Tag Archives: God

God of the Foreign

God of the Foreign (CaD Matt 2) Wayfarer

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
Matthew 2:1 (NIV)

It seems a bit out of place to be sitting here in mid-January reading a text that is normally read exclusively in the month of December for Christmas. Along my journey, however, I’ve learned that it is good for me to read things outside of the “normal” contexts. Doing so allows me to see things with fresh eyes and new perspectives. Jesus spoke of those who had eyes but didn’t really see. My desire in this chapter-a-day journey is always that the eyes of my heart will be fully open to see what God wishes to reveal to me in the quiet. I have found that this sometimes requires me to shift focus, as they say in filmmaking.

Shifting focus away from the entrenched visuals and contexts of a commercialized Christmas this morning, I pulled back to examine “These Three Kings” from where I sit amidst the harsh realities of a deep Iowa winter (current temp feels like -3 degrees F). A few things I noted in my observations:

Nowhere in the text does it say there were only three visitors. It only says that there were three gifts. Also, nowhere in the text does it say they were kings. It does make clear that they represented a group that paid attention to astronomy and practiced a form of astrology.

I then considered that Matthew’s audience was primarily Hebrews, and he was writing to convince them that Jesus was the Messiah they’d been waiting for. Hebrews were keenly aware of two great events in the history of their people. The first was their deliverance out of slavery in Egypt. The second was their captivity and seventy-year exile in Babylon (which was in Persia, directly east of Israel).

When the “Who’s Who” of Hebrew nobility were taken into exile, the prophet Jeremiah wrote a letter to them. He told them:

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

It would seem, therefore, that at least some of them (e.g. Daniel, Mordecai, and Esther) obeyed. They lived and interacted with the community and culture. They shared their stories with their captors. They even shared prophetic words about stars and the coming messiah who would be “king of the Jews.” They shared prophetic words and conversations which existed outside of the text of the Great Story but were recorded and remembered among the heathen hosts of the exile.

In the quiet this morning, I am struck by the fact that Matthew chooses to record that those who were looking for the Messiah, those who came to seek Him, were not Hebrew priests and scholars but those considered foreigners, aliens, and enemies. Matthew makes clear that the infant Jesus was intimately connected to the exiles of Babylon through these mysterious visitors. He was connected to the exile in Egypt by fleeing Herod the Great’s infamous slaughter of the innocents.

What does this mean for me? Here’s what I’m pondering in the quiet:

  • God, the Creator, is constantly at work in places I don’t expect, and in people I would never recognize.
  • Jesus’ arrival began the fulfillment of the promise God made to Abraham back in Genesis: all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
  • I find it telling that the Hebrew scholars consulted by Herod showed no interest in pursuing the object of the Magi’s inquiry, but the despised “foreigners” went out of their way to seek Him.

I come full circle this morning, contrasting the icons of a commercialized Christmas and the text of the Great Story. Amid the bling and blather of tinsel and tales, I find there is one wearied Christmas phrase that rings true for me:

The wise still seek Him.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

#1: The Pros and Cons of Tradition

Note: I’m on a holiday hiatus through January 9, 2022. While I’m away, I thought it would be fun to reblog the top 15 chapter-a-day posts (according to number of views) from the past 15 years. Cheers!

Originally published July 27, 2015

Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.
Galatians 1:10 (NIV)

Wendy and I went to see Union Street Players’ production of Fiddler on the Roof yesterday afternoon. It has been a long time since I’ve seen the show. I was a bit surprised how the musical, about changing times within a small, Russian Jewish community in the early 20th century, resonated with me.

We live in a small community with very deep Christian convictions, and our “Traditions” are very much like those of Anatevka, the community portrayed in Fiddler. For many, our Christian traditions provide a deep sense order and temporal peace in a rapidly changing world. When our traditions are threatened by change, it usually meets with loud and passionate objections fueled by anxiety and fear. As with Anatevka, there has historically been strong societal pressure to conform to the community traditions.

