Tag Archives: Condemnation

Judicial Realizations

Judicial Realizations (CaD Ps 139) Wayfarer

Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

Psalm 139:23-24 (NIV)

Yesterday, I spent some time with a friend who is a bit further down life’s road than I am. He sees the finish line of his vocational journey fast approaching. The fact that his days are numbered and there are fewer days ahead than behind is not lost on him. We talked honestly.

“I just want to finish well,” he said to me.

We then quickly recounted the names of those we know who did not finished life well. It was a sobering thought.

If you ask me to share my individual, unvarnished story with you, I’m going to share things that are pretty unseemly. Along my life journey I have been guilty of both pretty sins and ugly sins. For about the first 15-20 years of my 40 years as a Jesus follower, I did my best to hide these things under a well-polished veneer of goodness. Eventually, things caught up with me. As I hit bottom and could no longer keep up appearances, I had a fellow believer and therapist tell me, “I’ve been watching the slow deconstruction of the image of Tom.”

I’ve learned along this journey that sometimes old things must be razed before new, fruitful things can begin growing.

The 23rd Psalm undoubtedly tops the Billboard Chart for all-time favorite ancient Hebrew songs. Today’s chapter, Psalm 139, is definitely makes the Top Ten. It might even be number two. If you’ve never read it, I encourage you to do so. The liner notes ascribe it to David, which adds an intriguing layer of meaning to the lyrics.

It’s easy to read Psalm 139 in the mind frame of the devotional and theological. But in the context of David’s day, the lyrics are judicial. Christian theology holds that God is omnipresent, meaning that God is present in all places at all times. While the lyrics of David’s song support this idea, the ancients of David’s world had no such notion. Rather, they considered that both gods and kings had access to all places and all knowledge. Therefore, no one could run and hide from justice. No matter how high, low, near, or far I try to hide, the Divine Judge has full access, even to see and know the person I am beneath the well-polished veneer of goodness.

Much like the 51st Psalm, David’s song is an honest and intimate confession. David is laying open his life, his heart, and his soul before God, who is the Divine Judge. In doing so, David is exposing and owning his own sins, both pretty and ugly. A man of violence and bloodshed, an adulterer, a murderer, a failed father, a failed husband, and a less-than-perfect king, David stands before God knowing that God doesn’t need the Freedom of Information Act to see it all. David asks God to search his very heart, which ironically is the thing that led God to choose David in the first place.

Which leads me back to my story, and my life, which is every bit as polluted with sins both pretty and ugly. There came a point in my journey that I had my own Psalm 139 moment. I could continue running, hiding, and polishing, but that never got me anywhere healthy. So, I owned my own shit. I processed my feelings, my failings, and my indulgent human appetites. Ironically, it was at that point in my journey that a number of really good things began to spiritually sprout within me.

In the quiet this morning, I can’t help but think about the fact that I’m writing these words on Good Friday. As I remember that “God made him who had no sin to be sin for me, so that in him I might become the righteousness of God,” I am reminded that it’s not about the things that I have done, but the thing that Christ did for me. The more honest I am about the things I have done, the more potent the thing that Christ did for me becomes. As Paul wrote to the believers in Rome, it is that kindness of Christ that leads me to genuine repentance, not judgement, condemnation, nor religious rigor.

This morning, I find myself thinking that if I want to finish well then I have to keep this spiritual truth before me this day, each day, until I reach the journey’s end.

Cancelled (Not)

Cancelled! [Not] (CaD Ps 130) Wayfarer

If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
    Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
    so that we can, with reverence, serve you.

Psalm 130:4 (NIV)

I’ll never forget the story of a woman I know who told me the story of being a teenager who made a foolish choice. Once it was discovered, she was brought before her church and publicly shamed for her mistake. They threatened her with expulsion and vowed to make her an outcast unless she repented. She told me this as an adult, but the spiritual and emotional scars of the experience were still very much present.

