Tag Archives: Context

The Mystery of the Missing Word

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Selah
For God alone my soul waits in silence,

for my hope is in him.
Psalm 62:5 (NRSVCE)

For most of my life journey, I have spent the beginning of my day in quiet. It helps that I have been a morning person my entire life and am typically the first one awake in the house. It has allowed me to create a spiritual rhythm. Each morning it’s just me in my home office. The neighborhood is silent. The household is silent. I am silent.

You may not know it, but silence is endangered in our world. There are a niche of audio artists and recording specialists who endeavor to capture the simple, pure sounds of nature sans the noises of technology and human civilizations encroachment on it. They complain that their jobs and their passion are made increasingly difficult.

Noise is everywhere.

In my podcast series The Beginner’s Guide to the Great Story I used three words to guide one’s journey through various sections and genres of ancient text that make up the compilation we call the Bible. The three words are:

Metaphor
Context
Mystery

This morning’s chapter led me into mystery. Bear with me as I lead you through it. I typically read each day’s chapter in The St. John’s Bible, the only handwritten and illuminated copy of the entire Bible produced in the last 500 years or so. I love it. It’s beautiful. It is a transcription of the New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (NRSVCE…By the way, I explain why there are all these different versions in The Beginner’s Guide to the Great Story Part 2). I will usually then switch and read the chapter a second time in the translation I’ve been most accustomed to for the last thirty years which is the New International Version (NIV). Something was missing:

Selah

In the illuminated manuscript of the St. John’s Bible the word “Selah” was written in red ink along the right margin between verses four and five. In the NIV the word was missing altogether. It was left out.

The game’s afoot, Watson!

Selah is, in and of itself, a mysterious word. The Hebrew language is thousands of years old and it was largely lost to the world for a long time. The result is that there are some Hebrew words that the most knowledgable scholars of the Hebrew language can only shrug their shoulders. The meaning is mysteriously lost to antiquity.

The editors of the NRSV translation chose to leave the mystery in the text.

The editors of the NIV chose to eliminate the word for their readers rather than try to explain it or allow me to consider it.

What a shame. Because mystery is part of the on-going journey of the Great Story, and words are literally metaphors. These squiggly lines made by pixels on my screen are just that. They are lines, symbols that my brain instantly turns into phonetic sounds which make words which are layered with meaning. And, as I continually remind myself, mystery is that which I can endlessly understand (Thank you Fr. Rohr).

It is popularly speculated that the word Selah was some kind of musical rest or pause because it always appears in the middle of musical lyrics such as the Psalms or the poetic work of the prophet Habakkuk. While this is pure speculation and educated guess, what modern wayfarers journeying through the Great Story have done is to find a layer of meaning in the letters and sounds of the word Selah.

I read:

For God alone my soul waits in silence,
for my hope is in him.

But when I consider that the word Selah might very well mean to actually stop, pause, rest, wait a second, or as The Passion Translation chooses to say: “Pause in God’s Presence” then the verse takes on added meaning:

Selah (Pause in God’s Presence)
For God alone my soul waits in silence,
for my hope is in him.

In a world of endangered silence, with ceaseless noise of humanity encroaching on me 24/7/365, I find this morning that I need the mystery of Selah, even if the metaphor is purely a layer of meaning I have chosen to attach to it in the endless understanding of possibility.

My spirit needs the pause.

Waiting. Silent. I hear the still, small voice of Holy Spirit.

Love. Peace. Joy. Hope.

Selah.

Want to Read More?

Click on the image, or click here, to be taken to a simple, visual index of all the posts in this series from the book of Psalms.

There is also a list of recent chapter-a-day series indexed by book.

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

Positively “Horny” with Light

When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him.
Exodus 34:30 (NRSVCE)

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“Let there be light.”

That’s the first act of creation in the poetic description of the beginning of everything in the opening verses of Genesis. This simple beginning, however, is not so simple. In fact, it’s hard to contain its meaning. It is part of the mystery of God and the universe that both theology and science have endlessly been attempting to understand. I can’t explain it any better than the Encyclopedia Brittanica does:

No single answer to the question “What is light?” satisfies the many contexts in which light is experienced, explored, and exploited. The physicist is interested in the physical properties of light, the artist in an aesthetic appreciation of the visual world. Through the sense of sight, light is a primary tool for perceiving the world and communicating within it. Light from the Sun warms the Earth, drives global weather patterns, and initiates the life-sustaining process of photosynthesis. On the grandest scale, light’s interactions with matter have helped shape the structure of the universe. Indeed, light provides a window on the universe, from cosmological to atomic scales. Almost all of the information about the rest of the universe reaches Earth in the form of electromagnetic radiation. By interpreting that radiation, astronomers can glimpse the earliest epochs of the universe, measure the general expansion of the universe, and determine the chemical composition of stars and the interstellar medium. Just as the invention of the telescope dramatically broadened exploration of the universe, so too the invention of the microscope opened the intricate world of the cell. The analysis of the frequencies of light emitted and absorbed by atoms was a principal impetus for the development of quantum mechanics. Atomic and molecular spectroscopies continue to be primary tools for probing the structure of matter, providing ultrasensitive tests of atomic and molecular models and contributing to studies of fundamental photochemical reactions.

