Tag Archives: Dr. Seuss

The Inclusive Exclusivity Problem

“…there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.”
Romans 3: 30 (NIV)

A few years ago on this chapter-a-day journey I wrote that the first century conflict between Jewish followers of Jesus and Gentile (non-Jewish) followers of Jesus was actually a foreshadowing of the great Dr. Seuss’ story The Sneetches:

Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches had bellies with stars.
The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars. 

But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches
Would brag, “We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the Beaches.”
With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they’d snort
“We’ll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort!” 

In the case of the Jewish and Gentile believers, it was circumcision and the Law of Moses (a.k.a. Leviticus) that became the metaphorical star on their bellies.

As a 21st century follower of Jesus journeying through this letter of Paul to the Romans, it is critical that I understand this underlying tension and conflict. It is the driver and motivation for Paul’s letter. For centuries the Hebrew people had leveraged their gracious appointment as “God’s people” into creating and maintaining a theology of exclusion. They were the star-bellied Sneetches maintaining their private section of the beach and no one without a star on their belly was allowed. The Jewish followers of Jesus had spent their entire lives inside a cultural tradition that was thousands of years old telling themselves that they were exclusive.

The Gentile believers, on the other hand, had spent their entire lives knowing that the Jewish people lived, by-and-large, in their private culture and excluded anyone who wasn’t one of them.

As the Jesus movement rapidly expands across the known world, attracting followers of both the Jewish and Gentile camps, you’ve suddenly got star-bellied Sneetches and the Sneetches with “no stars upon thars” thrust together and co-habitating a “no-man’s land” section of Spiritual Beach.

Paul in his letter, is addressing this divide by explaining to the Jewish believers that God’s Message all along has never really been a theology of “exclusion” but one of “inclusion.” He’s walking a theological tight-rope, hearing the voices of his fellow Jews arguing with him about the law (i.e. “So you’re saying the Law is nothing?“), and hearing the voices of the Gentiles making counter arguments on the other side (i.e. “Well if more sin means there’s more of God’s grace to forgive me, then why don’t I just sin more so that there will be more grace?!“), and through it all he’s trying to bring them all together by laying out an inclusive understanding of what God has been doing all along in the Great Story so as to realize the end of Dr. Seuss’ yarn:

[That] day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches
And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.
That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars
And whether they had one, or not, upon thars. 

This morning in the quiet I find myself admitting that we human beings have a penchant for systemically creating social  and personal exclusivity. We’ve been doing it since the beginning of time in our tribes, our religions, our country clubs, our street gangs, our political parties, our families, our races, our racial ghettos, our denominations, our social systems, our church groups, our middle/high school cliques, our small town and big city attitudes, and et cetera, and et cetera, and et cetera.

Jesus came to change all that.

And, we’ve messed that up, too.

Which means that this morning I have to confess and admit the ways I’ve gone all “star-bellied Sneetch” in my own ways (and there are multiple ways I have done so) along this life journey. Paul reminds me in today’s chapter: We’ve all (that would be inclusive) fallen short of God’s design and desire.

Maybe when I was younger I was ignorant and didn’t understand. I can’t claim that anymore. I am a mature adult. If I am going to follow Jesus. If I’m going to really follow the heart of Christ, then I have to stop shutting people out, pushing people away, and ignoring people who are uncomfortably and inconveniently different.

In that regard, the message of Paul to the Romans is every bit as relevant today as it was then.

Spiritually Slimed Over a Cup of Dark Roast

“But knowledge puffs up while love builds up.”
1 Corinthians 8:1b (NIV)

Many years ago I ran into a pastor in a coffee shop in Des Moines. He was a charismatic and persuasive teacher and had been on the staff of a large church in the area until he and a small faction of his followers led a coup against the senior pastor and elder board. The church broke asunder.

This young pastor led a small group to form their own church that was predicated on his own brand of arcane, intellectualism that split people into a spiritual version of Dr. Seuss’ Sneetches. If you agreed to his personal list of spiritual criteria then you were part of the small few who “get” the “truth.” In his eyes you then had an acceptable star on your heart and were among the chosen few. If you disagreed with him then you were pitied, ignorant, and his version of the spiritual star on your heart was woefully missing.

