Tag Archives: Church

Santa God

Santa God (CaD Gen 15) Wayfarer

Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
Genesis 15:6 (NIV)

This is the problem: It’s too easy to mix-up God and Santa Claus.

Life is a meritocracy from a young age. In my earliest cognitive memory around ages 3 to 4, I find myself under the authority of parents who make it quite clear that if I’m obedient and do what they say, then I’m golden, but if I’m disobedient, then I’m going to be punished.

By the time I’m five, the biggest gift giving holiday of the year solidifies this meritocracy in my brain with Santa Claus as the omniscient authority figure determining if the annual balance of my goodness and badness warrants me receiving a stocking full of candy and socks and a bunch of presents under the tree. If the scale tips to the badness spectrum, it’s coal for me.

Within just two years, I become involved in scouting program which rewards my good deeds and behavior with awards, badges, and medals. I continue to develop an understanding of meritocracy. There is a reward for ambition and good behavior, those who excel are on display for the whole world to see with their medals, badges, and awards. If I have less, shame enters the equation. I’m not as good. I don’t have as many badges. I am less than.

And, each year Santa drives home the “naughty or nice” lesson.

At the same time, my earliest experiences in organized sports adds yet another object lesson in meritocracy. The kids who are naturally coordinated, developed, and have knowledge of the game are successful. Meanwhile, I increasingly ride the bench and watch the coach’s wife score the game. (For the record, my little league baseball career lasted two years, but to this day I like scoring games.)

And, Santa, my stocking, and gift haul remind me annually that gifts are a reward for good behavior.

I’m twelve by the time I have my first serious discussions about God. Yes, I grew up attending Sunday School most Sundays and Vacation Bible School each summer, but it wasn’t very exciting and seemed to be a lot about stories that support the good behavior business. In my journey, it was confirmation class in 7th grade that was a year-long primer on the Bible and God.

In retrospect, I had already a well-developed sense of how God worked based on my life experiences. And, it looked a lot like the Santa. If I’m good, then God will answer my prayers, my life will go well, and I’ll end up in heaven. If I’m bad or fall short then my prayers will not be answered, bad things will happen, and I’ll end up in the fires of hell (burning with Santa’s coal, no doubt). As a child, I was pretty darn sure that all four of the Minnesota Vikings Super Bowl losses were my fault, God’s punishment for something I’d done.

I’m sure that Mrs. Washington’s confirmation class attempted to teach me about God’s grace and love, but my brain and soul were already branded by the Santa principle.

In today’s chapter lies a simple verse that is almost never talked about among Jesus’ followers even though it is foundational to understanding Jesus’ core message. Paul uses it to argue that Jesus’ message was God’s message from the beginning. The author of Hebrews does so, as well. For followers of Jesus, this verse is crucial to know, digest, and cling to:

Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

No meritocracy.

No addendum talking about being good, pure, and holy.

No mention of achieving, doing unto others, going to church, or giving money.

Just believe. That’s what faith is. To believe.

“Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” John 1:12

“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” Act 16:31

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Romans 8:9-10

Along my spiritual journey, I’ve observed that it is so hard to get out of the God as Santa mindset. God says “My ways are not your ways” and this applies to perhaps the most important question of all: How can I be saved?

Humanity’s way:

“Be good, work hard at it, keep all the rules, and maybe you’ll earn salvation like a present under the tree.”

God’s way:

“Just believe. Ask me to come in. Receive my love and forgiveness. That’s it. You see, once you’ve truly experienced My unmerited love, grace, forgiveness, and mercy, I trust you’ll be inspired and motivated to choose and practice obedience out of your own freedom and gratitude. That’s how I roll. That’s how I’ve always rolled, like I did with Abram.”

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking about all the ways I still wrestle with “Santa God” after 40 years. It still creeps in to haunt me. Meritocracy is a hard habit to break, both in the way I see God and myself, but also in the way I see, approach, and treat others.

I’m also reminded that I can’t do anything about previous days. I’ve only got this day that lies before me. I’ve got this day to just believe Jesus, to receive His love and grace, and then to let that love and my gratitude flow in goodness.