As a student of history, I can tell you that public shaming, scapegoating, and what today we call “cancelling” have been around as long as human civilization. It morphs into various forms, but it is a staple of fundamentalist systems no matter the flavor. When allowed to run amok, it leads to guilt by accusation, mob justice, and the kangaroo court of illogical and unreasonable group-think. It can be lethal, as the residents of Salem, Massachusetts found out when a group of silly girls leveraged the fundamentalist bent of their Puritan faith and began accusing people they didn’t like of being witches.

I find it fascinating to watch what is happening in our own current version of it. I observe that cancel culture has all the same quintessential ingredients that existed among the reviled Puritans of Salem. I have had more than one person tell me in the past year that if an enemy at their workplace chooses to go back and uncover the silly, foolish things they did and said in their youth and make them public, they’re screwed.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 130, is an ancient Hebrew song that expresses the emotions of one crying out from “the depths.” The metaphor of the original Hebrew lyrics are that of deep waters. The songwriter is drowning in a sea of their own mistakes and foolish choices. In experiencing God’s forgiveness, mercy, grace, and redemption, the songwriter is moved to gratefully serve God.

As I read through the teachings of Jesus, I don’t find religious shaming and cancel culture. In fact, the most pointed condemnation Jesus dished out were to orthodox religious fundamentalists who were carrying out their own brand of cancel culture. Jesus actions and words were gracious, forgiving, and redemptive. Paul, one who was drowning in his own deep waters on a trip to Damascus, told Jesus’ followers in Rome that its God’s kindness that leads to repentance not shaming, condemnation, and threats of cancellation. He also wrote to the believers in Corinth that it was Christ’s love that compelled him to risk life and limb to share that love with others. In my experience, condemnation, hatred, public shaming, and threats don’t compel anything worthwhile.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself recalling the “deep waters” of my own life journey. I find myself mindful of the many foolish thoughts, words and actions that dot my journey, and for which others would gladly cancel me. I find myself grateful for Jesus who, by His own words, claimed that he didn’t come to condemn the world, but to save it through love, servant-heartedness, self-sacrifice, forgiveness, grace and redemption.

As He has not condemned, shamed, nor cancelled me, I find myself compelled not to condemn, shame nor cancel anyone else.

Judgment and Judiciousness

“But as for you and your officials, I know that you do not yet fear the Lord God.”
Exodus 9:30 (NRSVCE)

I have regularly attended church my entire life. I’ve attended suburban mega-churches and tiny rural churches. I’ve attended churches of diverse backgrounds and doctrinal beliefs. In 54 years, I met and have known many, many people in those churches. In the quiet of my office this morning, my brain’s long-term memory is searching the archives to access the names and faces of individuals I’ve not thought about in a long time. The memories have put a smile on my face.

The further I get in my spiritual journey as a follower of Jesus, the more stalwart I’ve become in obeying Jesus’ command to refuse judging others. As I like to say, “God’s Judgment Seat is one big throne, and my butt ain’t that big.” I long ago took off my Junior Holy Spirit badge and stopped pretending I could know the hearts of others. Most days, I’m fortunate to have a decent handle on my own.

At the same time, just after telling us never to judge others, Jesus made it very clear that people (and He was speaking specifically of preachers, teachers, and prophets) are like fruit trees:

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

So, while Jesus makes it clear that it is not my place to judge another person, in almost the same breath He tells me that it is in the best interest of my spiritual health to be wise and discerning with regard to those whom I allow to speak into my life and my spiritual journey. In Paul’s letter to the followers of Jesus in Galatia, he described the “fruit” of God’s Spirit as love for others that is increasingly joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, gentle, faithful, and self-controlled. Rotten spiritual fruit he describes as selfishness, hatred of others, deception, envy, jealousy, rage, sowing discord and dissension between people, and of course over-indulging in all the fleshly appetites.

I’ve come to the conclusion that identifying rotten fruit in another person’s life does not exempt me from Jesus’ command not to judge that person. Likewise, rotten fruit in another person’s life does not exempt me from the law of love, which calls me to treat that person with patient, kind, faithful, and self-controlled love. Identifying rotten fruit in another person’s life simply affords me the opportunity to be wise and shrewd in managing my interactions and relationship with that person. Judgment and being judicious are two very different things.