Paul was dealing with a very similar situation when he wrote to Jesus’ followers in Galatia. Most of Jesus’ early followers came from Jewish traditions which were then being threatened by non-Jewsish (a.k.a. Gentile) believers. The changes this wrought within these fledgling communities of believers was immense and the passionate divisions it stirred was intense. Those from Jewish traditions saw their faith in Jesus as a mere extension of their Jewish traditions.  Those from Gentile traditions did not wish to adopt Jewish traditions to be followers of Jesus.

Paul, addressing these divisions, makes it clear that he has no interest in doing things simply to bow to human traditions and become a people pleaser. As Tevye and the residents of Anatevka discover in Fiddler on the Roof, the times, they are a-changing. Paul makes it clear that he will follow Jesus, even if it means abandoning many of his traditions and raising the ire of the society in which he was raised and from which he came.

Today, I’m thinking about my own traditions, the ones passed down to me by family and community. Some I honor and obey because I feel Jesus clearly commands His followers to do so. Some I honor and follow because I find them beneficial to me and to my life, relationships, and community. Some, I find silly and don’t care about whatsoever. Traditions are a good thing right up to the point they become more about keeping up appearances and pleasing the community than they do about sincere faith and personal spiritual benefit.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

#2: David’s Personal Relationship With God

Note: I’m on a holiday hiatus through January 9, 2022. While I’m away, I thought it would be fun to reblog the top 15 chapter-a-day posts (according to number of views) from the past 15 years. Cheers!

Originally published June 23, 2014

David and all the Israelites were celebrating with all their might before God, with songs and with harps, lyres, timbrels, cymbals and trumpets. 1 Chronicles 13:8 (NIV)

For the better part of this year, we’ve been journeying through the story of David and before that the psalms which are ancient song lyrics attributed largely to David. In a bit of synchronicity, the group of believers with whom Wendy and I worship on Sunday mornings are starting a series of messages on the life of David next week. It flows out of a five week series in which we’ve been looking at the “chain reaction of praise,” and I’ve been asked to give the lead off message of the series.

The connection between the two series is the fact that, no matter the circumstances, David was a man of praise and faith. David the hero, David the warrior, David the outlaw, David the sinner, David the King, David the victim — no matter which part of David’s life you study you find him seeking God, praising God, crying to God, and consulting God. You can almost always find a psalm that corresponds to a particular episode in David’s life. Throughout his long journey David was always translating his daily life experiences into songs, poems, and prayers of faith and praise.

I thought about that as I read this morning of David the King who was not embarrassed nor ashamed to worship and dance “with all his might” before God and the ark of the covenant. He was not concerned with what it might look like to others. He was not worried about looking cool, kingly, and above it all. He was not one to order others to do his praising for him. For David, his relationship with God was not just “a part of the job.” David’s relationship with God was personal from the time he was a boy until he was uttering his last words on his death bed.

Today, I’m thinking about my own life and David’s example. I don’t want my faith and praise to be a compartment of my life which I take out on Sunday morning and sundry, appropriate occasions. I don’t want my faith to fit neatly into others sense of propriety. I want my praise to be with “all my might” and my relationship to be intensely personal each and every day of my life.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

#14: The Prodigal’s Lesson for Parents

Top Chapter-a-Day Post #14 (CaD) Wayfarer

Note: I’m on a holiday hiatus through January 9, 2022. While I’m away, I thought it would be fun to reblog the top 15 chapter-a-day posts (according to number of views) from the past 15 years. Cheers!

Originally published August 25, 2014

So [the prodigal son] got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
Luke 15:20 (NIV)

The struggle of parental control and rebellious children is as old as humanity itself and common to even the best of families. The particulars vary as well as the severity, but the path of fierce (and often foolish) independence is well-trod by masses of young people escaping the tight grip of smothering (and often foolish) control.