I make it my intention to love everyone and treat everyone with deference. So, when he recognized me and offered to sit down for a chat over coffee I invited him to join me. Over the next half hour I listened as my friend gave me the most subtle and insidious dressing down I’ve ever received in my life.

With a smile on his face and in the most gentle, patronizing tone my friend proceeded to inform me of all the ways I did not measure up to deserving his version of the Sneetches spiritual star. My education was woefully inadequate and poorly sourced. My belief system and theology did not include his requisite knowledge and acceptance of various teachings and “isms” that were necessary to elevate me to the minimum state of knowledge that he, and therefore God, clearly required.

I listened quietly as he waxed his own profundity over our cups of dark roast (at least the coffee was good). I said very little, as I’d quickly learned that any thing I said only earned me a new line of insult cloaked in arrogant, spiritual intellectualism. By the time we shook hands and he departed to his booth with his backpack of books, my soul felt coated in thick, sludgy, spiritual slime.

I thought about this experience as I read Paul’s words today. I have no idea where this gentleman is today. His own church seemed to fall apart over a short period of time and he seemed to fall off the map. For all of his own impressive knowledge, his brand of belief appeared to me not to be structured on foundation of love that builds others up, but rather on a foundation of knowledge that separated and diminished all but the few who followed him blindly and, therefore, he deemed acceptable.

This morning I’m  getting ready to train and coach some wonderful people on the principles of customer service, principles rooted in the teachings of Jesus (who understood and exemplified humility and servant-heartedness better than anyone). I have a lot of knowledge built on a quarter century of experience in my industry, but my knowledge is nothing if I use it simply to prove to my clients how much I know and how little they know. I will only be successful if I build on a foundation of love and use my knowledge as a tool for building them up to be better at serving others.

Of Sneetches and Circumcision

sneetches quote

So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Acts 11:2-3 (NSRV)

I love Dr. Seuss. I find the illustrations, the rhymes, and the created words even more entertaining as an adult than I did as a kid. As an adult, I also have an even greater appreciation for the lessons that Dr. Seuss taught us about human, though he did it through the most creative of fantastical creatures.

One of my favorites as both a kid and an adult is the story of The Sneetches. Some of the big yellow creatures had stars on their tummies, and some did not. What follows is a zany study of how we tend to discriminate through our prejudices and will go to great lengths to belong with the crowd.

The Sneetches came to mind this morning as I read about Peter’s return to Jerusalem from the house of Cornelius. The early followers of Jesus were an almost exclusively Jewish sect. And, like the star on a Sneetches tummy, the physical determination of whether you “belonged” to the Jewish faith as a man of that day was whether your penis was circumcised and the foreskin ritually removed. The practice went all the way back to Abraham and the Jews took great pride in having this physical evidence of their “belonging” to the Jewish faith.

So, when Peter returns from the house of Cornelius the non-Jew he is confronted by the Jewish followers of Jesus asking why he ate with the unclean, uncircumcised, lower class, dirty, rotten, don’t belong, non-Jewish Gentiles. The very question smacked of prejudice and socio-arrogance. I find it interesting that Dr. Luke saw fit to repeat Peter’s story in exacting detail rather than writing, “Peter told them what had happened.” A writer repeats things when they are important, and I believe Luke repeated the story he had just written because this was a big deal. The times they were a changin’. Think of telling southern Klu Klux Klan members a century ago that they had to start accepting African-Americans into their membership. This was going to shake things up in a big way.

But, God gave this experience to Peter who was the unquestioned spiritual leader of their faith and who had been placed into leadership by Jesus. This was a top down policy shift, and Luke records that the initial response of the believers in Jerusalem was acceptance. We know from other sources, however, that it wouldn’t be a peacefully and universally accepted paradigm shift.

In the end of Dr. Seuss’ tale of The Sneetches, the Sneetches with stars and the Sneetches without stars get so mixed up that it ceases to be relevant. It’s hard for us to relate to how radical it was for God to command Peter and the early Jewish followers to love non-Jewish Gentiles and accept them into the fold. People are people, however, and we have our own prejudices and forms of socio-arrogance.

Today is another good reminder for me to acknowledge my prejudices, and to let them go.