In the same way, light is fundamentally a part of the spiritually supernatural:

  • Light was the first order of creation on the first day of creation in the Genesis creation ( keep in mind the sun, stars, and moon weren’t created until the fourth day).
  • After healing a boy born blind, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.”
  • In the sermon on the mount, Jesus told his followers, “You are the light of the world.”
  • Jesus took his inner-circle (Peter, James, and John) up on a mountain (just like Moses in today’s chapter) and was “transfigured” before them (e.g. Matthew records the He shone like the sun while Luke describes it as bright as a flash of lightning). And Moses appeared with Him.
  • Angelic beings are consistently described throughout the Great Story as shining radiantly.
  • At the very end of the Great Story in Revelation (spoiler alert: the end is a new beginning) “There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light.”

In today’s chapter, Moses returns to the top of the mountain and spends another 40 days with God. When he returns, the text says that his face was so radiant that it freaked out the Hebrews (for the record, Peter, James, and John were equally freaked when Jesus revealed the light of His glory).

Here’s a bit of additional mystery for you. The Hebrew word used here is actually translated “horns.” That’s why many artistic depictions of Moses (the most famous is Michaelangelo) show him having horns on his head:

Moses

So, what’s up with that?! I talked in my podcast, A Beginners Guide to the Great Story Part 1 about the fact that when thinking about the ancient stories we have to consider the context of the times in which they were living. The mystery of Moses’ horns is a great example. There is an ancient Babylonian text that uses the Sumer word si which is also the word for “horn” to describe a solar eclipse in which the sun’s light appears like “horns” (think “rays of light”) shooting out from behind the darkened moon. It’s quite possible that the word “horns” was layered with meaning and the ancients understood what we call “rays” of light to be “horns of light.”

In the quiet this morning, I find my brain buzzing with all sorts of thoughts about light and how it is part of the mystery of both the spiritual and the scientific. Humanity has so often made the two into binary, either-or, opposites and enemies. The further I get in my journey, the more I am convinced that, in the end, we will understand that they are two parts of the same mystery. It’s a “both, and.”

As a follower of Jesus, I can’t help but go back to Jesus’ call for His followers to be “light” to the world”:

“Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.

“Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.”

-Jesus (Matt 5:13-16 [MSG])

What does that mean for me? Am I a light-bearer? Do these posts and podcasts shine? More importantly, do my daily words and interaction with family, friends, neighbors, strangers, community, enemies, acquaintances, and foreigners radiate with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control? Am I being generous with my life? Is my house open? Am I opening up to others?

It’s what I’m endeavoring to do increasingly today, each day of this earthly journey. I want the words of my mouth, the meditations of my heart, the work of my hands, and my interactions with everyone to be positively “horny” with Light.

Want to Read More?

Simply click on the image above or click here to be taken to a page with a simple photo index to all posts from this series on Exodus.

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

An Accomplice to Change

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When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt.
Exodus 21:2 (NRSVCE)

Slavery has always been a part of the human social equation though it has taken various forms in different periods of history. If you think that slavery is a thing of the past, then you need to get to know organizations like International Justice Mission, an amazing outfit that Wendy and I have supported financially for many years.

I find it ironic (or perhaps it’s God’s synchronicity) that I happen to be reading through Exodus and grappling with these texts at the same time that we are having a massive social conversation about America’s history with slavery and the continued repercussions of the race issues it created which continue to plague us. Wendy and I have been having on-going, daily conversations about our roles and responsibilities to make a positive difference. Over coffee this morning, Wendy shared that she’d heard someone mention being an “accomplice” to positive change, which we differentiated from being an “ally.” We want to more than just agree. We want to act, to be part of the solution; We want to be “accomplices” to change.

How do I, as a 21st century follower of Jesus, relate to today’s chapter? It’s an ancient Hebrew text that is basically a code of law dealing with specific instances of slavery around 3,500 years ago. How can this possibly relate to my life today?

I have a couple of thoughts.

First, it provides me with context. Slavery was not invented by Dutch traders kidnapping and sailing Africans to the America’s to be sold. As I mentioned in the outset of this post, slavery has always been a part of the human societal equation. What the European, American, Indian and Arab slave trade did with Africans was particularly heinous compared to the slavery we read about in today’s text.