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

Blood and Covenant

Blood and Covenant (CaD Gen 9) Wayfarer

“Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you…”
Genesis 9:8-9 (NIV)

As my maternal grandparents entered the home stretch of their earthly journeys, they faced difficult financial circumstances that led to a difficult decision. My grandfather’s medical needs were draining their savings which was threatening the financial security of my grandmother, who would most certainly survive my grandfather, possibly for years to come. A social worker suggested that one solution would be for my grandparents to legally divorce so that their finances would be legally split, allowing my grandmother to retain their savings under her name while my grandfather’s needs would be provided for by the State.

I was quite a young man at the time, and I have a vivid memory of my grandmother asking me what she should do. I remember it because it was the first time that I’d considered both the legality, spirituality, and the tradition of marriage. That led me to realize, perhaps for the first time, that while the institutions of both church and state are involved in the process of a couple getting married, there is absolutely no detailed prescription for marriage in the Bible other than addressing it as a basic, assumed relational construct of human familial relationship and cultural systems. So far in our chapter-a-day journey of Genesis the husband and wife relationship has been assumed but no where has there been discussion of ceremony, process, or particulars other than a man and woman leaving their respective homes and becoming “one flesh.”

So, the relational agreement between husband and wife is assumed and its process is not specifically prescribed in the Great Story. What the Great Story does address is the agreement(s) between God and humanity. In the ancient times they were called “covenants.” Once again, since we’re in the beginning of the Great Story, we are going to keep running into firsts, and in today’s chapter we come across the first “covenant” between God and humanity since expulsion from the Garden. God initiates and makes the covenant never to destroy all earthly life by natural catastrophe.

Just before this covenant, God establishes the sacredness of human life, and it is metaphorically established in blood, or “lifeblood.” The ancients recognized that when blood poured out of a person, they died. They made connection between blood and life.

So in today’s chapter God establishes the sacredness of “life,” “blood,” and “covenant.” And just as I mentioned that the flood was an earthly foreshadowing of what would be the spiritual sacrament of baptism, today’s events are an earthly foreshadowing of the spiritual metaphor in the sacrament of Communion:

Then [Jesus] took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. Matthew 26:27-29 (NIV)

In the quiet this morning, I am once again awed by the connected themes of the Great Story from the very beginning. God is proactive, from the very beginning, in initiating a committed (a.k.a. covenant) relationship with humanity that will bring life in contrast to the death which came through disobedience and the breaking of relationship. And, God is still doing it as I remember each time I choose to step up and partake of the bread and cup as Jesus prescribed for his followers.

As for my grandparents, they chose not to take the social worker’s suggestion. My family helped to find other alternatives for them. That said, I told my grandmother that I did not believe a legal divorce on paper from the State of Iowa could ever nullify the spiritual bond of covenant and spiritual oneness or the chord of three strands woven between them and God. I believe that still. Matters of Spirit are deeper and more eternal than the reach of any human legal system on earth.

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

On Being a “Member”

On Being a "Member" (CaD 2 Pet 1) Wayfarer

For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
2 Peter 1:8 (NIV)

Along my life journey, I have served a number of local churches in either a volunteer or paid part-time basis. As a young man, I spent a total of five years in full-time pastoral ministry and served two different churches in very different denominations. These two full-time stints were very different experiences, but there was one thing the two experiences had in common. In the middle of my tenure at each of these churches, I was called to account by well-intentioned, legalistic busybodies for having not become a “member” of the said church.

I will never forget receiving a phone call asking me to be at an emergency meeting of the elders; the raw emotions of disappointment, anxiety, and suspicion expressed with regard to my reasons for not being a “member.” I will also not forget the abject silliness of jumping through all the institutional, bureaucratic hoops to appease the religious busybodies, including apologizing in a congregational meeting for my “oversight” and requesting that my “membership” be approved by the people who hired me to be their pastor.

It was no different than Jesus getting called to account for healing someone on the Sabbath day of rest. Being a member of a church does not make one a follower of Jesus, and being a follower of Jesus has nothing to do with adherence to religious, institutional bureaucracy. Confusion of the two is one of the legitimate realities that lie at the root of the world’s criticism and condemnation of Christianity. There are a host of other reasons, both legitimate and illegitimate, that lie with it.