It was while I was a young man working with youth that I first observed the fact that the prodigal’s father did not go after his son. He didn’t spend a fortune chasing after the boy. He didn’t hire private detectives in the distant country to apprise him of his wasteful son’s dealings and whereabouts. He didn’t go chasing after the kid, confronting him, recounting the boy’s many poor choices, and providing him with an itemized statement of all the pains and worry he’d caused. He didn’t seek out his son and demand that the boy return.

The father stayed home and let his son fail. He let his son squander the money and learn firsthand what it is to be in need. He let the boy make terrible, self-seeking friends and learn just how trustworthy those types of friends are. He let his son go hungry and stand in pig slop until even the livestock feed began to appeal to him.

Sometimes children need to run away. It’s part of their journeys and their stories. It teaches them priceless lessons that parents can never provide and their children will never hear. But that does not mean the father was uncaring or unconcerned. In Jesus’ story, the father sees his son coming from a distance. The father had been watching. The father had been waiting. The father’s eyes had, countless times, turned up the road from the homestead – each glance hoping to catch sight of his lost son coming home.

Jesus’ story was intended to illustrate Father God’s attitude towards foolish sinners who make tragic life mistakes. Foolish sinners like me. God has been so patient, gracious, and forgiving with me in my foolhardy trips (more than one) to distant countries to squander what I’d been given. It would be hypocritical of me not to afford my own children the grace that Father God has showered me, one of His many prodigal.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Knowing and Not Knowing

Knowing and Not Knowing (CaD Gen 46) Wayfarer

[God said to Israel] “I am God, the God of your father,” he said. “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back again. And Joseph’s own hand will close your eyes.”
Genesis 46:3-4 (NIV)

When I was a kid, many years before Top Gun was a thing, I wanted to be a Naval aviator. I’m not sure how this developed in me, though I’m pretty sure the television show Black Sheep Squadron and the movie Midway were somewhat involved. I wore a sailor cap all the time. I read my Uncle Bud’s Navy manual, and I corresponded with him about his experiences in the Navy during the Korean War. Those are letters I regretfully did not save.

At some point after what seemed like a long period of correspondence in those days, Uncle Bud said he wanted to have a talk with me. He wanted to give me a reality check regarding what life was really like for him in the Navy. He wanted to share with me the things I was not asking him about as I looked at his stories through rose-colored aviator goggles.

My desire to be a Naval aviator quickly died. I consider this a good thing in retrospect.

In today’s chapter, God speaks directly to Israel and assures the elderly patriarch that he should take his entire family and all that he has and go to his son in Egypt. God even foreshadows what will happen next. The clan is going to grow exponentially in Egypt. And God will bring Jacob back. There’s a double meaning in this. Yes, Jacob’s body will be returned and buried in the family tomb. God is also foreshadowing the next chapters in the Great Story when God will deliver and lead the “nation” of Israel’s descendants out of Egypt, through the wilderness, and to the Promised Land in the book Exodus.

What stood out to me, as one who knows the story well, is that God omits any mention of Israel’s descendants being enslaved in Egypt for hundreds of years as they become “a great nation there.” Looking at this as an isolated incident on a merely human level, this seems unjust and unfair. Yet, along my spiritual journey, I have personally learned and observed that struggles, trials, and difficulties are requisites for spiritual maturity in this life. This is not hidden. It’s stated directly in multiple places in multiple ways.