Throughout the Near East in the time of the Exodus, life was particularly harsh and human existence was largely a fight for mere survival. The clan, the tribe, the community were essential for safety, protection, and provision. It’s hard for me as a “rugged individualist” in America to even relate to a world in which the tribe was more important than me as an individual, and a world in which human life was viewed as economic capital. Producing children, especially sons who could work, fight, and protect was among the most critical components to the survival of your family and community. The more men you had, the better your odds were of surviving against other tribes bent on killing you and taking everything you had (including your children to become slaves and your women to produce more men for their tribe).

Because humans were capital in the economy, debts could be paid and collected (within your own tribe or people group) by using your own life or the lives of your family members. You worked off your debt by becoming a slave to the person you owed money. Life (more particularly work and service) was a form of currency. Working for my creditor or giving a family member over to work for the creditor was part of the economy of that day.

Another important piece of context for me is that, through much of history, forms of slavery were legitimate forms of life-long protection and provision that some individuals chose into. In today’s chapter, the Hebrew code of law allowed for individuals who said, “I love my master,” and chose to remain in service. The individual chose to remain in service to his master and in return he received provision, protection, security, and sometimes kept his family together.

Please don’t read what I’m not writing. I’m not making excuses for, nor am I saying that slavery’s history makes it okay or acceptable. I’m simply saying that I believe I must understand and accept that slavery was part of daily Hebrew life and survival in 1500 B.C. It’s all that they knew.

The second lesson for me from today’s chapter is that God called His people to do better, and to do more. If you had a person in your service because they owed you a debt, you were expected to free that the person and forgive the debt in the seventh year no matter the size of the debt. The number here is significant. Seven in the Great Story always relates to completion as in seven days of creation, and the series of seven plagues prophesied in Revelation. This code went further than any other legal code we know about from that time. God expected His people to do better than those around them, to forgive debt, and to free people who owed you. This is the root of what Jesus brought to fruition when He called on me, as His follower, to look beyond the letter of God’s law. Murder isn’t just about killing a body, it’s also about murdering a person’s esteem and soul. Adultery isn’t just about sexual intercourse with someone who isn’t your spouse, it’s about letting your appetite for lust see another person as an object on which to indulge your sexual cravings.

Finally, I find that there’s a piece of what theologians call “free will” in all of this. God allowed for Hebrew society to operate like all the human societies who were living and surviving “East of Eden” during that time. What God instructed from His people was that they could do better than those around them. They were called to a higher standard. I can’t help but think of the Abolitionist movement in Britain and the United States that was motivated by Christ followers who refused to accept slavery as part of the human societal equation and instilled in their day that we have to do better. We have to change. In Jesus words, we have to do more than what’s expected and walk the extra-mile, love our enemy, bless those who curse us, pray for those who persecute us, and show by our love-motivated actions that there is a better Way.

In the quiet this morning, this takes me full-circle back to Wendy’s comments over coffee. As a follower of Jesus, I am called to be more than an ally for justice. I am to be an accomplice in showing others, by love in action, that we can do better in this community, this state, this country, and this world.

Want to Read More?

Simply click on the image above or click here to be taken to a page with a simple photo index to all posts from this series on Exodus.

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

God Revealing, Then and Now

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his officials, in order that I may show these signs of mine among them…”
Exodus 10:1 (NRSVCE)

Wendy and I have some connections to east Africa. We have, for years, supported a Compassion child in Kenya named Joyce. Taylor and Clayton spent time working in Uganda, and Clayton’s doctoral research has taken him repeatedly to Tanzania where we also support another Compassion child, Michael, who is slightly older than Milo and they share the same birthday.

Because of these connections, we tend to pay a little more attention to the situation there. In case you didn’t know it, they have been battling locust swarms this year. Massive locust swarms that I would tag as being of “biblical proportions.” A second wave of swarms hit the region just as they began fighting COVID.

In my recent series of podcasts, A Beginner’s Guide to the Great Story, I talk a lot about context. An adult can’t reason with a two-year-old by getting him or her to sit and listen to you read a psychology textbook that explains his or her need to modify behavior. In the same way, understanding ancient stories require me, a 21st-century reader, to think outside the box of my 21st-century thought and sensitivities. They require me to think about how God is meeting with and interacting with humanity in the context of the way they lived, thought, believed, and interpreted their world. Today’s chapter is a great example.

Locust swarms have been part of the ecosystem forever. They happen on occasion just like floods, droughts, hurricanes, tornados, and viral outbreaks. Our post-enlightenment, educated minds turn to science to understand these things, deal with them appropriately, and lessen the negative effects.