Which brings me to today’s chapter, in which plagues continue to bring suffering on Pharaoh and the Egyptians. At one point, Pharaoh even appears to relent:

Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron. “This time I have sinned,” he said to them. “The Lord is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong. Pray to the Lord, for we have had enough thunder and hail. I will let you go; you don’t have to stay any longer.”

Pharaoh’s words, however, did not match Pharaoh’s heart. His repentance was like the Daphne berry, which looks nice and scrumptious on the outside (see featured photo on this post) but happens to be very toxic. The Egyptian ruler’s earlier actions (stubbornness, deception, and double-mindedness) made Moses appropriately suspicious of Pharoah’s sudden fruit of repentance.

And so, I find myself back to all of those names and faces throughout the years. I remember most as bearers of good fruit. There are a few whom I recall as bearing pretty rotten fruit in their lives when I knew them. Depending on when our journeys intersected, they might remember some of the bad fruit my own life has produced along the way. That’s another good reason I should never presume to judge anyone. I would only be condemning myself. It is a journey, after all. A lifetime living in Iowa has taught me that the same field can produce very different yields in different years. The bad fruit I noticed in a person’s life may have simply been a rough season in life. Lord knows, I have had my own share of them.

My job is to keep cultivating the only field for which I am responsible: my own. Lord, produce in me a bumper crop of love.

Let it Flow

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us…
1 John 4:10 (NIV)

As number of years ago our daughter lived in the Catholic Worker community in Des Moines. She participated in the communal living and, as part of that community, daily worked to serve the poor and homeless.

One of the observations she shared with us from her time there was a realization she came to as she listened to people sharing their stories. Person after person shared tales of brokenness and the insecurity of being one step away from homelessness and the hopelessness of having no safety net. Then came the understanding that she has never, and likely will never, experience that reality. She has a safety net. In fact, she has multiple safety nets of family and friends who love her and to whom she could turn in need. Love, safety, and provision had always flowed freely, surrounded her, and remain a phone call away.

In today’s chapter, John continues to write to Jesus’ followers about love. What struck me was that there is a flow to the love John describes:

  • Love comes from God
  • Everyone who loves is born of God
  • This is how God showed his love, by sending his son…
  • This is love. Not that we love God, but he loved us and sent his son as a sacrifice for our sins.
  • He has given us his Spirit.
  • We love because he first loved us.

The source is God. God is love incarnate. Love flows down, in, and through.

Father (God for us) love creates, gives, sends

Jesus (God with us) love comes down, touches, gives, and sacrifices

Spirit (God in us) love indwelling, flowing through

As I enjoy being endlessly reminded, the Greek word for Trinity (Father, Son, Spirit; Three is One; One is Three) is perichoresis, literally “circle dance.” When I, standing like a wall-flower at the middle-school mixer, choose to accept the invitation to join God in the dance, then I join the circle. I participate in that dance; I become an active, participating member of love’s flow:

Me (God through us) receiving, changing, forgiving, giving, loving

Then I get to this from John’s letter: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” Suddenly I find myself thinking of those I’ve met along my journey for whom God is punishment and condemnation. That’s always been their experience just as Taylor’s friends at the Worker who have never gotten to experience love, security, and provision. How tragic that humanity’s penchant for works-driven religion based on shame, guilt, punishment, and condemnation continues to flourish. It flourished in Jesus’ day, too. That’s what He spoke against.

In the quiet, as I mulled these things over in my mind this morning, I realized that there is a certain relationship between my willingness (because willingness plays a part) and choice to accept, receive, and experience God’s love and the extent to which that love can transform me and flow through me to others. And that’s the point. How can love’s transformational work be experienced by those mired in punishment and condemnation if it doesn’t flow through me to them by my acts of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control?

