Tag Archives: Authority

Violent Times

Violent Times (CaD Jud 19) Wayfarer

In those days Israel had no king.
Judges 19:1 (NIV)

I observe of late that I live in violent times. Violent crime is on the rise in cities along with snatch-and-grab gang robberies. Political extremists on both sides call for violence against their enemies on social media, and political protests on both sides have turned violent. We are all aware of the latest in a long string of mass school shootings that occurred just a few weeks ago. A few months ago, in Green Bay Wisconsin of all places, a woman high on meth strangled her lover during sex, then dismembered the man and hid the pieces throughout his mother’s basement, leaving his head in a bucket. The murderer appears to have found pleasure in the act. She asked the police officers who took her into custody if they “knew what it was like to love something so much that you kill it.” The first time I read about it, I found the details so disturbing that it was hard to stomach.

That gruesome event was brought to mind as I read today’s chapter. This chapter is another one of the more difficult ones to stomach in all of the Great Story. An unnamed Levite finds himself and his concubine the guests of a fellow Hebrew in the town of Gibeah. In an act that is a direct parallel to what happened to Lot in the city of Sodom in Genesis 19, a bunch of men of the town beat on the door of the host and demand that the Levite be sent out to take part in their ancient version of a rave. The Levite sends his concubine out to appease them. After being gang-raped through the night, he finds her dead on the threshold of the host’s door the next morning. Appalled by what has happened, he cuts her body into twelve pieces and disperses the parts to the twelve Hebrew tribes to shock the nation and explain what had happened.

So, why is this even in the Great Story, and what am I supposed to glean from this? Meditating on this question, I came to a couple of conclusions in the quiet this morning.

First, the author includes this horrific story for a reason and he gives me the clue in the first line of the story: “In those days Israel had no king.” This is a line the author has repeated in each of the last two chapters. This is the theme of his book’s epilogue. He is sharing with his readers the social breakdown that occurred when there was no strong civic or religious authority.

Second, the entire story is about hospitality in the ancient Near East, which was a social expectation of such magnitude in that culture that we can’t really relate to it today. The Levites’ father-in-law in the first half of the chapter exemplifies “go the extra mile” hospitality to his guest. This stands out in stark contrast to his host in Gibeah in the gruesome second half of the chapter who should have protected his guest and not allowed the concubine’s rape to happen.

Finally, the bloody act of the Levite in dismembering his concubine’s body and sending it to the tribes was a call to action. It was meant to shock the nation into doing something about what was happening in their society.

This brings me back to my own times, in which I don’t have to look very hard to find acts of violence not that much different than the ones in today’s chapter. And, in the Levite’s call to action, I hear echoes of what our society is proclaiming right now: “We have to do something!”

So what do I take away from this?

Personally, I’m reminded of the human need for authority in both my social and spiritual life. Being a follower of Jesus means that Jesus and His teachings are my spiritual compass. As I submit to doing my best to follow His example and His teaching, I find myself with spiritual and moral guardrails on my thoughts, words, relationships, and actions. This even includes honoring, and being subject to, my civic authorities. Without those moral guardrails, I can only imagine how my life might cycle out of control.

But also, as a citizen of this representative republic, I play a part in this society and I need to do my part to participate in the civic and social process by speaking out, letting my voice be heard, and voting for strong leaders who will lead by action and example.

By the way, I voted yesterday.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Jesus vs. the System

Jesus vs. the System (CaD Matt 21) Wayfarer

The blind and the lame came to [Jesus] at the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant.
Matthew 21:14-15 (NIV)

I remember once, as a young believer, my friends and I decided that we wanted to organize a weekend event in our church. We wanted to bring in a guest teacher we knew, have evening services each weekend night with some music and we’d invite anyone who wanted to come. We agreed to plan the whole thing, host the event, line up volunteers, and raise the funds necessary. We were so excited to do this thing.

Our plan came to a screeching halt when we were told that our plan had been swiftly and summarily rejected by our pastor and the Director of Christian Education. They would not give their stamp of approval because our guest speaker was not in our denominational silo. We were heartbroken, but it was a good lesson for me in learning how the world works, even in religious institutions.

A few weeks ago I gave a message among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. In the message, I contrasted the major tenets of fundamentalism which are clearly seen in the words and actions of the religious leaders, teachers of the law, and Pharisees who oppose Jesus, with what Jesus was teaching and exemplifying in His ministry. Fundamentalism is not just about religion. You can find the basic tenets of fundamentalism in almost any human system including families, businesses, schools, and political groups.