In the opening of Peter’s second letter to first century followers of Jesus, he begins by identifying those who are legitimate followers of Jesus. You won’t find mention of a “membership certificate” or congregational approval anywhere in the description. Rather, Peter points to the evidence of ever-increasing spiritual maturity:

Faith that leads to goodness in words and deeds toward all.
Goodness that motivates a desire to know more about the things of God.
Knowledge that contributes to personal self-control in temptation.
Self-control that contributes to perseverance in tough stretches of the journey.
Perseverance that produces deeper levels of godliness in the daily mundane.
Godliness that shows up in sincere affection for others more than self.
Affection that results in acts of sacrificial love for others.

Peter goes on to explain that the goal is life that is effective and productive. This is exactly what Jesus told Peter and the team on the night before He was crucified: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” The goal is a life of connection to Jesus, being a “member” of the divine dance in the larger work He is accomplishing in the Great Story. Being a “member” of Christ effectively produces fruit in my life, and that fruit includes the very character traits Peter listed.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking about this penchant I’ve witnessed in many for taking institutional church membership so seriously. I’ve just never considered the bureaucracy worthwhile. I’ve always believed that my “membership” is proven, not by taking a class, signing my name, receiving a certificate, and saying “I do” to list of rote questions, but rather by the evidence of my being spiritually effective and productive within my local gathering of Jesus’ followers and my community, just as Peter describes. If I have the former without the latter, then “my faith” is not faith at all. It’s just a membership that carries as much spiritual benefit as my membership in the rewards club of my local grocery store.

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

Wayfarer Weekend Podcast: Dr. Bob Laurent

(WW) Interview with Dr. Bob Laurent Wayfarer

The night I made the life-changing decision to become a follower of Jesus, Dr. Bob Laurent was preaching. A bit further down the road, Dr. Bob was my professor. Bob is my friend, and one of my most cherished mentors. At the age of 75, Dr. Bob has more passion than ever for being a follower of Jesus, a student of the Great Story, and he continues to passionately preach Jesus’ truth and love.

This week, my Wayfarer Weekend podcast is a phone conversation Dr. Bob in which we discuss topics from preaching to life and to the meta-lessons Bob has observed and learned in over 50 years of preaching and teaching. He’s still going strong, preaching regularly as part of the teaching team at Granger Community Church in northern Indiana. Here’s a brief clip…

Dr. Bob Laurent

“Friend”

"Friend" (CaD John 15) Wayfarer

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 
John 15:13-15 (NIV)

There are certain waypoints along life’s road when things change. There are rites of passage that cultures celebrate to mark the ending of one phase of life and the beginning of another. I remember the first time I was old enough to go hunting with my father. Then there’s the moment at twelve years of age when I had my own paper route and was suddenly responsible for a small business. Of course there’s graduation, wedding, and the first time I held my child and was suddenly a father.

There are other waypoints marking a change on life’s road that are less desirable to write about. Lying alone in a borrowed apartment, my life shattered and lying in pieces all around me because of my own tragic choices. Being fired from a job. Filing for divorce. These are also waypoints on life’s road when things changed.

Chapters 13-17 of John’s biography of Jesus mark a similar waypoint in his life, and the lives of all who were in Jesus’ entourage. It is a rite of passage. The teacher’s earthly mission is almost over. Theirs is just beginning, and they have no clue just how much things are about to change.

In today’s chapter, Jesus marks a very important change when He tells His followers that they are not servants, but friends. Their identity is changing.

“I am His disciple friend.”
“Let me tell you about my master friend.”
“I am a servant friend of God.”

Going to a church is a rather meaningless exercise. Membership is a transaction. Likewise, cognitive assent to a list of beliefs requires very little of the one saying “I do” to a rote set of spoken criteria.

Being the friend of one who loved you enough to die for you, that changes things.

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

Source, not Compensation

Source, not Compensation (CaD Mk 1) Wayfarer

And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Mark 1:11 (NIV)

Looking back on my life journey, it’s obvious to me that my early thirties were an important stretch of road. My late teens and early twenties were a period of being cocksure of myself. Entering marriage, fatherhood, and adulthood in my early twenties was, for me, a heavy dose of reality. The side-effects of that reality dosage led to a period of intense personal chaos which eventually led to intense introspection, and this eventually led to a more healthy sense of what psychologists would call my individuation. In the parlance of our times, as the Dude would say, I grew up. I became my own person.

As I trekked through that time of life, I began to inspect my family of origin with a critical eye. As with any human system, there were shortcomings which I had to honestly acknowledge, address, and forgive. But I also discovered strengths which had to be equally acknowledged, addressed, and appreciated.