And, that’s where yesterday’s uncomfortable realization continues to motivate me to be willing and decisive to let more and more of God’s love transform me so it can flow through me with greater power to others.

Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Let love flow.

More.

Jesus and the Religious Rule Keepers

Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.
Mark 2:27 (NIV)

As a child, I did a lot of walking and playing outdoors with the kids in my neighborhood. The neighborhood around the 3100 block of Madison Avenue was pretty much a virtual playground for us. I still remember who lived in most of the houses on our block and several of the houses on the blocks around us. We knew all of the “shortcuts” between garages, through fences, and how to quickly both get to other places and to disappear in need. We also knew the quickest routes, by foot or bike, to the woods, creeks, and green spaces that surrounded our neighborhood.

As we would play tag, hide-and-seek, or walk to the woods, I can remember nonchalantly playing with whatever plant I happened to walk over or past. Dandelions could be turned into a woven bracelet, and their dead blooms could be blown to the wind as a natural form of confetti. The leaves from corn plants in people’s backyard gardens could be held tightly between your thumbs like a diaphragm and made to make the most unusual noises when you blew through the hole between your thumbs. Of course, apples, cherries, and other fruit could be picked as you walked by for a quick snack. If you could spot one, a four-leaf clover was always a must-grab for luck in our next game of Freeze Tag, T.V. Tag, or Kick-the-Can.

What struck me in today’s chapter was the fact that, as Jesus and his followers were walking, “they began to pick some heads of grain.” Of course, they did. They were no different than me and my neighborhood friends as we walked through a neighbor’s yard. If you’re on a walk and you walk through a field your hands naturally reach out and caress the heads of grain to feel the softness across your hand. Your hand unconsciously closes around one and your fingers rub the grain loose from the head. You let the chaff fall from your palm or blow it like the natural confetti of a dandelion. You pop a grain into your mouth without thinking much of it. I learned as a child that interacting with creation as you walk through it is as natural as breathing.

How silly, then, that the religious people of Jesus’ day thought the natural act of picking heads of grain to be breaking “the Sabbath.” The “Sabbath” day was simply a day of rest each week. It follows God’s example in the creation poem in Genesis. God creates the universe in six days and then takes a day off. God later told His people in the Ten Commandments: “Do just like I did. Work six days, but make sure you take a day off, a sabbath.” The rule was meant to help perpetuate a healthy life. I need sleep each day. I need a day off each week. I need a few weeks of vacation each year. It’s part of the healthy physical rhythm that promotes mental and spiritual health, as well.

Along my life journey, one of the things I’ve observed is that religion likes to translate spiritual principles into strict, prescriptive rules of behavior. I remember one Bible college a friend of mine considered attending desired that their students stay sexually pure, so the rule was that if a member of the opposite sex is sitting in a chair and vacates it you must allow time for the chair to cool from that person’s body heat before you sit in it. I wish I was making that up. Without the rule, I would have never even thought about residual female body heat on a classroom chair. The legalistic rule intended to keep me “pure” actually ends up creating the illicit thoughts it was intended to prevent. The religious rules intended to ensure that I keep the spiritual principle actually become more perverse than the sin it’s trying to keep away from. It’s a perfect illustration of what Paul told the followers of Jesus in Rome in his letter to them:

The law code started out as an excellent piece of work. What happened, though, was that sin found a way to pervert the command into a temptation, making a piece of “forbidden fruit” out of it. The law code, instead of being used to guide me, was used to seduce me.

Read Romans 7:8-12 (MSG)

So, let me come back to today’s chapter. Jesus and the disciples walking through a field casually picking off a head of grain. The legalistic, religious rule keepers confront Jesus and point to the behavioral rules they’ve manufactured to give clarity to the earlier code of conduct which was born out of the one rule God gave them in the Ten Commandments in order to adhere to a spiritual principle of making sure you get some rest and stay healthy.