In today’s chapter, Jesus enters Jerusalem and the Temple to celebrate Passover. Thousands and thousands of pilgrims were there from all over. In yesterday’s chapter, Jesus clearly stated what would happen to Him in this week:

We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!”

Jesus has never been popular with the religious leaders, but He’s spent almost all of His ministry traveling around rural, backwater regions. Now Jesus is at the center of religious, political, and commercial power. The religious leaders Jesus has encountered up to this point were local minions and middle-management. The Temple in Jerusalem was the religious C-Suite. Jesus is walking into the seat of religious power, and the first thing He does is to piss them off by causing a riot in the Temple’s lucrative money-changing operation. If you want to make racketeers angry, threaten their cash flow.

Jesus is dealing with a fundamentalist religious system. Like all fundamentalist systems, these religious leaders have an unwavering attachment to the irreducible belief that they are God’s appointed rulers of God’s chosen people, and they have absolute, unquestionable authority over everyone and everything in their religion. So, on the heels of this act of “domestic terrorism” Jesus perpetrated against the Temple, the religious power brokers go to find Jesus who has giant crowds surrounding Him as He teaches in the Temple courts. They watch Jesus healing people. Blind people can see. Lame people walk. Deaf people hear. The crowd is going nuts.

Then the religious power brokers hear children shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” This was the chant the people were shouting when Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a donkey. At this, the religious power brokers “were indignant.”

As good religious fundamentalists, these dudes applied strict literalism to their religious dogmas and beliefs. They were more important than anything else, and the cheer “Hosanna (a form of the word “save”) to the Son of David (a moniker for the coming Messiah)” was strictly and systemically inappropriate. Only they had the power and authority to say who the Messiah was. The Messiah could only be the Messiah with their authoritative stamp of approval. Children shouting that Jesus was the Messiah threatened the entire fundamentalist system and their authoritative control.

In the quiet this morning, I just sat in the reality of that moment for a while. People are being healed. Jesus is revealing divine power no one had ever seen on Earth right in front of them. There is joy, tears of happiness, and the lives of countless individuals and families being forever changed for the good. While the religious leaders are indignant that children are shouting Jesus’ praise.

That is classic fundamentalism. “If it doesn’t exist within our established authoritative system and according to our strict, literal dogmas then it must be rejected, tossed out, and crushed as a threat.”

This brings me back to my and my friends’ hearts being crushed when the religious institution rejected and tossed out our desire to bring in a speaker for a weekend of meetings. As much as I wanted to fight the system, I learned at that moment that it was better to walk away. A fundamentalist system will go to any length necessary to protect the system. They’ll even conspire with political enemies to commit murder. Which is just what they are going to do to Jesus, and He knows it.

FWIW: Here’s the message I gave contrasting the tenets of the fundamentalist religious system of Jesus’ day with what Jesus was teaching and doing.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Showdown!

Showdown! (CaD John 8) Wayfarer

When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
John 8:12 (NIV)

“Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!”
John 8:58 (NIV)

When we left yesterday’s chapter of John’s biography of Jesus, Jesus was teaching and performing miracles at the Temple in Jerusalem during a national religious festival called the Feast of the Tabernacles. Jerusalem and the Temple were teeming with religious pilgrims in town for the festival. Jesus, His teaching, and His miracles are making a huge impression, and there are a myriads of opinions among the people about who Jesus is.

In today’s chapter, John shifts focus from the crowds and their popular opinions to the two leading players in the story: Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders. Today’s chapter is a showdown that has been building between Jesus and the religious institutional establishment, and it’s an important one in the story. Once again, identity is the theme of this showdown: “Who am I?” and “Who are you?”

I find this chapter to be a critical text in what it means to me to be a follower of Jesus. Jesus is an upstart and a maverick. Like Clint Eastwood in his spaghetti westerns, He seemingly shows up out of nowhere to challenge the institutional religious authority. I’ve learned along my life journey that institutions of every kind are about authority, hierarchy, and control. Institutions can be healthy human systems or very dysfunctional human systems, but in either case institutions balk at direct challenges that come from outside the system.

