quiet I am also reminded of my own immaturity, particularly in the early years of my spiritual journey. I confess that I have my own annoying quirks and have, through the years, embraced my own share of non-essential, petty thoughts as well as silly moral or religious causes. I have very specific memories of me being the source of rolling eyes and bit tongues. Now, in hindsight, I can appreciate the forbearance my elders and peers showed me in loving, kind, patient, and gentle fashion. Thank you for that, if you’re reading this.

I’m on this journey with every other person who is on their own respective journey. Each of us are having our own conversation with Life. Grace (undeserved and unearned favor) is required. Sometimes it’s required that we receive it. Sometimes it’s required that we give it. It’s the only way we’ll successfully reach our destination together and progress to that which is beyond.

Keeping it to Myself; Holding it Together

For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
Romans 14:17 (NIV)

Yesterday Wendy and I were with our local gathering of Jesus’ followers and I met young ladies who were from Honduras, Nigeria, and Afghanistan. I was told that the first time my young sister from Afghanistan joined us I happened to give the message that day, and she was relatively new to living here in the States. At some point during the message I began to cry (that happens quite frequently, I’m afraid). She, however, was taken aback. Culturally, men in Afghanistan do not cry, especially in public. She laughed about it now, and the moment became an opportunity for her to learn and grow on a number of different levels. Very cool.

Along my journey I have encountered people from all manner of cultural, religious, and denominational backgrounds. People have all sorts of things that are important to them religiously, spiritually, or culturally from things you eat (or don’t), things you wear (or don’t), and certain days that are special (or not). We’re not talking here about matters of civil law or basic morality. This conversation is about preferences, practices, customs and traditions that are not the command of Christ, though they may hold some special spiritual significance to a particular individual or a particular group of individuals.

As Paul is writing to the followers of Jesus in Rome, he is aware that among all the fledgling local gatherings of believers there are very diverse cross-sections of humanity. Not just Jews and Gentiles, but people from different nations, tribes, cultural backgrounds, and socio-economic positions. This would especially have been true in Rome which was the cosmopolitan epicenter of the western world at the time. The Jesus Movement was breaking down barriers between people for the first time history and for the first time people were interacting with one another, eating together, worshipping together, and speaking to one another as equals on a regular basis. Of course this is going to create all sorts of minor clashes between people from diverse cultural, religious, social and economic backgrounds.

In today’s chapter Paul gives some very clear teaching on these various and sundry differences.

First, he points out that what a person eats and drinks (or doesn’t) and what days are of special spiritual significance (or not) are really of no concern to God but are merely concerns of personal, individual conscience. This, in and of itself, might be a huge eye-opener if my ego has convinced me that I am the universal spiritual template and standard by which all other followers of Jesus should abide by and be judged. Each individual, Paul instructs, should worry only about herself/himself and her/his own behavior in accordance with her/his own conscience before God.

Second, Paul explains that because many different believers have very different matters of conscience on these matters there is no binary “right” and “wrong” in these matters except within my own heart and mind. These things are a private matter between me and God.

That being said and established, Paul urges me to take off my Junior Holy Spirit badge and stop playing spiritual judge, jury, and executioner applying my personal conscience before God onto others who have very different consciences before the same God. “Worry about yourself,” Paul is saying, “and let God worry about others.”

Finally, Paul exhorts me to follow the example of Christ and put others and their personal consciences above my own right to exercise my very different conscience. If I know that a person holds that Sabbath is sacred, I’m not going to ask her/him to come over and help me move my couch that day. If I know that another person finds alcohol to be evil and prohibitive, I’m not going to make an appointment to meet that person at the local pub and I’m going to abstain from drinking in her/his presence.

And, if a sister finds that a man crying in public is wrong, well…I’ll try to hold it together!

Have a great week, my friend!

 

Wrestling with Subjection to Authority

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.
Romans 13:1 (NIV)

For the record, I don’t belong to any political party.

I was just reminded this morning of a passage in The Lord of the Rings when Pippin asks the Ent, Treebeard, whose side he was on. “Side?” Treebeard replies. “I’m on no one’s side, because no one is on my side.”

Along my life journey I have respected certain leaders from both of the major parties here in the States, and I have had personal disdain for leaders from both of the major parties. I’m thankful for living in a representative republic. There is always the possibility of change in every election cycle.