In Moses’ day, no one thought in such a way. In Moses day, natural phenomena were always considered to be a manifestation of the gods. If something bad happens, the gods must be angry. If something good happens, the gods must be pleased.

In today’s chapter, God tells Moses that the plagues had a purpose. The purpose was to reveal Himself and His power to Pharaoh and his officials. What is lost on a 21st-century reader is the fact that the types of plagues being visited upon the Egyptians had connections to various deities they worshiped across the pantheon of more than 1500 gods they worshiped. Because many, if not most, of the plagues were natural occurring phenomena, the Egyptians may have historically associated them with other deities. Now, the God of Moses turns them on-and-off at will, which is a direct challenge to Egypt’s religious system. Each time a plague is turned on or off by “stretching out” their hand and staff, it is a direct challenge to Pharaoh’s claim of being a god who rules by “my mighty hand.”

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking about God revealing Himself. The story of Moses is an early chapter in the Great Story. There has been no described system of worship. There is no Bible or sacred text. There is no institution or organization. God has simply revealed Himself to Abraham and his descendants in mysterious ways. The plagues we’ve been reading about are the first recorded time in the Great Story that God attempts to reveal Himself to another people group in contrast to their own gods. This is a major shift in the narrative, and this theme will continue.

Interestingly, Jesus also made it clear that His mission was one of revelation:

At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants;

“All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him”.

God has always been in the process of revealing Himself, and does so in multiple ways, including the very act of creation:

Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse.

Along my earthly journey, I have been ever-grateful to live in our current period of human history. Despite the doom and gloom peddled in the media, we live in a period of human history that is unprecedented with regard to low levels of extreme poverty, disease, starvation, war, violence, and high levels of education and safety across the globe compared with any other period of history. Humanity is in a very different chapter of the Great Story, and I believe God is revealed very differently in our world than in Moses’ day.

The basic dance remains the same. God revealing, inviting, drawing in. Me asking, seeking, knocking, humbly accepting, and receiving.

I’m glad it no longer requires a plague of locusts. In my quiet time this morning I’m praying for those who are actively trying to help the people of Africa to minimize the damage and for those who are suffering because of it.

Want to Read More?

Simply click on the image above or click here to be taken to a page with a simple photo index to all posts from this series on Exodus.

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

Of Tribe and Time

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.”
Exodus 1:8-10 (NRSVCE)

When it comes to a film, the first shot the director gives you is always an important one. In movie terms it’s called the “establishing shot” and most casual viewers don’t realize how important it is to provide you with the setting, the environment, and the emotion. In many cases, the establishing shot will foreshadow the entire theme of the movie with one quick visual. For those interested, here’s a quick look at some of the best of all time…

Likewise, great authors provide readers with a literary version of an establishing shot. The opening prologue or chapter lay out the scene for the reader.

In today’s chapter, the author of Exodus establishes the scene for the story and the journey on which I am about to embark. At the end of Genesis, Jacob (a.k.a. Israel) and his 70 descendants and their families, flocks, and herds had migrated and settled in the area of Egypt to escape a famine. His long-lost-son, Joseph was Pharaoh’s right-hand and had welcomed them and provided for them.

Exodus now picks up the story, and in the establishing shot, we find that Israel’s descendants have settled in Egypt and have been fruitful in multiple ways. His sons and grandsons are growing their families, having lots of babies, and each is becoming his own tribe. Between Genesis chapter 50 and Exodus chapter 1 we’ve gone from one Hebrew tribe to twelve growing tribes. The problem is, political winds have shifted.

In ancient cultures (we’re talking about 3500 years ago) the world was a harsh, violent, lawless and brutal place. It was tribal. You were born into a tribe, your tribe protected you, and life was about surviving against other tribes. Some tribes, like Egypt, had successfully become nations but every nation and every tribe was focused on protecting themselves against the threat of other tribes bent on conquest.

In Egypt, the new Pharaoh (that is, Egyptian ruler) and his administration take stock of the fact that Israel’s tribe has become tribes, and they have slowly proliferated within Egypt’s kingdom and territory. That is a threat. Remember, it’s a tribe vs. tribe world. Having that many people from a foreign tribe living in their kingdom was scary. It’s one thing to protect yourself from an attack from the outside. It’s another thing if a tribe living among you goes rogue. From a political perspective, Pharaoh had to address the threat. So, he moves to persecute the Hebrew people living among them and to limit their population growth.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself mulling over both the differences and similarities in our world. It’s that point of tension between two extremes. On one hand, the world has changed drastically in 3500 years and that’s the reason many 21st century readers struggle mightily with the brutality and violence of the ancient stories of the Great Story. If I want to understand the Great Story, I have to be willing to embrace that I will never fully understand ancient history yet embrace the understanding that it has value in the context of a larger eternal narrative.