It was during this time of life that I began to witness a common soul wound that effected a number of my male friends. They had never experienced a father’s love. Never had their ears heard the words “I love you” uttered by their dad. Never had they received a word of affirmation, encouragement, or paternal pride. “The old man” had simply been a stoic source of silence, or constant criticism, or unattainable expectations. The result was a seemingly adult male who was, in reality, the walking wounded endlessly striving to earn a blessing that was hopelessly beyond price.

It was this observation that gave me a much needed contrast in my own process of individuation. Every day of my childhood ended with a hug and kiss from my parents and an “I love you.” My father, as well as my mother, was present, loving, affectionate, proud, and trusting. So much so, in fact, that I was blind to it. I took it for granted. I had no idea how priceless of a gift it was.

With today’s chapter, my chapter-a-day journey embarks on Mark’s biography of Jesus. It is the shortest of the four Jesus Stories contained in the Great Story. It is believed to be the earliest to have been written. Mark, also known as John Mark, was a colleague and assistant to both Peter and Paul. Mark’s mother was one of the circle of women who followed and supported Jesus’ ministry. The early believers met in her home. It is believed that Mark’s biography is his compilation of the stories Peter told as they traveled and taught others in the first century.

It is also believed that a curious side note of Mark’s biography of Jesus was, well, autobiographical. It’s found in his description of Jesus’ arrest:

A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.

This somewhat comical detail stands out, in part, because Mark’s biography of Jesus is short on details compared to Matthew, John, and Luke. It is a condensed compilation of stories, especially in the early chapters. A dramatization of today’s chapter would contain eight different scenes. That’s a lot of material to chew on in one quiet time.

What resonated most with me this morning was the scene of Jesus’ baptism in which all members of the Trinity are present. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit mark the beginning of Jesus earthly ministry and the Father’s voice from heaven declares His love and pleasure with His Son, Jesus. What always stands out to me is that Jesus hasn’t done anything yet.

He hasn’t successfully faced temptation.
He hasn’t hasn’t preached his first sermon.
He has no disciples.
He hasn’t healed anyone.

Jesus has been ritually dunked by His cousin, John. That’s it.

“That’s m’boy,” says the Father. “Man, I love Him. Couldn’t be more proud. It’s such pleasure to be this kid’s Dad!”

Years ago I made this same point during a message I was giving among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. One listener accosted me after the service to take issue with this.

“He was thirty years old,” this person exclaimed. “He’d done stuff!”

This individuals insistence quickly made clear to just how wounded their soul was. They could not fathom parental love, pride, or pleasure that had not been demanded, earned, and merited. I have observed along my life journey that much of religious Christianity suffers from this wound. Churches talk about grace (literally, unmerited favor) while demanding that members faithfully earn the system’s social acceptability by carefully being obedient to the silent rules of dress, speech, relationships, and public behavior. In a meritocracy, love, pride and pleasure are a carrot dangled as motivation. They are to be dearly earned through strict obedience.

Not Jesus’ family system. Love, pride and pleasure are the source of the motivation. The divine love and relational intimacy of the mysterious One-is-Three and Three-is-One is what fueled Jesus’ ministry, His mission, His service, and His sacrifice.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself grateful to my father and mother for modeling love. It has mades it easier for me to understand this essential truth about Jesus’ message: Love is the source not the compensation. It is there. It’s right there. All I have to do is believe, receive, and make room. “We love because He first loved us.”

Perhaps the single-most important lesson of my life journey, thus far, was the realization that God’s eternal love, complete forgiveness, and total acceptance was not the result of my “doing stuff” or not “doing stuff.” It is a gift to be simply received. The realization of just how priceless that gift is has been the greatest motivation of my life and has led me to “do stuff” for forty years, like writing this post.

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

About Knowing

About Knowing (CaD Ps 141) Wayfarer

But my eyes are fixed on you, Sovereign Lord…
Psalm 141:8a (NIV)

When I was a child, I went through all of the religious rituals associated with the church to which my family were members. My parents had me baptized as an infant. I attended Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. I sang in the children’s choir. I participated in, and volunteered to help with, social activities hosted by the church (including the annual “Christmas bazaar” which I remember being a really big deal in my little kid perception). When I was thirteen, I attended confirmation classes and learned what the church believed. I took the test, agreed to accept the terms of membership, and then received my certificate and my own personal box of offering envelopes.