Paul is writing his letter to followers of Jesus in Rome during the time of the Roman Empire. One of the reasons the Romans were able to control such a large area of the western world for such a large period of time was the fact that Rome tended to bring and maintain a certain amount of law and order wherever they ruled. While there were always those unhappy with Roman occupation, there was a certain understanding among the common population that the system of Roman law and order was better than the chaos which was often the reality when a local tyrant or warlord reigned.

In today’s chapter Paul provides a fascinating perspective as he tells the followers of Jesus living in Rome itself to be subject to governing authorities, to pay their taxes, and to respect those in authority. This is the Roman Empire. The Jewish authorities in Jerusalem, whom Paul once worked for, have an entire terrorist network developing which is going to erupt into outright rebellion in about 20 years from the writing of Paul’s letter. Even one of the Twelve apostles came out of the anti-Roman Zealots. But Paul is direct, authoritative and unequivocal in stating that authority is a construct of God, so we must respectfully subject ourselves to government authority.

A couple of thoughts on this. Underneath Paul’s teaching on this matter is an understanding that on the eternal, cosmic, Level 4, Great Story perspective all things are moving toward the end of the Story, which is already written. If we want to get into the notion of God and eternity existing outside of the dimension of time then one might argue that it’s already happened. Maybe you need another cup of coffee before wrapping your brain around that.

There is also plenty of precedent from the Old Testament (Paul was a lawyer by training, remember) that God raises up and uses certain kings and rulers (Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar, for example) who were not the most benevolent leaders. Even David respected and viewed Saul as God’s appointed authority and refused to depose and kill the mad king when he had every reason and opportunity to do so. In telling the Roman believers to subject themselves to their Roman authorities, Paul was channeling thinking and teaching that was quite ancient.

Then there is the most fascinating fact that Paul is a Roman citizen. This is no small detail. It’s a huge deal in his day and age. Roman citizenship was extremely hard to come by and afforded the person all sorts of perks in Roman society. Paul states elsewhere that he was born a Roman citizen, so he grew up enjoying the protection and status of that citizenship. Paul will soon use that status to appeal his upcoming conviction to Caesar himself. Paul will end up a prisoner in Rome itself.

What’s ironic is that Paul and the believers he’s writing to in Rome will be scapegoated by Caesar, blamed for the Great Fire of Rome to cover up Caesar’s own culpability, and they will be persecuted mercilessly. The Roman authorities to whom Paul is telling the believers to submit will throw them in prison, cover them in wax and light them on fire (while still alive) to illuminate Caesar’s garden, feed them to the lions in the Coliseum, and execute Paul by chopping of his head. By the way, beheading was another perk of Roman citizenship. If Paul had not been a citizen he’d have suffered a much more agonizing death by crucifixion, which was the gruesome fate awaiting Peter in Rome.

Would knowing the end awaiting him change Paul’s charge to subject themselves to Rome’s authority? I don’t think so. A few weeks ago I reminded our local gathering of Jesus followers that Jesus told Peter about the death by crucifixion that was awaiting him after His resurrection. Once again, the present, Level 1 daily circumstances were lived with an eternal, Level 4 perspective.

This is one of those mornings when, in the quiet, I have more questions than answers. What about…? What if…? Despite all the questions, I’m reminded that I’m not always going to like those in authority. I’m reminded that being respectful and lawful is part of being a “living sacrifice” (see yesterday’s post). I’m reminded that Jesus subjected himself to cruelty and a completely unjust execution after a series of kangaroo court trials before religious, secular, regional, and Roman authorities to whom He was always respectful. He knew that his Level 1 circumstances had Level 4 purpose. So did Peter. So did Paul.

That is whose footsteps I’m following.

Is “Living Sacrifice” an Oxymoron?

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.
Romans 12:1 (NIV)

To Paul’s readers, the term “living sacrifice” would have seemed an oxymoron. Animal sacrifice was a common part of religion at the time. This was not only true of Judaism, but most all of the Roman cults and religions practiced some sort of animal sacrifice. So whether the followers of Jesus in Rome who were reading Paul’s words had come from Jewish or Gentile backgrounds, they would have scratched their heads.

Living sacrifice?” I can hear one say. “But, doesn’t the very notion of ‘sacrifice’ mean that something dies?”

Quite right,” I imagine Paul replying if he were there in person. “You do.”

Excuse me?” the Roman believer asks quizzically.