If I had forewarning of every difficulty I have personally faced on my life journey, I’m quite certain I would have opted out of most of them, just like I opted out of my childhood dream of being a Naval aviator. In hindsight, I see now that opting out would have been to my detriment in so many of my life’s struggles. Yes, I would have avoided painfully difficult circumstances, but I also would have avoided the wisdom and spiritual maturity that was forged in me through them. That, I realize from my current waypoint on life’s road, would have been eternally detrimental.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself looking back and being grateful for both stretches of difficulty on life’s road as well as times of deliverance and protection. They are equally important chapters in my story, just as they are in the Great Story. I find it an important reminder as the deliverance of Israel’s clan leads into hundreds of years of slavery between the final chapter of Genesis and the first chapter of Exodus.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

God in the “Hevel”

God in the "Hevel" (CaD Gen 45) Wayfarer

[Joseph said] “And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you…So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.”
Genesis 45:5, 8 (NIV)

Two weeks ago, among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers, I was tasked with giving the final message in a twelve-weeks series on the book of Ecclesiastes. One of the main themes of the ancient book of wisdom is that everything is “meaningless,” a word the author uses 33 times in the book. The Hebrew word the ancient Sage used was “hevel” (or “hebel“, it can be transliterated either way) for which there’s not really a good English equivalent. It’s like smoke or vapor that you can see with your eyes but can’t physically grasp or hold onto. It evades full comprehension or understanding.

In an earlier message in the series, I used my blog post on Ecclesiastes 9 as a springboard to try and help communicate what I think the Sage was trying to get at by describing life as smokey hevel:

One couple in our midst prayed for a baby and gets pregnant. Another couple prayed for a baby and remains childless. “What the hevel?”

We watch so many young people grow to adulthood while a family tragically loses a child at a young age. “What the hevel?”

One person in our community is miraculously cured while another suffers and dies when no miracle occurs. “What the Hevel?”

I provide you this flashback on Ecclesiastes because the story of Joseph could be Exhibit A in understanding hevel. I even used it as an illustration in my message. The fact that I was reading through the story at the same time I was tasked with the message felt like a divine appointment. Joseph, the favorite son did nothing more than share with his family a dream he had. He’s beaten, sold into slavery, wrongfully accused of rape, unjustly imprisoned, and unfairly forgotten. He had every reason to sit in prison groaning “What the hevel?! Why is this happening to me? Life isn’t fair. It’s all smoke and mirrors. Why me, God? What did I ever do to you to deserve this? Why!?”

We find out in today’s chapter, which is the climax of the story. Joseph, having been raised to a leadership position in Egypt, and having miraculously been given prophetic foreknowledge of a seven-year famine, reveals himself to his brothers. The same brothers who sold him into slavery now come and bow down to him, begging him for food. Joseph reveals himself to them. It all comes together, and Joseph sees God’s hand in the hevelish circumstances that brought him to this moment. As Paul might have described it: All things worked together for good.

Just yesterday morning, over coffee, Wendy and I recounted some painful moments and relationships we’ve experienced over the years. With each one, we were able to look back and see how God used those moments and difficult stretches of the journey both in our lives and the lives of others involved.

I ended my message two weeks ago with an observation. Just a few chapters further into the story, in the book of Exodus, God will lead the Hebrews out of Egypt and through the wilderness to the Promised Land. Each day, for 40 years, God will lead them by appearing in the form of a cloud. What is a cloud? It’s water vapor. It’s like smoke. You might say it’s hevel.

God is in the hevel.

My friends even gave me a coffee mug to remember the lesson. 😉

FWIW: Here’s a link to the message I referenced in today’s post. You can find it and an archive of other messages on my Messages page.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Blood and Covenant

Blood and Covenant (CaD Gen 9) Wayfarer

“Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you…”
Genesis 9:8-9 (NIV)

As my maternal grandparents entered the home stretch of their earthly journeys, they faced difficult financial circumstances that led to a difficult decision. My grandfather’s medical needs were draining their savings which was threatening the financial security of my grandmother, who would most certainly survive my grandfather, possibly for years to come. A social worker suggested that one solution would be for my grandparents to legally divorce so that their finances would be legally split, allowing my grandmother to retain their savings under her name while my grandfather’s needs would be provided for by the State.