Jesus, in reply to the religious rule enforcers, simply points out an exception to the rule that those same legalistic rule enforcers chose to ignore (e.g. “You’re condemning me for doing the same that King David and his men did, but I don’t hear you condemning him.”) Jesus then cuts to the heart of the matter: the Sabbath was made as a principle of rest to help give you have a good life and keeping your heart, mind, and body healthy.

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking of all the ways I once adhered to religious legalism. I confess, there was so much about what Jesus was teaching and getting at that I didn’t get at all. But, that was my journey. I had to walk through those stretches in order to learn, fail, struggle, persevere, grow, and mature in my own heart and mind. As the old hymn says: I was blind, but now I see. I have come to perceive that I, as a religious person, can be more spiritually blind than the “sinner” I believe that I am trying to save.

In this season of Lent, as I walk towards the annual memorial of Jesus’ death and celebration of His resurrection, I can’t help but think of the confessed thief hanging on the cross next to Jesus. The confessed sinner went with Jesus to paradise while the religious rule-keepers, who condemned and had Jesus executed, stood there hurling insults and condemnation at Him. They were blind, as I once was. Even Jesus said in those moments as he looked down at his executioners and the good religious rule-keepers condemning him: “Father, forgive them. They have no idea what they’re doing.”

I’m left thinking that this wayfaring stranger would rather hang on a cross, a confessed sinner next to Jesus, than religiously stand in condemnation of others for their breaking of the rules that were addendums to the previous code of conduct, which were additions to the one ancient rule, which was originally intended as a principle to spiritually guide people to Life.

I think I’ll go for a walk today. No dandelions out yet to blow to the wind, but I can pick a few leaves, and just maybe a four-leaf clover.

Anyone up for a game of kick-the-can?

Lord Protectors of Orthodoxy and Tradition

Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere.
Luke 20:20 (NIV)

It’s been years, but I can still see their faces. The look on most of those faces is a scowl. Along my journey, I have been a member and have taught in many different churches of diverse denominational bents. I have found these individuals in almost every one of them.

They are the thought police, the guardians of tradition, and the Lord Protectors of the Orthodox Realm. They wear the mantel of righteousness, believing themselves responsible to strictly observe and question anything they perceive to seep outside the rigid box in which they hold their tradition and orthodoxy. They often believe themselves to be spiritual heirs of the first century Berean Jews who are described as follows:

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.

Acts 17:11 (NIV)

My experience, however, leads me to believe that “noble character” is not an apt description for most of these individuals. They don’t receive my message with eagerness and open examination but with skepticism and censure. I have come to believe that their motivation is often fear and or pride cloaked in religiosity. Their minds and spirits are not open but closed. The fruit of their words and actions is rarely love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, or gentleness. I have observed that the root of their words and actions lie in the soil of fear, pride, self-righteousness, and anger. The fruit of their words and actions is conflict, quarrels, division, and dissension.

The faces of these individuals came to mind today as I read Luke’s account of the final week of Jesus’ earthly journey. We find Jesus in Jerusalem teaching in the Temple courts. He is drawing large crowds. He is the talk of the town. And, the orthodox power system of that Temple is angry and afraid. Jesus threatens their lucrative religious racket that has amassed their wealth. Jesus threatens their power and social standing with the people whom they control through religious rule-keeping, condemnation, judgment, and shame. Their tradition is holding onto power and they are bent on taking Jesus down.

So these teachers of the law and religious authorities send people to question, to trap, and to report anything the upstart Nazarene says which might be used to make a case against Him. They are already trying to find a way to send Jesus to the Roman Governor, for under Roman occupation it is Pontius Pilate alone who can sentence one to death, and they want Jesus dead.

Don’t hear what I’m not saying. As a follower of Jesus, I firmly believe that I must be responsible to consider, weigh, and test the things said, written, and taught in the name of Jesus. At the same time, I am called upon to be both shrewd and gentle. I have been commanded to follow the law of love in all things. I have been told to reserve judgment for the One true Judge. I am not judge, jury, and executioner of orthodox justice with a Junior Holy Spirit badge pinned to my chest. What a sad way to live and be. It doesn’t seem like the “full life” Jesus wanted His followers to experience and live out.