What I came to realize a year or two later was that all of the ritual, participation, knowledge and cognitive assent to a belief statement had relatively little effect on my motives, my thoughts, my words, or my actions. Knowing about Jesus was not the same as knowing Jesus and being in relationship.

That contrast came to heart and mind in the quiet this morning as I meditated on the text of today’s chapter, Psalm 141. There is little doubt that the editors who compiled the anthology of ancient Hebrew song lyrics, that we know as the book of Psalms, were deliberate in putting Psalms 140 and 141 next to each other. They bookend each other well. Both are ascribed to David and both of them feature a lot of physiological metaphors. The biggest contrast is that Psalm 140 uses the physiological metaphors to describe an unrighteous person:

  • stir up war in their hearts
  • sharpen their tongues
  • poison on their lips
  • hands of the wicked

Psalm 141, uses physiological metaphors to describe a righteous person:

  • a heart that refuses evil
  • hands lifted in worship
  • a guard on one’s mouth
  • a door on the lips
  • a head that receives accountability
  • eyes fixed on God

As I mulled over the contrasting descriptions, it reminded me of being a young man and realizing that having a membership certificate to my local church, knowledge of basic beliefs, and dutifully participating in ritual had not translated into making a difference in my self-centeredness, my selfish behavior, my relationships with others, my actions, or my words. I was a egotistical, selfish little prick much of the time. I knew that I could play a good game, but I was also really self-aware enough to know that there were ugly things at the core which needed to change. I knew about the things Psalm 141 describes, but an honest self-examination and moral inventory revealed a person more like what Psalm 140 describes.

So, about that time I stopped just knowing about Jesus, and I decided to seek to know and follow Jesus in a very different way. It’s definitely been a forty-year process and spiritual journey. In the quiet this morning I find myself mulling over the person I would be today had I not made that decision. I can only imagine a grown-up version of the young man with ugly things at the core. An arrogant, egocentric big prick with a sharp tongue, and a heart in turmoil.

I’m not perfect by any means, and I could point you to a person or two who I suspect might tell you I’m still an arrogant, egocentric prick. I have my ugly moments. But oh, how worse it would be had I not discovered the contrast between knowing about Jesus and knowing Him.

Of Change and Health

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Awake, harp and lyre!
    I will awaken the dawn.

Psalm 108:2 (NIV)

Do you ever have random conversations that stick in your memory? I was on a trip with a colleague. While aware that we are each followers of Jesus, we didn’t talk about spiritual things very often. My colleague comes from a very conservative, almost fundamentalist viewpoint on things and he surprised me by wanting to ask my opinion about the weekly worship among the institutional church where he was a member.

It happened that my colleagues tribe had recently made the switch from a very traditional worship experience that involved singing traditional hymns, many of them having been in existence for hundreds of years. The church was migrating to using songs of the present-day genre. He was clearly struggling with this.

I have shared many times that I have been a spiritual wayfarer who has experienced and participated in a rich diversity of spiritual traditions. I have been in the emotionally rockin’ pentecostal tradition, the corporate silence of the Quaker Meeting House, the high-church liturgy of Roman Catholic church, the call-and-response of the black church, the intellectual approach of mainline institutions, the simplicity and sincerity of rural worship in a developing country, and the down-home family environment of a “house church.” My attitude has never been to ask “Which is right?” In fact, I’ve never really worried about asking “Which is right for me?” I’ve always tried to be fully present where I have been been led and ask myself “What good can I gain from this experience?”

I am aware, however, that my colleague has a more black-and-white view of both faith and life. The change in music genres within his local gathering had him rattled.

Colleague: “I’m struggling with these ‘seven-eleven’ songs. It’s the same seven lines sung eleven times.”

Me: “You mean like Psalm 117 that only has two lines which were likely repeated in worship?”

Colleague: “It’s just so repetitive. Singing the same thing over and over.”

Me: “You mean like Psalm 136 that repeats ‘His love endures forever’ twenty-six times?”

Colleague: “It’s not right. They take little pieces of a great hymn and mess it up by changing it. It was meant to be sung in its entirety!”