As this question of “who is Jesus” gets bandied about, there are two parties who have never wavered in their opinion. Jesus has claimed to be the Son of God who has come from the Father in heaven to bring God’s Kingdom to earth and salvation to anyone who believes, receives, follows, and obeys. The institutional religious authorities have pegged Jesus as a threat to their prestige and authority, an unknown firebrand who is wildly popular with the unruly poor masses, and a disruptor of their lucrative religious racket.

In this showdown, Jesus steadfastly proclaims and maintains His eternal nature (I came from my Father in heaven to do His will, and I am returning there when my mission is completed) and His condemnation of the religious leaders who have transformed the plan God gave through Moses into an institution that oppresses the poor and needy in order to feed the egos, bank accounts, and authority of the religious ruling class.

In this showdown, the religious leaders proclaim and maintain their authority. These authorities are all essentially lawyers, and they default to multiple legal arguments to condemn Jesus:

  • Objection: You don’t have two witnesses. (vs. 13)
  • Objection: You keep talking about your Father, but you can’t produce Him. (vs. 19)
  • Examination: They directly ask Jesus to say who He is in order to get it on record so as to build a legal case against His claim. (vs. 25)
  • Point-of-order: We’re descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves, so how are you going to “set us free.” (vs. 33)
  • Point-of-order: We are Abraham’s children, God’s chosen institutional authorities, and you are not. (vss 39, 41)
  • Verdict: You, Jesus, are a half-breed, racially inferior, and heretical Samaritan scum, and you’re demon possessed.

What’s fascinating is that Jesus bookends this public showdown with two fascinating claims:

Jesus starts by saying that He is the “Light of the World” which directly connects to John’s assertion in chapter one, that Jesus is the eternal agent of creation and when God said, “Let there be light” it was Jesus flipping the switch.

He ends the showdown by countering the religious leader’s authoritative claim to being Abraham’s children by stating “before Abraham was, I am.” That’s critically important because these lawyers all know that in Exodus chapter 3 God revealed Himself to Moses as “I Am.” In fact, they considered “I Am” as “He who must not be named” and it was strictly forbidden to utter the name “I Am.” Jesus ends the showdown with a bang by firing the claim to be the eternal “I Am” who existed before Abraham. He is essentially proclaiming Himself God, which is why His opponents “picked up stones to stone Him.”

In the quiet this morning I find myself confronted, once again, by John’s story. In relating this debate about Jesus’ identity, I can’t help but see the contrast of Jesus’ personal, relational connection to individuals outside the system and the authoritative, human, religious institution of the Jewish authorities.

I hear Jesus saying, “This is, and always has been, about a personal, eternal relationship into which each and every one is invited. These people have taken it and made it into just another kingdom of this world, and all the kingdoms of this world are ultimately powered by the prince of this world.”

Here are the questions my soul is asking this morning:

  • What kingdom(s) am I building on this earth journey?
  • Is my faith personal or institutional? How do I, and others, know the difference?
  • How can I be more like Jesus, and less like a card carrying member of an institution?

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

A Different Playbook

A Different Playbook (CaD Mk 3) Wayfarer

Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.
Mark 3:6 (NIV)

As a student of history, I’ve observed that much of history is about those in power, how they came to power, how their power was threatened or taken away. It always makes for a good story, as Shakespeare well knew. The Bard mined a lot of historical leaders and events to write plays that are still being ceaselessly produced today.

One of the themes that runs through both history and our classic literature is that of holding on to power. I find it to be a very human thing. Once I have power, I don’t want to let go of it. This is not just true of politicians who rig the system to ensure they remain in control, or business leaders who cling to their corner office, but it’s also true of parenting. For almost two decades I am essentially ruler and lord with total authority over this child. Then I’m suddenly supposed to just “let go” of my power and authority and let her run her own life when she might make some crazy life decision? Yikes!

As I read today’s chapter, I couldn’t help but see the continued development of conflict that Mark is revealing in the text. Those representatives of the powerful religious institution who were indignant with Jesus’ teaching in yesterday’s chapter, are finding Jesus to be a growing threat to their power in today’s chapter.

Jesus’ popularity is rising off of the charts. His name is trending throughout the region, even in Jerusalem where the earthly powers of politics, commerce, and religion reign. Crowds are traveling to Galilee to see this rising star. And the people who are flocking to Him are the crowds, the masses, commoners, the sick, the poor, the simpletons in fly-over country, the deplorables.