You are the sacrifice,” Paul says, looking the believer in the eye and offering a warm smile. “In fact dying to yourself is really the heart of your worship. Not the occasional sacrifice of an animal like all these other religions you see around us. Anyone can do that and it costs very little in the long run. Cheap and easy, really. Our Lord Jesus was quite direct in telling us that in order to be His follower we have to take up our own cross. We would have to sacrifice ourselves for others, for Him. Just as He did for us. That’s at the very heart of true worship, and being a true follower.

But how does that work, exactly?” the believer asks. “How exactly do I go about making myself a ‘living sacrifice?‘”

Ah,” Paul says, a twinkle in his eye. “I’m glad you asked.”

The entirety of today’s chapter answers that question. What does it mean to truly worship by offering myself as a “living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God?” Ironically, going to church, singing, throwing a buck in the plate, and all the things we normally associate with “worship” are not even mentioned.

Here’s a bulleted and paraphrased list of what Paul goes on to mention in the rest of today’s chapter:

  • Don’t follow the “It’s all about me” behavior and thought patterns of this world.
  • Transform your thinking; Renew your mind with Jesus’ teaching.
  • Don’t think too much of yourself; Maintain an on-going sober self-assessment.
  • Use your gifts and abilities to serve others.
  • Hate evil.
  • Cling to what is good.
  • Devote yourself to loving others.
  • Attach such worth to others that you naturally serve them first.
  • Be zealous in serving others, and keep feeding the zeal.
  • Be joyful in hope for all God can and will do.
  • Be patient when you’re afflicted, there’s a point to the pain.
  • Faithfully maintain an on-going conversation with God.
  • Share what you have with anyone in need.
  • Practice hospitality. Seriously, practice. You need to get better at it.
  • Bless those who persecute you. Do something nice for them and if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.
  • If you know someone who got a win, sincerely celebrate with them (don’t envy their success or good fortune).
  • If you know someone who is grieving, be present in their pain.
  • Live in harmony with others; You might not be on the same note, but you can at least blend your differences so as not to be dissonant to everyone around you.
  • Don’t be proud; Every day you encounter people in lower, more humble circumstances than you. Be willing to meet them at their level, even if it means stooping below your comfortable social status.
  • Don’t be conceited. Consider the reality that you just might not that important in the grand scheme of things. Embrace it.
  • Evil that is done to you does not justify revenge. Let it go.
  • Do the right thing for everyone, not just your particular religious, political, tribal, ethnic or socio-economic constituency.
  • You can’t control others, but you can control yourself, so practice that self-control to live peacefully with everyone, not just your particular religious, political, tribal, ethnic or socio-economic constituency.
  • Let me repeat, give up your right to revenge. Vengeance is like drinking poison and expecting it hurt someone else.
  • If your enemy is hungry, give her some food.
  • If your enemy is thirsty, give him some water.
  • Responding to evil with your own evil tactics only escalates the situation and then everybody loses. Respond with goodness. You’ll sleep better.

In order to practice this list on a daily basis,” Paul says to his friend, “it will require some sacrifices on your part: your ego, your time, your pride, your resources, your wants, your comfort, and even your rights. That is how we worship God by being a living sacrifice.”

The Doorway of Defeat

…for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.
Romans 11:29 (NIV)

I reached out to shake his hand as I was introduced. The lights in the room were dimmed but the darkness couldn’t hide the look of defeat. Shoulders slumped, eyes down cast, and the smile that was clearly being conjured by sheer will. I could feel the discouragement. I sensed the fear that God just might be done with him. I also instantly felt an affinity for him. Something clicked deep inside, and I knew that somehow Holy Spirit had connected us for a reason.

I have seen the look of defeat on the faces of some of the most amazing people. I’ve seen defeat come in a myriad of ways. Sometimes it’s moral failure, a personal failure, a relational failure, or a combination of all. Sometimes it’s a life tragedy and the inequities of circumstance. At times it might be some kind of physical or chemical issue wreaking havoc on a person’s spirit. Then there are times when the source of the funk is spiritual, and a rational explanation is elusive.

When defeat descends on a person life gets very small. Vision is reduced as focus turns inward. Interaction is avoided which only tends to extend and exacerbate the symptoms. A person wraps him or herself in layers of self-protection that, ironically, not only serves to deflect further injury, but also prevents any kind balm from reaching the spirit wound. When the individual experiencing defeat is a believer, the person also feels a spiritual impotence that can be so pervasive as to prompt an unshakable belief that this is all permanent.

