Tag Archives: Culture

Hats, Fasting, and a Couple of Important Questions

“Ask all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted?”
Zechariah 7: 5 (NIV)

Yesterday I had the privilege of leading our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. I was kicking off a series of messages on Paul’s letter to the believers in Corinth. And so, I’ve been mired in studying the letter and the situation in Corinth around 55 A.D.  One of the themes that bubbles to the surface over and over again are instructions that Paul gave which are rooted in contemporary Corinthian culture. Other instructions are universal to human culture in all times.

I find myself asking, “What instructions were for the Corinthian believers at that time (that don’t fit our current realities)? What instructions may speak to me in 2018 (that the Corinthians couldn’t fathom almost 2000 years ago)? What instruction are ours (they apply to anyone, at any time, in any culture)?”

For example, one set of instructions is about covering your head. In first century Corinth there were layers of meaning in the cultural and religious aspects of whether you covered your head and when. Some of it came from Jewish law and tradition (which the Greek believers probably thought silly) and some of it was the practical differentiation of woman broadcasting in publicly that she was not one of Aphrodite’s temple priestess-prostitutes.

The truth of the matter is that until a generation or so ago, the tradition of women covering their heads in church and men removing their caps/hats was still a big thing culturally. The local Costume Shop has hundreds and hundreds of gorgeous women’s hats with cute little veils that locals have donated over the years (see featured photo). There was a time just a few decades ago when a woman would not go to church without a hat on. Today, in our culture, if a woman does so it’s simply a fashionable novelty.

Likewise, my dad and I have a good-natured, on-going feud when we’re gathered for family meals and it’s time to pray and eat. My dad gives me grief if I have a cap on. I have never been able to discern a good reason for having to remove my hat when the family is  informally ordering a pizza and watching the game. I joke with my dad that it’s actually more sanitary if I keep my cap on. He always wins the argument on his authority and my respect, but I’ve still never heard a good reason.

The bottom-line question is: “Why (or why not) are we doing this?”

That was the exact question God had for the prophet Zechariah. Zechariah and company inquired of the Lord whether they should continue to observe traditional months of fasting. God replied, “Why are you fasting?” God then goes on to point out that what Zac and the boys are not doing are things like being just, showing compassion to people who are different, looking out for the needs of orphans, widows, and the oppressed. The implied question God is asking as I read between the lines is this: “Why would I care if you self-righteously starve yourself in some public display of your religiosity when you’re missing the heart of what I desire from you — to love others as you love yourself?”

Good question, and a good question for those of us who claim to follow Jesus and have wrapped ourselves in religious traditions of all kinds over the years.

“What does God care about? What, therefore, should I really care about? What in my religious practices, rituals, and cultural rules do I make a higher priority than the things God truly cares about?

Building Silos

This is what the Lord commands for Zelophehad’s daughters: They may marry anyone they please as long as they marry within their father’s tribal clan.
Numbers 36:6 (NIV)

Almost every morning Wendy and I meet in our dining room for our requisite cups of coffee and tea. We read the newspaper together and start each day catching up on current events and solving the worlds problems. Over weeks and months and years we begin to see patterns that you can count on. For example, no matter what piece of legislation is presented by Congress here in America, all parties will get out their crystal balls and predict either blissful utopia or utter apocalypse depending on which side of the aisle they butter their womb-to-the-tomb pension and benefits package. The same clichés will be used like worn-out rags for the public while behind closed doors congressional staffers will be hammering out appeals and deals.

Along life’s journey I’ve observed that there are always unintended consequences to virtually any law. Laws may benefit the majority but will typically have unintended negative effect for others. Laws always get amended, altered and changed by additional legislation or by interpretations and clarifications from the judicial branch. It’s just the way the system works.

In today’s chapter we finish our journey through the ancient book of Numbers with a rather odd, anti-climactic story. A few chapters ago the unmarried daughters of a guy named Zelophehad approached Moses and argued that their father’s inheritance should pass to them, even though they were women. Women in near east cultures of that day could not own property and, in fact, were typically considered the property of their fathers or husbands. In a law that was incredibly progressive for the time, Moses agreed with the orphaned daughters and set up a new law granting unmarried daughters of a dead father the father’s inheritance. The inheritance would then pass to their husband if/when they eventually married.

Today we have an appeal to the original law. The ruling men in the tribe begin to ask themselves “What ifs.” It would not surprise me if multiple men from various tribes were lining up in an ancient version of The Bachelorette. Marrying Zelophehad’s daughters and getting your hands on Zelophehad’s inheritance would be a lucrative deal. “Mazel tov!”