Back to the faces and the individuals. I have learned along the way to always try responding thoughtfully, gently, and with self-control. If they are open to a sincere and kind conversation to explore and discuss, then wonderful! However, when a thoughtful and gentle reply is fruitless (and it typically is), then I endeavor to press forward on the path to which God has led me. I keep loving, keep praying, keep reading, keep seeking, keep asking, keep knocking, and I focus on the only things in my control: my intentions, thoughts, words, and actions. And, I pay as little attention to my scowling critics as is humanly possible.

Sometimes, the most loving thing I can do is to walk away.

The Recipe of Stereotype

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.
1 Timothy 1:15 (NIV)

The other day I wrote about seeing through stereotypes, as it is very common for people to paint certain “other” people groups with a broad brush of generalization. I approached this notion from the perspective of being the perpetrator of the stereotype, but this morning I find myself thinking about it from the perspective of being stereotype’s casualty.

For the record, I have never suffered serious injury or been particularly harmed by another person’s stereotype. I have, however, experienced being labeled, misunderstood, falsely accused, and socially marginalized in specific situations because I have always been up-front about being a Jesus follower. I get that stereo-types are often rooted in partial-truths. The world is full of judgmental, condemning, narrow-minded groups and individuals who wear the label of Christian. When I have been causality of stereotype, I recognize that I am being lumped into one’s mental basket with them.

Here’s a thing that I’ve found to be true in my faith journey. The further I get in the journey the more clearly I see my own faults, the more important I find it to own my mistakes, and the more readily I feel the on-going need for God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness. I find myself less concerned about the moral speck of dust in the eyes of non-believers because I’m blinded by the 2×6 of moral failure in my own. Whatever righteous anger I might feel is not stirred by sinners in need of Jesus’ grace, but by the legalistic, self-righteous religious types who sourced the stereotype with which I’ve occasionally been labeled.

Paul’s letters to Timothy are, chronologically, the final two of his surviving letters.  They were written late in his life to the young protégé who traveled with him and became a leader among the groups of Jesus followers they founded. One of the interesting observations to be made in these two very personal and heart-felt letters is how different they are in spirit and tone from the fiery letters Paul wrote to the believers in Galatia and the Corinth earlier in his journey. Paul’s passion for Jesus’ message and his ministry have not abated in any way, but there is a tenderness and humility with which he is passing the baton. Paul is embracing Jesus’ mercy and his personal need of grace as he owns that of all sinners “I am the worst.”

Stereotype is made with just a few ingredients: a pinch of truth, a pound of ignorance, and a cup of passivity. I’ve been guilty of it more times than I’ve been a victim of it, and so this morning I find myself whispering a prayer of grace, forgiveness, and blessing over those who may have stereotyped me unfairly along the way.

The Way of Love

…walk in the way of love…
Ephesians 5:2 (NIV)

This past weekend was Pella’s annual Tulip Time festival. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, Wendy and I spent the weekend volunteering as did most everyone else we know. Our town was packed with thousands of tourists and visitors, and that always brings out all sorts of interesting people and groups. There were news crews from all over, a crew shooting a movie, a counterfeiter trying to pass fake twenties to various street vendors, and street preachers  screaming hellfire and brimstone through their little powered speakers.

I was at a meeting last night with several of my fellow Jesus followers from here in town. I found it interesting that no mention was made of the news crews, the movie crew shooting in the crowd, or the man arrested for counterfeiting. It was the street preachers that inspired conversation.

As I listened to people share, I found that others experienced the same frustration I did as I passed by and heard the street preacher’s rhetoric. They were preaching condemnation and judgement. It was all fear and accusation. Someone from my group shared that they had attempted to engage the preacher and ask about his approach. “Everyone knows about Jesus’ love,” he was reported to have replied. “What they don’t know is the fear of judgement.”