The stakes have grown. The power brokers and their minions are no longer just watching, they are plotting:

“Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus…” (vs. 2)

Once again, Jesus thwarts their monopolistic, religious control by healing someone on the Sabbath. The crowds are cheering. This Nazarene upstart could turn the crowds against them. Mobs, protests, and violence in the streets could be the result, and that’s a threat to our power. Something must be done, and Mark tells us that something interesting happens:

“Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.” (vs. 6)

The Pharisees were religious power brokers who publicly condemned the Roman Empire who was in control of the region. The Herodians (followers of local King Herod) were local political power brokers who did business with Rome in order to get lucrative Roman contracts and Roman authority to wield local political control. These two groups publicly hated one another, and in the media they had nothing good to say about one another. However, history reveals time and time again that in the playbook of the Kingdoms of this World “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Welcome to the smoke-filled back room. Have a seat. We’re just getting started. What are we to do with this “Jesus problem?”

Jesus, meanwhile, has other problems. The crowds are pressing in to the point of almost being out of control. The line of people wanting to be healed is endless. They’re coming from all over. Where are all these people going to stay? What are they going to eat? The locals are complaining about their quiet little towns being overrun with foreigners. The markets are sold out of everything!

And then Jesus’ own mother and brothers show up. They’re scared. Jesus is making powerful enemies. They are feeling the pressure themselves. Is it possible that an elder from the local synagogue was urged by higher-ups to pay Mary a friendly visit? I can imagine it…

“Mary, this isn’t good. Your boy has a good heart. I know he means well, but he’s going to get himself in big trouble with the Sanhedrin, with Herodians, and you don’t want the Romans to get involved. This could look really bad for your family. You’re a widow. Jesus is your oldest boy. He’s responsible to take care of you and instead he’s running around creating trouble for you and your family. We think it best that you talk to him. Be a good mother. Talk some sense into your boy.”

When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” (vs. 21)

Next comes the spin campaign, and those in power know how to spin a narrative. It doesn’t have to be true. It just has to come from a seemingly “reliable” and authoritative source. It has be sensational, it has to be easily repeatable, and it has to create fear and doubt in the minds of the public.

 And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.” (vs. 22)

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking that the more things change, the more they stay the same in the Kingdoms of this World and their playbook.

And Jesus’ response to all this? He sticks to His core message: “The Kingdom of God is here, and it’s not like the Kingdoms of this world”. He continues to heal, He feeds, He tells stories, and He escapes the crowds to be alone for periods of time. He refuses to bow to pressure from the envoys of worldly power. He even refuses to bow to pressure from his own mother.

Poor Mary. It’s hard to let go of authority of your adult child when He can make crazy life decisions that affect the whole family. I think it’s lovely that as Jesus hung on the cross one of the last things He did was to see to it that His friend John would care for His earthly mother.

The further I get on my own life journey, I find myself seeing the Kingdoms of this World with greater clarity on all levels. As that happens, I hear the Spirit calling me to understand that being an Ambassador of the Kingdom of God on earth means living in the World, but following a different playbook.

Highest Authority

Highest Authority (CaD Ps 57) Wayfarer

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens;
    let your glory be over all the earth.
Psalm 57:5 (NIV)

There are few stories within the Great Story that is as fascinating to me as that of David’s relationship with King Saul. Saul was the first King of Israel and he was the populist choice of the Hebrew people. Saul had all the looks of a great leader, but his heart was dark and troubled.

God told the prophet, Samuel, that he wanted Samuel to anoint His man for the job. It turns out that God’s man for the job was a shepherd boy, the runt of a large litter of sons of a man named Jesse. David made a name for himself as the walk-on rookie who killed the giant Goliath. Saul signs David as part of his team. David becomes best friends with Saul’s son, and he marries Saul’s daughter. Saul is David’s King, his General, his benefactor, and his father-in-law.

David is also anointed by God to ascend to Saul’s throne. Saul knows this, and his dark and troubled soul stir up a dangerous cocktail of emotions. Envy, jealousy, fear, insecurity, shame, and paranoia lead Saul spiraling down into a dark spirit of homicidal rage. David flees for his life. Saul places a bounty on David’s head and follows his destructive urges in seeking continually to kill his son-in-law and rival.

This goes on for years. 1 Samuel 24 tells the story of David and his men hiding deep in a huge cave in the desert of En Gedi. There thousands upon thousands of caves in the desert of En Gedi. Saul and his men are in pursuit of David and his merry band of outcasts. Saul needs to relieve himself, so he enters the cave where David is hidden in shadows.