The problem was that tribal inheritance in the promised land was to be set in stone and absolute. Land was not to pass back and forth from one tribe to another. The case of Zelophehad’s daughters created a problem. Their father’s land would go to their future husband. If they married outside the clan then their tribes land would be owned by another tribe. Moses quickly amends the original law stating that Zelophehad’s daughters must marry inside their own tribal clan.

Of course, when you follow the news long enough and acquaint yourself with human history you begin to see patterns. Today’s amendment will have its own unintended effect. When human tribes isolate and insulate themselves socially it creates “us versus them” mentalities. Eventually the tribes would turn against one another in a protracted civil war.

This morning I’m thinking about tribes and clans. In the business world we often speak of “Silos” in which departments and divisions of corporations operate within themselves and largely function in exclusion to the corporation as a whole. In the world of institutional Christianity we see this same paradigm in silos we call denominations. Across the U.S. I see silos in politics and in my own community I see silos culturally among groups with different ideas and interests. Silos we build with the best of intentions to shore up the identity and cohesion of certain groups become exclusionary protectorates that eventually contribute negatively to the whole.

The further I get in my life journey the more inclined I am to stop building silos and to start tearing them down.

 

 

Of Vows, Legal Code, and Secret Handshakes

Moses said to the heads of the tribes of Israel: “This is what the Lord commands: When a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.
Numbers 30:1-2 (NIV)

When I was a kid growing up on the northwest side of Des Moines, we had a populous and active neighborhood. There were a lot of kids on our block and along the surrounding streets. We regularly hung out and played together. Freeze-tag, Statue-tag, Ding-Dong Ditch ’em, and any number of games might be in the cards on any given summer evening as a bunch of kids gathered to play until the street lights came on along Madison Avenue.

As kids, when you made a promise to one another there were always ways that we pledged ourselves to our word. Secret handshakes were a staple. When you pledged yourself with a secret handshake the deal was sealed. It was golden, and you were under obligation.

In the files I keep here in my home office I have any number of legal documents binding me to my promises, vows, oaths, and pledges. There’s a mortgage binding me to pay back the money I borrowed from the bank to build my house. There’s the agreement my partner and I made to buy our company from the founder. There’s a marriage certificate binding me in a legal marital obligation to Wendy. All of them are official, legal, and filed with the civic authorities lest I break my obligation and open myself up to the consequences.

Back in the day when Moses and the Hebrew  tribes were wandering around the wilderness, human societies were in the “neighborhood kid” stage of history’s life cycle. There were no well established and precedented legal systems. Writing things down, signing them, and storing a record of an agreement for were out of the question. Writing utensils and the ability to record and store the agreements were thousands of years away from being a reality. Moses and the tribes had basically been stuck making secret handshakes.

Today’s chapter is among the first ancient attempts in human history to create a system of rules by which it was determined if a persons vow was binding or not, and who had authority to overrule a person’s vow or oath. Of course, anyone who’s ever seen a library of legal codes or the tax code knows that over time we humans have a way of creating a dizzying complex system of laws, amendments, precedents, and loopholes.

The Jews were just as human. The fairly basic, straightforward text of today’s chapter became a burdensome cultural and religious system in which oaths and vows were taken seriously based on the specific wording you used. If you vowed “by heaven” it might be more binding than if you vowed “by earth” although not was binding if you swore “by my head” except in certain circumstances, in which case it would have to be determined by section C, paragraph 2, sub-paragraph Q…. You get where I’m going with this, right?

Which is why Jesus quoted today’s chapter and said,

“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”

Say what you’ll do. Do what you say. Freedom in simplicity.

Today, I pledge myself to that simplicity.

Pinky swear.

Preparing for Leadership Change

Moses told the Israelites all that the Lord commanded him.
Numbers 29:40 (NIV)

For almost a quarter century my vocation has afforded me the opportunity to work with a number of businesses of all shapes and sizes around the globe. I’ve worked with small, family owned firms and giant global corporations. Finance, retail, telecommunications, insurance, manufacturing, and you name it. It continues to be a fascinating journey.

One of the observations I’ve made along my tenure is that every company’s culture flows out of the executive suite. Even in publicly traded companies and global conglomerates I observe that the leader’s personality, values, and priorities ripple through the organization. Positively or negatively, employees become acclimated to this corporate culture. It becomes the culture they know and are used to working within. When there is a change in leadership, there is always a wave of anxiety that courses through the company.

The transfer of leadership can be a tenuous and troubling period for any group of people. This is especially true with charismatic, larger-than-life leaders who build large organizations over a long period of time. Perhaps no one in the history of humanity fits that description better than Moses.

One of the realities that made me scratch my head when I first began reading God’s Message as a young person was the repetition. In the past few chapters of the book of Numbers we have a repetition of the description of prescribed feast days and festivals that God has given through Moses which were already described in the book of Leviticus. Why repeat it all over again?