Along my life journey I have found just the opposite to be true. While there are exceptions to every general rule, I’ve observed that most people judge and condemn themselves, or else they have acutely experienced the judgement and condemnation of others. Often, they are judged and condemned by individuals who are supposed to love them the most, such as a parent, a sibling, or a close relative.

I’ve also observed that most people don’t know really know and experience Jesus’ love in its gracious, unconditional form. I believe a large number of Jesus’ followers walk the way of religious, transactional merit. Good behavior is rewarded with blessing and bad behavior exacts a curse, and they’re just hoping the scales tip the right way in the end.

Last night’s conversation ended with a story from a friend who shared that they had heard personally of a suicidal adult who was quite literally at the point of deciding one day that instead of ending it all they would visit Tulip Time. That day a sweet, smiling young child in a dutch costume walked up and gave them a tulip. That simple act of kindness set this person on the path of life change (i.e. repentance) which led to the way of love, redemption, and restoration.

As I read this morning’s chapter it struck me that Paul did not say we should walk this life journey on the way of holiness, the way of purity, the way of religion, the way of judgment, the way of condemnation, or the way of fear. To be sure, things like holiness, purity, and obedience are good things asked of all Jesus’ followers. However, Paul reminded the believers in Corinth that it is the activating ingredient of love that makes any of those things worthwhile. Without the activating ingredient of love, those things become spiritually worthless.

I’m also reminded this morning of another thing Paul wrote to the believers in Rome, that it is “kindness that leads to repentance.” The hellfire and brimstone street preachers must have missed that part.

I’m glad to know that a little child in a Dutch costume got it right.

The Boulevard and the Gate

So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.
Galatians 4:7 (NIV)

In the early stages of my spiritual journey I wandered down the path of legalism. I was never particularly comfortable with it’s straight-and-narrow streets and the authoritarian, self-appointed traffic cops on every block wearing their spit-polished Junior Holy Spirit badges. Nevertheless, I came to an understanding of why so many people find their way to that huge boulevard.

There’s a certain ease to the path of legalism. It requires little in the way of thought, meditation, grace, wisdom, or knowledge. Everything is prescribed for you in black-and-white terms and simple rules of obedience. There’s strict accountability to keep you on the straight-and-narrow. Your fellow wayfarers will, of course, watch you like a hawk, but then there are the self-appointed traffic cops to watch your every move, remind you of the rules, and threaten you with any number of heinous punishments (i.e. alienation, condemnation, damnation) should you stray from their prescribed path.

Along that stretch of the journey I met a number of individuals who had been walking the path of legalism for many years. They had given themselves over. So comfortable had they become with their enslavement to the rules that the simplest notion of grace or freedom became a fright. They reminded me of the Hebrews in the wilderness begging to return to slavery in Egypt. “At least we knew the rules. Life was so much easier to understand. It wasn’t so hard or so complicated.”

In Paul’s letter to the believers in Galatia, he finds them in a similar spot. Having received the Message of Jesus by faith when Paul was with them, they are now being told by some self-appointed traffic cops from the path of Legalism to get themselves back on the straight-and-narrow. These Officers of Legalism are demanding obedience to their list of religious rules.

In his letter Paul calls on a powerful word picture. He argues that Jesus came to make us children of God and co-heirs with Christ. We are, therefore, no longer slaves to be herded down the path of legalism constantly threatened with alienation, condemnation and damnation should we fail to march lock-step in accordance with the self-appointed traffic cops.

Paul argues that we are free to walk down a very different path as heirs of grace freely given, of forgiveness poured out in excess, of extravagant acceptance, and of unalterable love. Why, Paul asks, would you ever want to go back to Legalism Boulevard?

Along my journey I’ve observed that some people find the path of legalism to be easier than the path of love. Having walked that Legalism Boulevard for a block or two, a piece of me gets why people spend their entire lives on its pristine concrete between its high curbs. I found obedience to a set of well defined rules less painful than dying to myself. I found that condemning rule breakers was easier (and even felt self-righteously satisfying) than forgiving them as I have been forgiven. And, I found that following the straight-and-narrow of Legalism Boulevard was guaranteed not to twist, turn, or lead me to uncomfortable neighborhoods where people look different than me, act different than me, think differently than me, or speak differently than me. There’s a comfort in that.