This is David’s chance to kill the man who wants to kill him.

But, David refuses to do it.

God said that David was a man after His own heart, and in his heart, David respected that Saul was the anointed king of the time. David respected the spiritual weight of that. Samuel may have anointed David to succeed Saul, but David cared more about God’s will, God’s purposes, and God’s timing than he cared about being king. David knew that making the prophecy happen and forcing his ascension to the throne would spiritually corrupt the entire situation (By the way, this is just the opposite of the story of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, in which Macbeth and his wife try to force Macbeth’s prophesied ascension to the throne to very tragic ends). If God wanted David to be king, David believed, then God would make that happen in God’s timing according to God’s designs. David chooses not to kill Saul, but David does humbly confront Saul with the fact that he had his chance and he didn’t take it.

When Saul realizes that David says:

“May the Lord reward you well for the way you treated me today. I know that you will surely be king and that the kingdom of Israel will be established in your hands.”

Saul retreats, but the darkness of his soul will soon be stirred up again. Nothing changes in this stalemate for several more years.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 57, is a song David wrote inspired by this very incident. David sings of being hunted and God’s deliverance. In the original Hebrew it is a balanced song of two sets of seven lines and a refrain. The refrain is the theme of the song. It’s the “one thing” that the song is really saying:

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens;
    let your glory be over all the earth.

David saw that God was the ultimate authority higher than the heavens. David respected that everything that happened was God telling His Great Story and to mess with that would be faith-less, not faith-full to God.

In the quiet this morning I can’t help but think about it being election day here in the United States. If you read some of the rhetoric on either side of the spectrum there’s not a person in America who doesn’t have the opportunity to feel hated and reviled by the “other” side. No matter the outcome, there will be heady cocktails of emotions being stirred. I find in the story of Saul and David a contrast of attitudes that speaks to the divergent paths of thought and emotion I can take today. In David’s song, I find an example for me to contemplate and to emulate.

I will do my civic duty. I will prayerfully vote my conscience and add it to the hundreds of millions of other votes being cast. I will bless and pray for those who are elected. I will bless and pray for those who are not. I will continue to live out my life, my work, and the humble little role God has for me in this Great Story. My loyalty and my appeal ultimately fall to a higher authority than the President of the United States, and that authority tells me to honor whoever is in that office. Paul wrote to the followers of Jesus in Rome:

Be a good citizen. All governments are under God. Insofar as there is peace and order, it’s God’s order. So live responsibly as a citizen. If you’re irresponsible to the state, then you’re irresponsible with God, and God will hold you responsible. Duly constituted authorities are only a threat if you’re trying to get by with something. Decent citizens should have nothing to fear.

Do you want to be on good terms with the government? Be a responsible citizen and you’ll get on just fine, the government working to your advantage. But if you’re breaking the rules right and left, watch out. The police aren’t there just to be admired in their uniforms. God also has an interest in keeping order, and he uses them to do it. That’s why you must live responsibly—not just to avoid punishment but also because it’s the right way to live.

That’s also why you pay taxes—so that an orderly way of life can be maintained. Fulfill your obligations as a citizen. Pay your taxes, pay your bills, respect your leaders.

Romans 13:1-7

Of Rules and Appetites

Of Rules and Appetites (CaD Ps 24) Wayfarer

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
    And who shall stand in his holy place?
Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
    who do not lift up their souls to what is false…

Psalm 24:3-4b (NRSVCE)

The further I get in my life journey, the more I’ve come to understand that the black-and-white behavioral rules of the most strictly religious groups are really about social control in which an institution or group exercise authority over another. The goal and benefit is a sense of order, collective security, and control. Within this type of system, the individual’s role is simple and strict obedience to the group’s behavioral rules (those written, and those insidiously unwritten but understood) under the threat of public shaming and being socially ostracized from the group. This type of system exists as religious fundamentalist sects and denominations, fraternal organizations, gangs, cults, secret societies, and the systemic equivalent can even exist in businesses, corporations, sports teams, and community organizations.

Systems like this have existed throughout history and continue to this day. It is this type of system with which Jesus conflicted in the Temple when he overturned the moneychangers’ tables and railed against the Temple’s religious cabal. It was this conflict that led them to treat Jesus as a threat who was to be ostracized and executed. It is the same system out of which Paul transitioned to becoming a follower of Jesus. Paul also was considered a threat they needed to ostracize and execute.