Don’t Worry, It’s on the List

Chapter-a-Day Psalm 56

You keep track of all my sorrows.
    You have collected all my tears in your bottle.
    You have recorded each one in your book.
Psalm 56:8 (NLT)

Lists. My life is full of lists. Wendy is the Queen of the Lists. Her royal highness manages the Vander Well realm via a series of lists. There is the white board calendar list which used to list our daughters schedules, but now lists our evening meals for the week. There is the kitchen grocery list that is updated any time you use the last of something in the kitchen. There is the Playhouse list of what needs to go to the lake. The other day I was asked to print the rehearsal list for the theatre. I have a work list, a honey-do list, and a list of people to call. I have a list of chapters we’ve covered on this chapter-a-day journey. There’s a list of DVDs we own, a “must see” movie list, and a list of movies in our queue. My computer holds mailing lists, show lists, and cast lists.

This post is beginning to feel like Dr. Seuss.

Big list. Little list. List, list, list.
How many lists must I insist
on managing all that life persists
to throw my way as I exist?

In the days when David wrote the lyric of today’s psalm, kings and rulers in authority were known to be keepers of lists and records. Because the written word was rare and reserved almost exclusively for rulers, it was a big deal for Kings to have anything that was written down read to them. Sometimes, if the king had a bout of insomnia for example, he would ask his servants to read from the records, chronicles and lists. In doing so, he would sometimes run across an item on the list on which he would act. There are at least two very clear references of God using circumstances like this to fulfill His purposes in the old stories:

In the story of Esther: “That night the king could not sleep; so he ordered the book of the chronicles, the record of his reign, to be brought in and read to him.” (the chapter-a-day entries for this chapter from 2009 and from 2012)

In the story of Josiah: “Then Shaphan the secretary informed [King Josiah], ‘Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.’ And Shaphan read from it in the presence of the king.” (the chapter-a-day entry for this chapter)

When David’s lyrics refer to his tears being stored up and his troubles recorded, the image he is creating is that of his lament being written on God’s royal record. It is chronicled and will not be forgotten by God who sits on the throne. God sees. God knows. It will not be forgotten. It’s written on the list.

We all go through periods of life when we feel alone. Our troubles seem so huge. Our prayers seem to hit the ceiling and bounce back. We wonder if God is listening. We question whether God even cares.

Today, I’m reminded that God says the number of my days is already accounted for in His records. My name is recorded in His book. Even the decreasing number of hairs on my head is on a list somewhere in heaven’s royal archive. Certainly, I am not abandoned despite the intensity of my feelings to the contrary. My troubles are not forgotten. My cares are known.

 

Chapter-a-Day Romans 8

The embalming process includes the use of spec...
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So don’t you see that we don’t owe this old do-it-yourself life one red cent. There’s nothing in it for us, nothing at all. The best thing to do is give it a decent burial and get on with your new life. God’s Spirit beckons. There are things to do and places to go.

This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike “What’s next, Papa?” God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. Romans 8:12-15 (MSG)

I often glance back over my shoulder to view the road behind me. Not to dwell, for there’s no value in dwelling on what can’t be undone. A quick glance, however, reminds me of lessons learned and short cuts gone awry that made for long, painful delays. I need the occasional perspective. It helps me gauge my current position, and often provides wisdom for choosing my next steps.

Today, as I read, I glanced back and remembered long stretches of time tending to things dead. It’s tragic how we try to breathe life into a rotting corpse; how we hoist a decomposing cadaver onto our back and carry it around with us. We can’t really go anywhere, because the weight and responsibility of a dead man around our neck. You can’t really travel with the dead man. He requires constant tending. It takes a lot of time and energy to hide the stench. And, sometimes you just have to keep him out of sight. So, pulling him in and out of the closet requires that you stick pretty close to the closet.

Tending the dead and the grave pretty much robs you of the opportunity to travel.

Lord, I’ll follow you. But first, let me bury…”

Follow me,” Jesus said,  “Let the dead bury their own dead.”

I glance back at a lesson learned in time. When I finally walk away from the corpse and the grave tending that goes with it, all sorts of new places and possibilities open up on the horizon. With the burden lifted and clean, crisp wind of fresh air filling my lungs, I become giddy with child-like anticipation. “What’s next, Papa?” I asked God.

“Walk with me,” He said with a smile and a wink as He pulled out a tattered, well-worn copy of a Dr. Seuss’ book from His coat. He reads as we walk away from the grave:

Kid, you’ll move mountains!
So…be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray
or Mordecai Ale Van Allen O’Shea,
you’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So…get on your way!

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