As this point, I could have pointed my colleague to today’s chapter, Psalm 108, because the entire thing is simply a cut-and-paste mash-up of Psalm 57:7-11 and Psalm 60:5-12. In fact, there are multiple examples both in the Psalms and in the writings of the ancient prophets when entire sections would be cut-and-pasted into an updated work. There are also examples of this in other ancient Mesopotamian cultures. It was quite common.

I don’t really know how the conversation landed with my colleague. I could tell that he was disappointed (maybe even a little frustrated) that I didn’t agree with him and provide him an affirmation of his opinions. He never brought it up again.

In my life, I have found change to be really difficult for people in almost any circle of life. When you mix in both change and religious tradition it can take on an added layer of emotion. Suddenly the change gets escalated to a level of religious orthodoxy. Sides are taken. The discussion escalates to arguments. Then comes entrenchment. Very often the next step is the severing of relationships. Groups split.

Along my spiritual journey, I have always assumed that change is a natural part of creation. Most things in life cycle in one way or another. What goes around comes around. Styles come back around and get freshened up. Religious traditions and practices that were once abandoned as “old and outdated” come back in vogue to bless a new generation of Jesus’ followers.

So it is that as I watch the changes that constantly happen around me on multiple levels, I try to keep my emotional reactions in check. Instead of digging in my heels and demanding that my love of the perfectly acceptable way of doing things is understood, I try to divert my energy to asking “What good might be gained from this change?”

In the quiet this morning, I find myself reminded of a mantra that I was introduced to by my friend. It made its way around the internet and I am unsure of the source. I once used it in a message, but I don’t know that I’ve ever referenced it in one of my chapter-a-day posts. It’s always stuck with me:

Healthy things grow.
Growing things change.
Change challenges me.
Challenges force me to trust God.
Trust leads to obedience.
Obedience makes me healthy.
Healthy things grow.
..

That’s Qadosh

That's Qadosh (CaD Ps 99) Wayfarer

Exalt the Lord our God and worship at his holy mountain, for the Lord our God is holy.
Psalm 99:9 (NIV)

While being in quarantine has frustrated my extroverted need for interpersonal interaction over the past ten days, I have also been mindful each day to appreciate the opportunity it has afforded Wendy and me to spend lots of time with our grandson, Milo, who normally resides across the pond in Scotland. Yesterday, my exercise monitor informed me that I’d set a new personal record for exercise in one day. If you’re having a hard time getting into that New Year’s workout routine, I suggest finding someone to loan you their three-year-old for a few days.

One of the more endearing developments during our extended time together has been Milo’s desire to go to sleep at night in Papa and Yaya’s bed. Last night, Wendy and I climbed onto the bed with Milo between us. We read three books together, then turned out the light. We sang softly in the darkness. Wendy reached over Milo and held my hand as we lay and sang with Milo nestled between us. Even with my hearing impairment, I could hear Milo’s deep breaths as he drifted to sleep. We then whispered a prayer over him before slipping out of the room.

That, my friend, was a special moment. I wanted to just stay in that moment forever. If only I could bottle it up and hold onto it. I immediately knew that it was a memory I will remember and cherish always.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 99, continues in this section of ancient Hebrew praise songs. They were likely used for liturgical purposes to call the Hebrews to worship in the temple. The lyricist of Psalm 99 layered this call to praise with metaphorical meaning that casual readers in English would never pick up.

Remember in yesterday’s post/podcast I shared that “everything is connected?” The Hebrews found spiritual connections with numbers. Each number had meaning. Seven was a number that meant “completeness.” Three was a number spiritually connected to the divine. There are three stanzas, each with four verses (4+3=7). Seven times the songwriter uses the Hebrew name of God, Yahweh. Seven times he uses Hebrew independent personal pronouns. Three times he refers to God as “holy” (Hebrew: qadosh).

I confess that “holy” is a word, and a spiritual concept, that I failed to fully understand, or flat out got wrong, for most of my journey. The concept of holiness as communicated by the institutional churches I’ve been involved in my whole life made holiness out to be simple moral purity in the utmost sense. The equation was “no sin” plus “going to church” equaled “holiness” (x + y = z). Which meant that holiness, unless you were Mother Theresa, was pretty much unattainable.

I have come to understand, however, that qadosh has a much larger meaning. There are moments in life in which everyone in the room knows there is something meaningful, something special, something larger that is happening in the moment.