As we near the end of Numbers Moses is nearing the end of his tenure as Patriarch and leader of the Hebrew tribes. He led their rescue from slavery in Egypt. He led them out of Egypt. He led them to Sinai where God prescribed through Moses the law, rituals, and traditions that gave their fledgling nation identity, organization, and order. He has been leading them through the wilderness to the land God had promised. He is old and a transfer of leadership is about to begin. Joshua will soon take the mantle of leadership. Believe me when I tell you that anxiety is rippling through the Hebrew nation. Even Moses, arguably the greatest leader in history, has got to be feeling it himself.

Are they ready? Is Joshua ready? How are they going to manage? Are they going to be okay? Will they succeed without me?

And what to good leaders do when they’re transferring leadership of the organization they’ve loved and served? They prepare the team for the transition.

And how do you prepare an organization for the leadership change? You remind them of the things that are important to remember.

While Numbers is right next to Leviticus in the Bible, it was written many years apart at completely different times and occasions. In today’s chapter, Moses is reminding Joshua and the nation of the things that are important for them to remember by repeating for them the outline of prescribed sacrifices, festivals, and feast days.

This morning I’m mulling over some transitions I’ve recently experienced and am experiencing in my own personal world. As a leader I want to be mindful of how my personality, values, and priorities affect the people under my leadership and the organizational culture that results. I want it to be positive. Likewise, I’m reminded this morning that good leaders prepare the people they serve, as best they can, for transitions of leadership. That includes reminding people of the important things they need to remember.

Swagger, Success & the Soul Effect

They conspired against [King Amaziah] in Jerusalem, and he fled to Lachish, but they sent men after him to Lachish and killed him there.
2 Kings 14:19 (NIV)

Football season has begun. Wendy and I listened to the wild Iowa State vs. Iowa game on our way home from the lake on Sunday. Last night we donned our Vikings regalia for the first time this year and enjoyed watching the purple people eaters win one over Saints before falling asleep to the Broncos and Chargers game.

As casual fans who don’t follow football closely during the off-season, Wendy and I spend the first couple of weeks of the fall trying to keep track of who went where to play with whom and which coach went where to coach for whom. It seems like every year is a large game of musical chairs. It was so odd last night for Wendy and me to see our long-time star, Adrian Peterson, wearing a Saints uniform.

One of the harsh realities of sports in our culture is that you’d better win or else. Coaches have very little tolerance for players who don’t perform, and teams have very little patience for coaches who don’t consistently bring home victories. If you read social media you’ll find that fans have zero patience for either coaches or players as soon as the losses begin to mount.

In this morning’s chapter King Amaziah of Judah, who seems to have been as full of himself as many prima donna athletes today, pressed for a military campaign against King Jehoash and his nation’s heated rivals to the north in Israel. King Jehoash returned Amaziah’s challenge with a message that sports culture today would call “talking smack.” Jehoash gives Amaziah the chance to back down, but Amaziah would have none of it. Game on. King Amaziah and Judah are humiliated in defeat. The wall of Jerusalem is breached and the treasures of Solomon’s Temple are stolen as plunder.

The very next thing we learn about Amaziah is that his own people conspired against him. When Amaziah skipped town (hoping to be a free agent, perhaps?) they went after him and “permanently terminated his contract.” We don’t like losers.

This morning I’m thinking about our culture’s obsession with success and with winning. I could have used business as a similar parallel. There are certainly institutional churches who have similar expectations of success from their pastors. Yet the path that Jesus prescribes for me, His follower, has a distinctly different trajectory to it:

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave.”

I understand that having a job in sports, business, or elsewhere in our success-obsessed culture means delivering wins and exceeding expectations. I wonder, however, what effect this corporately has on our souls over time. In the ceaseless pursuit of worldly success, it’s easy to forfeit, or simply lose, our spiritual center. Amaziah had didn’t have to taunt Israel. He didn’t have to pursue expanding his kingdom. He could have focused on contentedly serving his own people to become a king they would honor and respect.

Enough

Elisha replied to her, “How can I help you? Tell me, what do you have in your house?”

“Your servant has nothing there at all,” she said, “except a small jar of olive oil.”
2 Kings 4:2 (NIV)

Many years ago I was pushing into my spiritual journey and trying hard to understand my feelings of shame, the deep, abiding sense that I was worth-less to the core. I have shared before about my friend and counselor who asked me to label my shame. He wanted me to give my shame a name tag; A moniker of my shame that would allow me to pick up my Sharpie and write on the my name tag at church: “Hello, My Name Is…” and write my shame right on there.

Not Enough” was the label I gave to my shame.

As I’ve continued on in my spiritual journey I’ve come to have more than a few head-slapping, eureka moments as I mull over my “Not Enough” shame moniker. Of course I feel “not enough” because it’s what culture and marketing have whispered and screamed to me so regularly since I was a toddler that I don’t even recognize it anymore.