I was quite a young man at the time, and I have a vivid memory of my grandmother asking me what she should do. I remember it because it was the first time that I’d considered both the legality, spirituality, and the tradition of marriage. That led me to realize, perhaps for the first time, that while the institutions of both church and state are involved in the process of a couple getting married, there is absolutely no detailed prescription for marriage in the Bible other than addressing it as a basic, assumed relational construct of human familial relationship and cultural systems. So far in our chapter-a-day journey of Genesis the husband and wife relationship has been assumed but no where has there been discussion of ceremony, process, or particulars other than a man and woman leaving their respective homes and becoming “one flesh.”

So, the relational agreement between husband and wife is assumed and its process is not specifically prescribed in the Great Story. What the Great Story does address is the agreement(s) between God and humanity. In the ancient times they were called “covenants.” Once again, since we’re in the beginning of the Great Story, we are going to keep running into firsts, and in today’s chapter we come across the first “covenant” between God and humanity since expulsion from the Garden. God initiates and makes the covenant never to destroy all earthly life by natural catastrophe.

Just before this covenant, God establishes the sacredness of human life, and it is metaphorically established in blood, or “lifeblood.” The ancients recognized that when blood poured out of a person, they died. They made connection between blood and life.

So in today’s chapter God establishes the sacredness of “life,” “blood,” and “covenant.” And just as I mentioned that the flood was an earthly foreshadowing of what would be the spiritual sacrament of baptism, today’s events are an earthly foreshadowing of the spiritual metaphor in the sacrament of Communion:

Then [Jesus] took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. Matthew 26:27-29 (NIV)

In the quiet this morning, I am once again awed by the connected themes of the Great Story from the very beginning. God is proactive, from the very beginning, in initiating a committed (a.k.a. covenant) relationship with humanity that will bring life in contrast to the death which came through disobedience and the breaking of relationship. And, God is still doing it as I remember each time I choose to step up and partake of the bread and cup as Jesus prescribed for his followers.

As for my grandparents, they chose not to take the social worker’s suggestion. My family helped to find other alternatives for them. That said, I told my grandmother that I did not believe a legal divorce on paper from the State of Iowa could ever nullify the spiritual bond of covenant and spiritual oneness or the chord of three strands woven between them and God. I believe that still. Matters of Spirit are deeper and more eternal than the reach of any human legal system on earth.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Me and Babel 2.0

Me and Babel 2.0 (CaD John 17) Wayfarer

My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.
John 17:15-16 (NIV)

Earlier this year Wendy and I were on the back patio with friends late into the evening. One of the things we like to do in the dark of night is keep our eyes peeled for meteors, satellites, constellations, plants, and other interesting objects in the night sky. On that night I spotted a satellite, which basically looks like a moving star, trekking slowly from west to east. Then there was another one right behind it. I’d never seen two of them so close and moving in the same trajectory. Then came another, and another, and another, and another.

Pulling up the internet on my phone to find out what we were looking at, we learned that evening about the satellite train. The brainchild of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, it is a long string or “train” of 60 satellites that follow one another in orbit. SpaceX plan to eventually have 12,000 of them in low orbit to provide internet service everywhere from space. Fascinating.

It’s an amazing time to be alive and to make this earthly life journey. In the course of my lifetime, the world has arguably changed more rapidly and drastically than in any other time in human civilization. Advancements in technology and science are beginning to outpace our ability to comprehend the effects of all that it possible.

Along with the “progress” has come a sharp decline in the number of people who adhere to traditional Christian belief systems or attend institutional Christian churches. One of the things that I read consistently about this trend is the criticism that believers and churches in America haven’t done enough to address social justice issues and the problems of our world.

Today’s chapter is traditionally known in theological circles as “the high priestly prayer.” John records Jesus praying just before He was betrayed by Judas and arrested. In the prayer Jesus acknowledges two important things. First, that His followers are “not of this world.” In my experience, Jesus is acknowledging that those who follow Him have expanded their world-view beyond this earthly life to God’s eternal Kingdom. After acknowledging this, Jesus consciously chooses that His followers not be removed from this world, but protected from the same prince of this world that will see Jesus crucified within twelve hours of this prayer.