Our daughter, Taylor, has an audiotape of the moment she entered the world in the delivery room. You hear her squeaky cries. You hear Dr. Shaw announce it‘s a girl. You hear me talking to her on the warming table. That moment is qadosh.

Last October I stood with our daughter, Madison, in a courtyard. We watched the congregation stand and turn toward us. The beautiful bride, whom I taught to walk, I now walked down the aisle to “give her away” to the man she loves. People smiled and wept. That moment was qadosh.

I sat in the dark room of the nursing home as my grandmother’s life ebbed away with each strained breath. Through the wee hours I kept watch over her. I held her hand. I sang her favorite hymn. I read the final chapter of the Great Story to her and I realized in the moment that it was like reading a travel brochure for the trip she was about to take. That moment was qadosh.

Last night as Wendy and I held hands and hovered over our peaceful, sleeping grandson lying in our bed. We sang. We prayed blessings over him. It was a holy moment. That’s qadosh.

Throughout the Great Story, when God made a special appearance (theologians call that a theophany) the person to whom God appears is mesmerized, speechless, dumbfounded, or overwhelmed. To be in the presence of God, described by lyricist of Psalm 99 as the royal King of Kings. That moment is qadosh.

When the psalmist calls me to worship, he’s not religiously demanding that I dutifully “go to church” in an effort to attain some pinnacle of moral purity. In fact, when I meditate on the fullness of all the qadosh moments I’ve recalled, then all my old notions of what it means to be “holy” are silly in their triteness. The psalmist is calling me into the mysterious, beautiful, meaningful moment of qadosh.

The Religion Game

Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me;
    to those who go the right way
    I will show the salvation of God.”

Psalm 50:23 (NRSVCE)

As a child, my family regularly attended church where worship was held with lots of traditional, liturgical pomp. I even got to participate as I sang in the children’s choir wearing my robe. Looking back with understanding, I have an appreciation for the metaphor and intent of all the liturgical devices, even the way the sanctuary was designed and laid out.

I went through the motions like everyone else. Sing this. Proceed to there. Sit down. Stand up. Say this. Sing this. Sit down. Read this. Stand up. Sing this. Sit down. Listen. Stand up. Sing this. Proceed there. Done. It happened every week with very little variation other than the words that were said or sang.

It was regular. It was rote. It was religious.

The problem was, I never thought much about it at all. It was what we did. I checked off the box along with every body else.

As I have ceaselessly journeyed through the Great Story, I’m always struck by the rather exhaustive system of sacrifices, offerings, rituals, and feasts that God dictates to the Hebrews through Moses. As I’ve studied them, I’ve come to appreciate the reason behind them and how they fit together in a cycle that led the Hebrews through specific thoughts and lessons about their relationship with God.

Nevertheless, there is sprinkled through the words of the psalmists and prophets a recurring theme that the people are doing all the things, but they’re hearts aren’t in it. They are making the sacrifices, offering the prescribed things at the prescribed times, going through the rituals, and attending the feasts. It was regular. It was rote. It was religious. The problem was that they weren’t really thinking much about it.

Today’s psalm was written to be sung as part of worship in the temple, but the songwriter, Asaph, is calling God’s people out for their mindless, spirit-less dedication to going through the religious motions. The “thanksgiving” offerings are void of any real gratitude. The real sacrifice, the songwriter says, is a heart full of gratitude to God which motivates all the other rituals.

This was the same thing Jesus found in the religious leaders of His day. They were continually critical of Him for breaking the religious regulation they added to the ancient rules. Jesus repeatedly quoted God through the prophet Hosea to them: “Go and learn what this means,” Jesus said, “‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”

Jesus was getting at the same thing as Asaph in today’s psalm. Mindlessly going through religious motions is of no real value, and I believe that this is one of the reasons why denominations are imploding and churches are closing in record numbers. Just minutes ago our daughter sent the family a photo she took of an old church she and Clayton visited in a remote area of Scotland this past week. It’s being turned into a brewery. The altar will be the bar. Some of my ancestors would have found that scandalous. I don’t at all. As I have repeatedly written, Jesus made it clear that it was never supposed to be about bricks-and-mortar, but flesh-and-blood. It was never about the ritual, but the relationship. An honest, transparent, love-motivated conversation over a pint might be the most spiritual, Christ-honoring thing to happen in that building in a long time.

Jesus completely changed the game.

We keep changing it back.