On the other hand, I also find myself muttering that there is “nothing is new under the sun,” and the more things change the more they stay the same. In China, the government is persecuting people groups and religious groups within their population to try and stop their proliferation. They also have, over recent decades, infamously adopted birth control measures eerily similar to Pharaoh (e.g. allow the girls to live, but not the boys) in an effort to control the political and economic threat they feel from population growth. It also strikes me, as I mull things over, that the same tribalism at the root of the Egypt/Hebrew conflict presented in today’s chapter is at the root of everything from benign sports rivalries to toxic racial, social, nationalist, and religious prejudice. I also think of gangs, cartels, crime organizations, religious denominations, and political parties. Humans are still tribal in a myriad of ways.

When Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, told the story of the Good Samaritan, healed the child of a Roman Centurion, and sent His apostles to “ends of the earth” He was pushing His followers beyond their tribe. He prescribed a different type of conquest in which tribal boundaries are breached with love and proliferate generosity, understanding, forgiveness, repentance, and redemption. That’s the tribe with whom I ultimately wish to be associated.

Want to Read More?

Simply click on the image above or click here to be taken to a page with a simple photo index to all posts from this series on Exodus.

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

Open Spiritual Eyes

Every day he was teaching at the temple. But the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people were trying to kill him.
Luke 19:47 (NIV)

I’m am spending a couple of days this week working on-site with a client. I will meet with members of my client’s inside sales team and talk to them about the service they’re providing customers on the phone, which we have assessed. We’ll listen to calls together and I’ll share tips and strategies for improving the customer’s experience in those “moments of truth.”

Over the years I have learned, however, that there is something much broader that is always going on when I’m on-site with a client. The agents I train don’t work in a vacuum. There are all sorts of things going on around them, systemically, that affect their behavior and attitudes which spill out, often unintentionally, in their conversations with customers. Office environment, corporate policies, relationships with managers, and crazy-makers on the team can all have a significant impact on an individual agent’s thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors. If I don’t have my antennae up to understand the larger picture, I’m going to be ineffective at helping my client focus on what he or she needs to do.

When reading through a chapter, it is so easy to focus on the individual stories and lose sight of the larger context of what is happening. In today’s chapter, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem for His final, climactic week.

Politically, the hottest issue of that day was Rome’s occupation of Judea. There was constant tension between Rome and the Jewish leaders. The temple was more than just a religious center. It was the epicenter of power and finance in the area. The religious leaders of Jerusalem who held sway had a very lucrative racket going.

Jesus arrives in Jerusalem for the biggest religious festival of the year. The Passover attracted tens of thousands of pilgrims to Jerusalem and the temple. Jewish faithful were required to offer sacrifices and offerings while they were at the temple. Often those sacrifices and offerings were sold outside the temple, but the temple had its own currency. Pilgrims first had to exchange their currency before they could buy their sacrifices. The leaders were making money on both the exchange rate and the sacrifices and offerings they were selling.

As Jesus approaches Jerusalem, He tells a parable about servants who are given money by their employer to invest while he’s away. It’s a parable that Jesus has told before, but on the eve of His arrival in Jerusalem He changes it. In this telling, the employer leaves to be made King, much like the local monarch, Herod, would have traveled to Rome to be given authority for the area by the Roman Empire. The pending ruler’s people in Jesus revised telling do not want this person to be King. Nevertheless, he returns as King and pays back his followers based on how they’d invested what had been given.

Jesus immediately heads into Jerusalem on a donkey, fulfilling an ancient prophecy, as His followers proclaim Him as King. The religious leaders vehemently complain much like those in the parable who did not want the protagonist of the story to be King.

Upon His arrival, Jesus goes to the Temple and drives out the money changers and vendors selling sacrifices. Again, it relates directly to the parable Jesus just told. Those leaders of God’s people who had been entrusted with oversight of God’s people and God’s law. Rather than investing in love and generosity, the leaders perverted it for their own self-centered power and personal wealth while treating others with self-righteous contempt and condemnation.

Jesus was not the first “messianic upstart” the religious leaders had dealt with. They had a well-worn playbook of getting rid of anyone who threatened their power and wealth. Jesus was in their sites. Jesus knew it.

As He entered Jerusalem, Jesus offered a lament for the city and its religious leaders. They didn’t see, perceive, or understand what God was doing and saying through Jesus. Like the parable, they would suffer the consequences. Within a generation, the political resistance to Rome would boil over. Rome will surround the city and fulfill Jesus’ prophet words. The city and the Temple would be utterly destroyed.

On Sunday Wendy and I were traveling. We were talking about our “word” for the year, and conversing about where we find ourselves in our spiritual journeys and our life journeys. We don’t want to live in a vacuum, unaware of what God is doing in us, through us, and around us. We prayed together, seeking for those things to be revealed and not hidden.