Please don’t read what I’m not writing. Don’t hear what I’m not saying. It doesn’t really matter which system we’re talking about. They all operate the same way and follow the same basic systemic rules.

The problem with this type of system is that it chains the individual to the group rather than freeing the individual from self. Behavior modification is not about spiritual health but of social order. The individual tries to control behaviors rather than be spiritually transformed. Paul recognized that all the behavioral rules of the system only created more rulebreakers sneaking around in the dark breaking the rules and trying not to get caught.

Scholars believe that today’s psalm was a song David wrote to be sung as the people entered God’s Temple in Jerusalem. If you read it and imagine the Hebrews carrying the Ark of the Covenant (cue: Raiders of the Ark Theme) into the Temple as they sing this song you get the gist. It starts by asking the question: “Who can ascend the hill of the Lord?” (That refers to Zion, on which the Temple was built) and then “Who can stand in his holy place?” (That would refer to the “Holy Place” within the Temple as designed and prescribed through Moses).

The lyric of the song then describes who may do these things. The description is that of a good person, but here’s where translation from the original language (Hebrew) to English can make a huge difference. In verse 4 the English phrase “do not lift up their souls” has an original Hebrew physiological imagery that references the throat. Some scholars argue that the word picture here is more like “nursing an appetite” and the Hebrew word translated “false” is rooted in the idea of “empty” or “vain.” So it’s really about those who don’t nurse their appetites for things that are empty.

In the quiet this morning, that’s what really struck me. What I’ve learned along my journey is that all the religious and systemic rule keeping does not address the real issues of Spirit that lead to transformation. Keeping the rules so as to appease my church leaders, parents, college, pastors, teachers, and peer group in the attempt to avoid being shamed and ostracized did not transform my soul.

What really led to transformation for me was when I realized that all my human appetites were good and created within in me by God. Paul realized it too when he said “Nothing is unlawful for me. It’s just that some things aren’t beneficial.” My appetite for food, for drink, for pleasure, for rest, for sex, for relationship, for security, for peace, for affirmation…all of them are good and part of what God created in me. It’s when I “nurse my appetite,” any one of them, and indulge my good and healthy appetites in empty and unhealthy ways that I hurt myself. And, I bring the unhealthy results to every relationship and system in which I am a part.

It’s not about me behaving for acceptance in a system. It’s about me being the person, the true and healthy self, God created me to be. It’s about what Jesus said when He told His followers to nurse their appetites for the things of God, and not for the things of this earth (including the safety and acceptance of a human system). How can I “love my neighbor as myself” if my unhealthy indulgence of natural appetites is leading to my continual self-injury and disrupting my relationships, my work, my family, and my life?

What appetite am I going to nurse today? That’s the question as I head into the weekend.

Have a great weekend.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

The Nehemiah Two-Step

They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it. But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.
Nehemiah 4:8-9 (NIV)

This life journey always comes with a certain amount of opposition. It can come from any number of sources, and it can take multiple forms. Opposition can be spiritual, emotional, relational, physical, personal, internal, public, subversive, passive, violent, and etc. We all face opposition, conflict, and threats from time to time, even if it is in relatively small ways.

In today’s chapter, the exiles attempting to repair the walls of Jerusalem encounter opposition from the neighboring tribes. Conflict with these tribes and towns had been part of the political landscape of the area for centuries, so it was not a surprise. It was expected.

I found it fascinating that Nehemiah records a “two-step” response to the threats. I think the “Nehemiah Two-Step” is a great move to know when I find myself dancing with the fires of opposition in any form that the antagonistic force might present itself. The first step was to pray. The second step was to respond with the appropriate action.

Along my life journey, I’ve experienced many times when I get this very simple dance move wrong:

  • I pray without responding with action. In hindsight, I realize that sometimes I have placed all the responsibility on God with the expectations that He will supernaturally make it all okay without me being responsible for doing my part.
  • I act without praying. Other times, a threat or attack comes and it elicits from me an immediate reaction. When I react without praying, I’ve come to realize that I have refused to seek, submit, and subscribe to my higher authority. My reactions are often raging but not rational, passionate but not prudent, willful but not wise.
  • I act before I pray. When I get the order wrong, I find myself determining the response I think is warranted and then ask God to honor my plan rather than honoring God to seek His plan for how I should respond.