You’re not athletic enough. Eat your Wheaties.
You’re not manly enough. Smoke a Marlboro.
You’re not beautiful enough. Wear brand “X”.
You’re not good enough. Work 24/7/365.
You’re not rich enough. Climb that ladder at all costs.
You’re not suave enough. Act like James Bond.
You’re not good enough. Stop sinning.
You’re not Christian enough. Only listen, read, and consume things labeled and marketed as “Christian” and sold by an acceptable, orthodox supplier.

You get the picture.

In today’s chapter the ancient prophet Elisha is approached by a widow who is in a desperate situation. Her husband died and was indebted to another man in the town. In ancient days, if you couldn’t pay your debts the creditor took whatever collateral the borrower had. Because the widow was left with nothing of real value her two sons were going to be taken from her to become the creditor’s slaves.

When Elisha asks the woman, “What have you got?” she replies that all she has is a small jar of oil. Elisha tells her to get all the empty jars she can find and borrow and pour the oil from her small jar into all the empty jars. Miraculously, the woman keeps pouring and the oil keeps flowing until her house is packed full of jars of oil. She is can now sell the oil and pay off the debts. And, there’s enough left over to provide for her and her sons.

What does this remind me of?

Oh yeah. Jesus fed the crowds (more than once) with just a few fish sandwiches that Peter and the boys could scrounge off a little kid whose mother packed him a sack lunch. The woman and her oil jars is kind of like that. In fact, it’s just like that.

I love it on my chapter-a-day journey when I begin to see patterns, themes and dots to be connected across the Great Story. This endless jar of oil is just like Jesus’ endless baskets of filet o’ fish sandwiches.

So, what is the point? What’s God trying to tell me?

In each case, God took the little that they already had and provided all that was needed. In fact, in both cases there were leftovers. The point is that what they already had was enough for God to work with. God can take what I am and what I have and it is enough for Him to work with to be all that I need, all that He needs, when it’s needed.

I don’t believe this means God is giving me an excuse to be complacent and slothful. It doesn’t mean that I have carte blanche to be foolish and stagnant. God wants me to keep progressing, keep pressing on, and keep pushing further up and further in. It’s important, however, to think about what I’m pursuing.

I’ve found that shame always calls me back. I constantly find my heart slipping off on paths that mindlessly pursue unreachable destinations. The more money I make the more I realize that there’s always someone richer, and I’ll never stop chasing after “just a little bit more.” No matter how skinny, ripped and ruggedly handsome I can make myself with wardrobe, workouts and organic male beauty products, I will still look in the mirror and fail to see Daniel Craig.

This morning I’m reminded that when I stick to the path in pursuit of God and God’s wisdom I find that what I already have is enough. It’s enough even if God has to, once in a while, miraculously stretch my enough to cover what’s needed in the moment.

The Opposite Way

But [the Lord] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
2 Corinthians 12:9-10 (NIV)

I grew up on Volkswagens. My first car was my parents 1973 Super Beetle, and I still have a soft spot in my heart for the old “bugs.” One of the things that made Volkswagens popular back in the late 50’s and early 60’s was a marketing campaign that was completely contrary to the mainstream. American car companies boasted their huge boats, and counter-cultural Volkswagen made fun of how small their cars were. American car companies were all serious about greatness, and Volkswagen marketed humor and poked fun at itself instead. It worked.

There is a lesson in there for me. The further I get in my life journey the more deeply I understand how counter-cultural and contrary the path of Christ is from the ways of this temporal world. Jesus said that “broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” 

The path of this world leads to strength and power, but Jesus said God’s power is made perfect in my weakness.

The path of this world values wealth, but Jesus told a rich man he would only discover true wealth by selling and giving away everything he had.

The path of this world is all about health, fitness and longevity, but Jesus said I had to lose my life to truly find it.

The path of this world is all about self-help, self-acualization, and self-promotion, but Jesus said the path of Life is found when I love others more than my self.

The path of this world is all about the squirrel wheel of more and faster on our plethora of screens. The path of God leads me to less, rest, and human interaction.

In today’s chapter Paul is once again making one of these core distinctions in the context of his personal situation. The Corinthians, Paul argued, were being duped by slick, good looking, fast talking “super apostles” who were seemingly impressive with regard to all the world values. Against their impressive marketing campaign Paul submits his resume of humility, weakness, and struggle.

This morning I am thinking about the ways that I mindlessly follow culture (like a runaway train) and the ways Jesus calls me to swim against the current. I’m still learning.

Which reminds my of my Volkswagen Beetle. If I’m moving against the current (or a snow drift), it really was an easy push!