This morning I’m praying for spiritual eyes that are open to see what’s happening systemically in my client’s office, to see the subtext of what’s going on in today’s chapter, to see the bigger picture of what God is doing in and around me and Wendy as we walk this journey together.

I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened…

Ephesians 1:18a
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It’s Colder than the Arctic. Oh, the Joy!

I am greatly encouraged; in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds.
2 Corinthians 7:4b

Note to subscribers: I had a technical glitch publishing this post this morning with some nasty HTML coding issues. My apologies. I trashed the original post and am reposting, so you may have gotten two emails. Sorry. Maybe it’s the cold 😉

I write this post from the depths of winter in Iowa. It’s -13 as I tap out these words, which is a bit warmer than it was yesterday. This morning I woke up to find our hot water heater isn’t working. Lovely.

Just a week or so ago I was sitting in O’Hare airport in Chicago chatting with a wonderfully gregarious transplant from New Zealand. He was complaining about the weather extremes he’s learned to live with here in the midwest of North America. It reminded me of an observation Garrison Keillor once made: Living in the midwest is like spending your summers in Death Valley and your winters in the Arctic. Indeed. Here’s the headline from the Des Moines Register on Tuesday:

 

Article Headline from Des Moines Register, January 29, 2019.

Along the journey we face all kinds of different challenges. While it’s human to grumble and complain, I often find it personally necessary to make myself put things in context. This morning’s chapter provided it for me.

In writing to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, Paul references “all our troubles.” Later in the letter he provides specifics. Let me jump ahead for the sake of today’s thought. Paul writes:

“I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received the forty lashes minus one.(Note: 39 lashes with a scourge was the ancient prescription to bring the punished to the point of death without letting them actually slip into the comfort of death). Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones (Note: Paul’s would be executioners actually believed they had successfully stoned him to death. His body was carried and dumped outside the city of Lystra and left for dead.), three times I was shipwrecked (Note: He doesn’t mention the venomous snake bite that should have killed him.), I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move (Note: Scholars say that Paul logged some 10,000 miles during his journeys. That’s roughly 21,120,000 steps without a FitBit) . I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.

As I said: Context can be a good antidote for self-centered misery. It’s cold this morning and my water heater is broken. I am, however, in a warm house, with warm clothes, and a warm wife. The water heater guy will be by in a few hours to deal with the hot water problem. Boo-hoo for me.

What I found even more fascinating as I read Paul’s words today was that while he endured torture, stoning, shipwrecks, snakebites, imprisonment and the rest, he states that his “joy knows no bounds.”

Along this journey Wendy and I have learned a lot about joy (though I will freely confess that I know far less than Paul). Joy always jumps off the page at me, because it is one of those words that holds a lot of meaning for Wendy and me. We’ve learned from our journey together that joy is something deeper than a momentary feeling such as happiness which flits in and out with the ever shifting winds of circumstance. Joy comes from a deep spring. It’s not a surface, run-off emotion. You have to drill through bedrock of suffering to experience the flow of joy. It is a spiritual by-product of the three things that remain when all else is stripped away: faith, hope, and love.

In the quiet (and a blessedly warm home office) I am thankful this morning for the flow of joy that Wendy and I have come to experience, independent of whatever momentary personal circumstances we may be experiencing.

By the way, temperatures here in picturesque Pella, Iowa are forecast to be 57 degrees (above zero) on Sunday.

Context.

Stay warm, my friend. Have a great day.

From Simple Ritual to Complex Regulation

So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.
1 Corinthians 11:27 (NIV)

On the night before His crucifixion, Jesus and His followers celebrated a ritual meal called the Passover. It is an annual remembrance of the events in the book of Exodus, in which God leads the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt. The ritual meal, also called a Seder, is full of metaphors and word pictures that remind participants of key events and spiritual lessons from the Exodus story. At the time of Jesus, the Passover was already an ancient ritual dating back over a thousand years.

On this night, Jesus creates a new ritual and metaphor for His followers. He simply took a loaf of unleavened bread, broke it, and passed it around for His followers to partake. “This is my body, broken for you,” he said. Then he took a cup of wine and passed it, saying, “This is my blood, shed for you.” Jesus then told His followers to share in this very simple ritual when they get together as a ritual remembrance of the sacrifice He was about to make. The fact that it was done after the Passover meal layers the metaphor with even more meaning. Just as God led the people out of slavery in Egypt, Jesus is establishing a “new covenant” in which He is going to lead humanity out of slavery to sin.