In the quiet this morning, as I pondered these things, I was reminded of this quote:

“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”

Albert Einstein

The great scientist’s words have always reminded me that no matter what I set out to accomplish, I can expect opposition. And, it’s likely that the greater endeavor I attempt, the greater opposition I’m likely to face.

From a spiritual perspective, God’s Message continually reminds me of the same thing. Specifically, that spiritual opposition is always a threat:

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.

I Peter 5:8 (NIV)

I long ago recognized that the time I spend, first thing in the morning, in quiet reading, writing, and contemplation has a positive effect on the rest of my day. It’s another form of the “Nehemiah two-step.” Pray, then act.

So, now I’ve prayed. It’s time to take action on today’s task list.

Have a great day, my friend.

“All People” and “Those People”

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people….
1 Timothy 2:1 (NIV)

A while back I was giving the message among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. I asked everyone in the room to close their eyes with me. I then asked each of us to identify who came to mind when I uttered the words “those people.”

Over the last few years, as I’ve been making this chapter-a-day journey through God’s Message, I’ve been struck more than ever how inclusive the Message really is. It’s inclusive to an often uncomfortable degree. Consider the following blanket instructions and teaching Paul gave for followers of Jesus in this morning’s chapter. The phrase “all” is repeatedly used:

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people… (not just the ones I like and with whom I am socially, culturally, politically, economically, and morally comfortable)

…for kings and all those in authority… (not just the ones on my side of the political spectrum)

This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved… (not just the ones who look like me, think like me, believe exactly like me, and live within my comfort zone)

Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people (that even includes “those people“)

As I ponder in the quiet this morning, I am once again struck by how inclusive and expansive the love of Christ is. I find myself needing to honestly confess how exclusive and restrictive I have been, and still am, with my prayers, my kindness, my patience, my gentleness, my faithfulness, my love.

Lord, have mercy on me.

I enter this day with the reminder that if I exclude “those people” from the “all people” for whom Christ died and gave ransom, and the “all people” I am supposed to pray for and love, then I have entirely missed the heart of Jesus’ Message that I’m supposed to be exemplifying.

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.

Both “Letter” and “Spirit”

He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
2 Corinthians 3:6 (NIV)

This past year our friend, Ali, was teaching one Sunday morning among our regular gathering of Jesus’ followers. She made a simple statement that has stuck with me every since she said it. It continues to flower and bear fruit in my thinking. “In the church I grew up in,” she said, “we worshiped the Trinity: The Father, Son, and Holy Bible.”

Ali went on to explain two important observations she was making. One was that she was raised with no real teaching or understanding of Holy Spirit. A member of the “Divine Dance” was missing in her faith journey. The other observation is that the scriptures had been elevated in her upbringing to an unintended spiritual position.

In today’s chapter, Paul contrasts “the letter” and “the Spirit.” When he writes “the letter” he was referring to the Hebrew scripture (what is known among Jesus followers as the Old Testament), specifically the first five books known as “The Law.” Many of the believers in Corinth were Jewish. They had been raised to strictly follow “the letter” of “The Law” in a system of legalistic rituals and daily habits. In strictly following “the letter of the Law” they believed they were made righteous before God. Jesus and His followers taught that salvation was not a matter of obedience to written Law, but of faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and spiritual union with Holy Spirit. Paul went even further to state the legalistic rule keeping actually ends up in spiritual death. “The letter kills.” It was not obedience to a written Law that made us righteous, Paul says, but the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, the power of Jesus’ resurrection, and the indwelling of Holy Spirit into our hearts.

Back to our friend Ali’s statement. Followers of Jesus, especially those in the evangelical traditions, have been historically quick to espouse the power and authority of scripture (now including the New Testament). I have observed, however, that it is just as easy for followers of Jesus to fall into the same “letter” trap that the Hebrew believers were in back in Paul’s day. We simply elevate the writings of the New Testament into a new form of Law. It’s easy to say we believe in Holy Spirit, and then allow our “faith” to be reduced to a list of rules, our righteousness to regress into strict obedience to the letter of a new law. Jesus’ teaching and Paul’s letters become a spiritual system of neo-legalism.

This morning in the quiet I am grateful for, and mindful of, both the power and authority of God’s Message. I am so grateful and mindful, in fact, that this chapter-a-day journey continues. I study the Message. I commit it to memory. I weave it into the tapestry of my everyday life. I don’t, however, ever want to allow “the letter” to replace “the Spirit” in my faith and life journey. I need them both to do their unique, respective work in my life.