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that Jesus said that the path of Life lies behind a narrow gate that’s not particularly well-marked. It’s narrow and not necessarily easy to make out because, like Frost’s poem, it’s less traveled than Legalism Boulevard. But those who ask directions will find their way there. Those who seek it out will find their way there. Those who knock on the narrow gate will find it open to them.

I’ve found it a messy and slippery path with some steep inclines and deep valleys. There have been lonely stretches where faith was required. There were some stretches I shared with companions that required humility, trust, forgiveness, teamwork, and grace to get through some of the terrain. I’ve also found myself in some foreign places that forced me to get past my fears. It hasn’t always been easy, but the further I travel on the path the more Life I’ve experienced.

I’ve never regretted leaving Legalism Boulevard. In fact, I’d encourage anyone who’s walking lock-step down that street to make their way down the alley. Ask about a narrow gate. Seek it out. You’ll be glad you did.

Just don’t let the Traffic Cops see you 😉

Jesus Goes “All In”; Seals Deal

Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!
Matthew 23:32 (NIV)

There are times when focusing on one chapter each day risks losing continuity of the story that is important for the sake of context. Today is one of those days.

When we left yesterday’s chapter, Jesus had been teaching in the public courts of the Temple in Jerusalem during His final, climactic week of earthly life. The leaders of the institutional Hebrew religion had sent waves of envoys to test Jesus with hot political and religious questions of their day. They wanted to get a sound byte they could use to discredit Jesus, who was a threat to their power and religious racket. Jesus deftly answered each question then went on the offensive and stumped them with a question of their own.

This is a high stakes game being played between Jesus and the religious leadership. They want Jesus dead and out of the way so that they can carry on with their lives of localized power and greedy luxury. Jesus knows this, and having successfully played the cards in His hand He now doubles down and goes all in.

Jesus turns to His listeners and begins to publicly criticize the leaders of religion, and many of them are standing there listening. He acknowledges their systemic authority and tells His followers to honor that authority while refusing to follow their example. Jesus then turns to face the religious leaders and goes off.

Today’s chapter records the most intense and scathing rant Jesus ever offered. It is angry, pointed and provocative. What is essential to understand is that Jesus’ harshest words and most scathing criticisms were aimed at the most conservative, upstanding, strict rule-following religious people.

Jesus repeatedly called them names: hypocrites, blind guides, snakes, brood of vipers, sons of hell. He condemned them for their hypocrisy, their judgmental ways, and the selective ways they used God’s rules to make themselves look good and justify their poor treatment of the marginalized. These religious power brokers had already said they wanted Jesus dead, now with every word and every public criticism Jesus is upping the ante and forcing them to see His call and go all in against Him.

Jesus knows it.

At the end of Jesus’ rant He reminds the religious leaders that it was their predecessors who had killed God’s prophets in earlier centuries. It was the High Priests and religious keepers of the Temple who had violently silenced the ancient prophets. Now Jesus ends His tirade by saying, “Go ahead, finish what they started.” 

Jesus was not a victim. Jesus was on a mission. He was pushing buttons. He was driving the action.

This morning I’m meditating on the Jesus who forgave the woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. I’m remembering that Jesus broke all social, cultural, racial and religious barriers of His day when He conversed with a Samaritan woman while she drew water from a well. I’m recalling that Jesus healed the son  of detested Roman officer and healed the child of a despised and “heathen” Gentile. It comes to mind this morning that Jesus hung out with “sinful” Tax Collectors and their worldly, sinful friends at loud parties where who-knows-what sinful things were going on.

I often encounter the misperception that Jesus is all about condemnation of sin and sinners. The record shows, however, that Jesus showed incredible mercy, tolerance and forgiveness to those we would terms sinners. Jesus reserved anger, judgment, and condemnation for “good” religious people who used religion to condemn sinners and make themselves look good.