Over time, this relatively simple, ritual metaphor came to be known as Communion, the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist. As the organism of the early Jesus Movement became the Institution of the Roman church, the ritual became a much more complex religious act layered with all sorts of rules and regulations. It became the centerpiece of worship surrounded by other rituals for how it was done. Only a priest sanctioned by the church could administer it. Those who don’t belong to your particular group of believers were not welcome to participate. And so on, and so on.

As a young follower of Jesus, I was part of a relatively conservative group of believers. I can remember the verse, pasted above, from today’s chapter being used regularly among my particular tribe of believers as a word of warning to young people. It was a religious variation on the Santa Claus principle: “He’s checking his list to see if you’re naughty. You better be good or Santa won’t bring you any gifts.” When it came to communion, we were warned that we better have our hearts right and our lives free from sin or we were putting ourselves at risk of judgement.

As I’ve progressed in my spiritual journey, I’ve largely abandoned the institutional pomp, circumstance, warnings, and regulatory commands that the institutional church has laid on top of Jesus’ simple act. The warning that Paul gave in his letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth had a very specific context. Believers met and shared a meal together, and then they ended their evening by repeating Jesus’ ritual word picture. In Corinth, some followers were creating cliques, having private meals, and excluding other believers. Some followers were getting drunk on wine and were intoxicated by the time the ritual of the bread and wine was carried out. In both cases, the metaphor of the bread and wine was profaned; It was emptied of meaning by the actions of those believers who shamelessly behaved in a way that diminished the entire meaning of the ritual.

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that Jesus’ institution of the ritual of communion happened with no commands, rules, or regulations other than to repeat the word picture regularly when believers got together. Jesus didn’t make caveats about it only being administered by approved followers, being an exclusive ritual for only certain institutionally approved persons, or that those partaking had to approach with a certain level of holiness. In fact, the word picture itself is about Jesus sacrificing Himself because we can’t attain acceptable holiness on our own, so why would we suggest that purity and holiness are required to partake in the bread and cup? That profanes the meaning of the ritual as well.

Vocation and Ministry

Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living?
1 Corinthians 9:6 (NIV)

Work has been a little crazy for me in recent weeks. I’m in the midst of my 25th year with our company and completing my first year at the helm, leading the operation. Year-end means wrapping up current year business for clients, writing and managing proposals for the coming year, Board meetings, year-end financials, and all of the administrative work that comes with all of it. Beyond that there is the vision casting and strategic planning for where I hope to lead the company in the year(s) ahead.

When I was hired back in 1994 I left 6 years of working in full-time pastoral and para-church ministry. At the time, my mother was a bit disappointed in my vocational change. For several years she would occasionally ask “Are you ever going to go back into the ministry?” My response was always, “I never left ministry.” She would roll her eyes and say, “I know. But, you know what I mean.

What she meant was that “ministry” means working full-time for a church; That “real ministry” is a higher spiritual status reserved for those employed in an institutional church organization. I have found this to be a very common belief, especially in previous generations. I still, on occasion, have someone approach me after I teach on a Sunday morning and ask, “Why aren’t you in ministry?” Once again, I always respond with, “I am in ministry.” I always would like to add: “And, so are you!”

I love an appreciate the incredibly gifted and driven full-time staff members of our local church community. The operation couldn’t function without them, and because of them it functions remarkably well. Because of them, the operation accomplishes abundantly more than most of our community’s members even realize. I’m quite certain, however,  that even they would agree with me that “ministry” is not confined to those individuals on the organization’s payroll.

I find it a dangerous notion to place a label of “ministry” on those in full-time employment by a church or non-profit para-church ministry. The implication is that any believer who is not in one of those two vocational silos is not in ministry. This means that those of us not in full-time church or ministry employment are not in ministry (and comfortably off the hook from having to think about all that it might otherwise mean).

This is, however, contrary to the entire paradigm that God’s Message teaches. Every believer is a part of the body of Christ. Every believer is spiritually gifted by Holy Spirit regardless of age, gender, background, education, or training. Why? Because every believer is part of the ministry of the Body of Christ. We, all who believe, are His hands, feet, eyes, ears, and mouth. There are no exemptions or exceptions. I find this to be a radically different paradigm than what the institutional church has taught and exemplified for centuries. I believe it’s time to rediscover the fullness of meaning in the “priesthood of all believers.” We’re far overdue to rediscover the inherent ministry of every vocation.

I couldn’t help but read today’s chapter in context of yesterday’s chapter, in which Paul urged the Corinthian believers to surrender their right (to eat food sacrificed to idols) in order to lovingly honor fellow believers who think differently. In today’s chapter, Paul explains how he has done the very thing he’s urging them to do. He had a right to be married, to travel with a wife, to receive a full-time income for his preaching and service to the church just like all of the other apostles were doing. Paul, however, chose not to be married. Wherever he was living in the moment he chose to work at his family trade (making and repairing tents) to provide his own income. I can guarantee you that Paul leveraged his day-job of tent making and manual labor into opportunities to meet strangers, build relationships, have conversations, be an example, and extend the reach of his ministry. Tent making wasn’t separate from Paul’s ministry. It was a central and crucial part of it.