But, it’s not.

Defeat is never a permanent destination. Defeat is a doorway to deeper understanding. It is through the doorway of defeat that I discover humility’s sweet gifts and where I experience grace’s sufficiency. On the other side of defeat comes the understanding that Spirit power is perfected in weakness.

Resurrection must, by definition, be preceded by death. Redemption’s prerequisite is always some kind of damnifying defeat. This was the grand spiritual paradigm that Jesus ultimately exemplified, yet I always want to dismiss the fact that if I choose to follow He said I have to follow in His foot steps down that same path.

I saw my defeated acquaintance the other day. It’s been a few years since we were introduced. We’re now friends. His shoulders were squared, there was a sparkle in his eye, and the smile on his face was no longer conjured by will. His smile was clearly the effect of an inner joy that radiated off of him. I had the privilege of helping him through the doorway, and watching him discover, over time, what was on the other side.

So good.

New Discoveries in Familiar Places

And Isaiah boldly says,
“I was found by those who did not seek me;
    I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.”
But concerning Israel he says,
“All day long I have held out my hands
   to a disobedient and obstinate people.”
Romans 10:20-21 (NIV)

Among the early believers and followers of Jesus there were two main populations. There were believers who were part of Judaism, and there were those believers who were not. Those of us reading Paul’s letters in the 21st century are largely ignorant and of the tremendous conflict that existed between these two factions. The believers who came out of Judaism wanted those who were followers of Jesus to essentially be a Jewish sect within the larger religion of Judaism. This meant that anyone who wanted to be a follower of Jesus would have to 1) become a proselyte of Judaism 2) become circumcised [if you’re a male] and 3) follow all of the Jewish laws and customs.

This was no small debate of crossing theological “t”s and dotting theological “i”s. This was a major difference that went to the very heart of who Jesus was and what it meant to be a follower. Those on both sides of the issue were impassioned. There were even some from the pro-Judaism faction who followed behind Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journey telling new believers that they’d been sent by James and the Apostles in Jerusalem to tell them not to believe everything Paul told them (“He’s not a real Apostle, anyway,” they explained) and to straighten them out on this “Jewish” question. They then proceeded to tell the non-Jewish (aka Gentile) believers of Jesus: 1. You must become Jews, 2. You must be circumcised, 3. You must follow all Jewish laws and customs.

Paul was furious.

This disagreement became so acute within the growing and rapidly expanding population of believers that a major meeting was called in Jerusalem. “The Jerusalem Council” as it became known, was to decide, once-and-for-all, the “circumcision” question. It was decided that non-Jews who became believers were not required to become Jews and to be circumcised in order to be a follower of Jesus. The Jesus movement was going its own way.

The debate, of course, did not end. In his letter to the Romans, Paul is still explaining, debating, and attempting to heal this rift. While the  believers in Rome were both Jews and Gentiles, Paul’s letter is addressed primarily to those who were Jewish, and he’s arguing from the Law of Moses and the Jewish Prophets that the coming of Jesus and the inclusion of Gentiles into “faith” was part of the plan all along.

Some people have asked me why I keep up my wayfarer’s journey through God’s Message over and over and over again. The answer is very simple. Every time I go back through a passage I’ve traversed before I’m doing so at a different place in my own spiritual journey. Each time I return to one of Paul’s letters I’m a little older, hopefully a little wiser, and I have a deeper experience of Life and Spirit. Sometimes things aren’t terrible different, but other times I peel back another spiritual layer and gain a whole new understanding I never had before.

That’s exactly what Paul was going in today’s chapter. When he quotes Isaiah he is holding up poetic prophecies that Jewish believers would have known and heard repeatedly in their own spiritual journeys. Paul, however was shedding new light on the same verses from the other side of Jesus’ ministry, His cross, and His empty tomb. “It’s been staring you right in the face the whole time,” Paul is saying, “but you’ve never seen it.”

Which, again, is why I keep pressing on and staying the course. I’ve discovered along the way that being a follower of Jesus is not for simple consumers, despite the many who treat it so. I’ve not found it to be a one-and-done transaction for fire and eternal life insurance. It’s so much more. It’s a progression in which old things pass away and new things come. It’s a never ending path of discovery. It’s never gotten old and is always challenging in new and unexpected ways. But, it’s something everyone has to lace up their own spiritual hiking boots to discover.