Tag Archives: Culture

The Pain of Separation

I have forsaken my house,
    I have abandoned my heritage;
I have given the beloved of my heart
    into the hands of her enemies.
Jeremiah 12:7 (NRSVCE)

I’m assuming that for many living in the melting pot of America, the concept of a heritage and a people may not be as strong as it once was. My father moved our family away from his home when I was young and I grew up removed from the Dutch heritage in which he was raised. As an adult, I doubled-down and returned to my roots, moving to a town that is rabid about its Dutch heritage. I have an appreciation for what it means to embrace and celebrate the people and the culture that are your genetic roots.

In my Dutch heritage there is a word that you’ll still hear old-timers pull out once in a while: afscheiding, It means to “separate.” When an individual or group left the fold they became tagged “afscheiden.” I get the sense that in most circles it was once the Dutch version of a scarlet letter.

In the previous chapter we learned that Jeremiah had so incensed the people of his hometown with his prophecy that a price had been put on his head. There was a plot to kill him. How appropriate then, to read in today’s chapter, that the weeping prophet is feeling like an afscheiden. God has called Jeremiah to declare the destruction of his unrepentant people over and over and over again. Now his own people have turned against him. He feels separated, ostracized, and alienated. Jeremiah loves his people, his culture, and his heritage and yet his prophecy is all about Judah’s fall and destruction. There is a war raging inside him. Following God meant separation from his heritage.

Along this life journey I have walked alongside many people who have had to battle the deep internal struggle of parting ways with the faith and/or culture of their family and heritage. Every culture and heritage has it’s strengths and corollary struggles. A time comes when for the spiritual health of an individual or family there must come separation from a church, a family system, or a community. It is tremendously difficult for some to risk social and relational stigma and fallout. Jeremiah is feeling that. Following God feels like a betrayal of his family, people, and heritage.

This morning in the quiet I’m saying a “thank you” for all the great things that my family system, heritage, and culture have afforded me. I am also making a renewed commitment to follow wherever God calls me, wherever I’m supposed to be, even if I’m branded an afscheiden.

Cropped Hair and Holy Kisses

Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him….”
1 Corinthians 11:14 (NIV)

For the past few weeks I’ve been giving messages about traditions here in my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. By traditions I mean those social behaviors or events that a group of people adhere to that are tied metaphorically to a larger meaning. It might be a event or person to memorialize, a teaching or command to follow, or something that brings identity and belonging to a particular group.

For 2000 years those who follow Jesus have had many different rituals and traditions. Those who carry out these traditions can be quite dogmatic about the necessity or right-ness of their particular tradition. Conflicts and division among different groups of Christians have been quite common occurrences over time as one sincere group of Jesus’ followers says “Ours is the right and biblical way to hold this tradition” and another sincere group of Jesus’ followers says, “No! Our way of holding to and observing this tradition is the right and biblical way!”

Typically, groups will point to scripture for heir final authority. The truth is, traditions ebb and flow over time and culture. Take today’s chapter, for example. Paul clearly instructs that women should always have their head covered when they “pray or prophesy.” For the better part of 2000 years women have followed this tradition. A few weeks ago I referenced our local costume shop in a post, where you’ll find hundreds of ladies hats from the early-mid 20th century because women in town always wore hats to church. But, that tradition has changed in the past 60 years in our culture. The tradition no longer carries the meaning that it once did for us.

We pick and choose the traditions we wish to keep. Jesus never said to abandon all of the Jewish traditions and festivals, in fact His example was to observe them. Yet that fell out of fashion as the Church became more and more Roman and the Jewish people fell out of favor late in the first century.

Paul also says in today’s chapter that it’s a disgrace for a man to have long hair. This verse was harped on by the professors of a Bible college I attended one semester. The college had strict, dogmatic rules about how male students should cut their hair based on this particular verse. It was their tradition, and they strictly observed it.

Funny thing. Paul ends his letter to the believers of Corinth by instructing them to “greet one another with a holy kiss.” The school administration seemed to ignore this particular command and tradition. Not once did one of my professors pucker up when I walked into the classroom!

As much as we like to wax self-righteous on being obedient and scriptural, the truth is that followers of Jesus have spent 2000 years following an ever-changing set of traditions and rituals that have ebbed and flowed over time. We can deny this fact and cling to our pride and rightness, or we can humbly embrace that traditions may hold their meaning for a particular time and place only to be released and then, perhaps, rediscovered again. We can let these things divide us, or we can seek to respect and honor the metaphor and meaning others find in traditions and rituals that are foreign to us.  Perhaps God might use them to help me find meaning I’d not before considered.

This morning I find myself praying an ancient prayer (a traditional prayer, mind you) given to us by St. Francis: [I paraphrase], “Help me to be less about being understood and more about being understanding.”

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.