This morning I’m thankful for an amazing company I’ve had the privilege of serving for 25 years. I’m thankful for a host of relationships with colleagues, clients, and coworkers that I’d never have had were it not for my vocation. I’m grateful for the honor and privilege to lead and serve in both business and among my local community of Jesus’ followers. This morning in the quiet I find my spirit echoing Paul’s sentiment to the believers in Corinth:

What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel.

Context and Relationships

 I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord.
1 Corinthians 7:32 (NIV)

Wendy and I just returned from a trip to Minnesota. I was scheduled to make a client visit early this week, so we left early and enjoyed an evening in the Twin Cities along with a Minnesota Vikings’ game (more about that on a subsequent post). Since Wendy and I work together, we have the privilege of Wendy begin able to travel with me if and when she wants to do so. That being said, she doesn’t always choose do so.

Wendy and I enjoy one another’s company. If we didn’t, our lives would be a mess. Not only do we live together and work together, we home office together. We serve together. We are pretty much around one another 24/7/365. We’re actually pretty darn happy about the arrangement, though we totally understand that not all married couples could do it the way we do it.

I will also admit that when Wendy accompanies me on a business trip, it changes things for me. Instead of being able to manage my own schedule and focus on the client, I also have to think about Wendy. She’s been alone in the hotel all day. She’s probably getting hungry and we need to figure out what we’re going to eat together. What is Wendy likely to want to do with our time together this evening?

These aren’t bad things, it simply adds a layer of things I have to manage. The trip is more simple if Wendy’s not with me. Likewise, Wendy has come to embrace the fact that being alone at home for a couple of days affords her the opportunity to get a lot of tasks on her list accomplished. She’s freed up from worrying about me. The evenings that would be normally spent hanging out together is suddenly open to all sorts of individual possibilities.

In this morning’s chapter, Paul is writing to the believers of Jesus in Corinth with some relationship advice. Along my journey I’ve quite regularly encountered individuals who like to use pieces of this chapter to make all sorts of sweeping legalistic rules about relationships. Personally, I’ve come to believe that it’s important to keep two things in mind; Make that three, no four:

  1. The believers in Corinth were struggling with an acute circumstance in which an incestuous relationship between two believers was wreaking havoc inside their community (5:1). Sexual immorality (especially the socially acceptable practice in Greek and Roman society of having sex with local shrine prostitutes, both heterosexual and homosexual) was quite common.
  2. The tremendous number of adults, from diverse walks of life, becoming believers had created  a situation in which many felt that becoming a follower of Jesus meant that they had to immediately change all manner of things in their personal lives, including their marital status (7:24).
  3. Paul believed that the return of Jesus and the end of all things as they knew it was imminent (v. 29).
  4. The persecution that had broken out against Christians meant that lives, and therefore relationships, could change at a moment’s notice which had far-reaching social implications for individuals and the entire community in that day.

I believe that it’s critical to keep the context in mind when reading Paul’s advice to the believers in Corinth. There are also an entire host of real life circumstances, both personal and cultural, that lie outside the specific situations faced by the Corinthians believers. I don’t believe that Paul’s advice to the Corinthian believers is a “one size fits all” text for every person in every relational circumstance.

Please don’t read what I am not writing. There is tremendous, scriptural wisdom that Paul is providing that is applicable to all. For example, Paul recognizes the very thing that Wendy and I have discovered in our own relationship. When we’re alone and on our own for a few days we’re free from having to worry about the other and can be all sorts of productive. Paul recognizes his singleness was crucial to his ability to accomplish all that God called him to do, and he thinks others would benefit from being single (especially because he knew that the Corinthians believers could be rounded up and killed, and he believed that Jesus could return at any moment). Does this mean that Wendy and I should not be married? Not at all. Wendy and I are ultimately more productive, more balanced, and better together at accomplishing what God has called us to than we would be as individuals. Context is critical to the proper interpretation of what Paul is writing to Jesus’ followers in ancient Corinth.

In the quiet this morning I’m thankful for Wendy, my partner in life, work, leisure, and ministry. She makes me a better man, and her complimentary gifts and personality actually support, equip, and empower me. I’m also thankful for short periods of time that our work affords us to be alone and focus on what we individually need to accomplish. It works well for us, but I also recognize that not every single person or married couple are like us. Nor should they be. We’re each in our own unique circumstances, and God meets each of us in the context of our individual situations.