To quote Hamlet, “ay, there’s the rub.”

In this world, not of it. How do I, as a follower of Jesus, hold that tension?

That’s what my soul and mind are chewing on in the quiet this morning. And here are a few of my thoughts…

I confess that critics of Christianity are not wrong. Followers of Jesus and the institutional churches of history have not done enough adhere to personally fulfill Jesus’ mission of crossing social boundaries, loving the outcast, and caring for the poor. Mea culpa.

At the same time, history has taught me that revolutions and reformations typically paint complex realities with broad-brush generalizations, and then throw babies out with the bathwater. Despite the moans and wails of how awful of a state the world is in, here are a few undisputable facts:

  • In 1966 (the year I was born), 50% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. In 2017, that’s dropped to 9% despite population growth.
  • When my parents were young, average life expectancy was between 30-40 years. In two generations it’s risen to 72, and still climbing.
  • In 1975, 58% of children with cancer survived. By 2010, it was 80%.
  • In 1980, 22% of one-year-olds received at least one vaccination. In 2018 the percentage was 88%.
  • In 1970, 28% of the world’s population was undernourished. In 2015 that number had dropped to 11%.
  • In 1900, roughly 40% of children died before the age of five. By 2016 the percentage was down to 4%.
  • In 1980, 58% of the world’s population had access to a protected water source. By 2015 the number was 88% and climbing.

It’s easy to cast a stone at the institutional church, its members, and cast stones regarding all that it hasn’t done. I also know many believers in my own circles of influence who, led by their faith in Jesus and dedication to His mission, have given their lives to contribute to the numbers I’ve just quoted.

Scott and Marcia have helped mobilize native efforts in Eswatani Africa to care for unwanted babies, lower the spread of HIV, increase access to clean water, and improve agricultural yields to feed the local population.

Tim and an entire host of individuals in our local gathering of Jesus followers have done a similar work in Haiti. Learning from the mistakes of the past, they are helping native Haitians create sustainable and healthy life and community systems.

My college suitemate, Tim, has dedicated most of his career to helping care for impoverished children and single mothers around the globe. He’s now leading a non-profit to address the 12% of the world’s population that still need a protected water source.

I have long believed that with the technological age I may just be witnessing humanity’s next great attempt at building a tower of Babel. Instead of bricks and mortar, we’re using processors, fiber optics, CRISPR, and satellite trains. The goal is the same: nothing is impossible, and we ascend to be our own god. I find it fascinating to observe what I perceive to be “Babel 2.0” is that we largely still speak the same language but our transmission and translation are increasingly confused. What one intends to say, what they say, and what the other hears and interprets to have been said are incongruent. Language is hijacked and redefined in a moment by part of the population. New words are created, defined, and trend within one part of the population while everyone else in the population failed to notice. They are therefore ignorant and confused when they are discussed.

So what does this mean for me today? I don’t run an institution, nor do I want to. I am a follower of Jesus and, as such, I have a world-view that sees beyond this world and incorporates God’s Kingdom into my earthly existence. I seek to accomplish His mission of “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth” and I take that responsibility seriously. This earthly journey is not about biding my time until death and eternity, but rather trying to bring a Kingdom perspective into my every day intentions, choices, work, actions, and relationships.

I am in this world, a world which remains the dominion of the prince of this world, which is why Jesus prayed for my protection on that fateful night. Jesus asks me to affect this world with love, service, and generosity that He exemplified. He told His followers to be “shrewd as a serpent and gentle as a dove.”

And so, I enter another day of the journey with those intentions.

Note:
Three messages have been added on the Messages page. Click here

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Contrasts

Contrasts (CaD John 4) Wayfarer

When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?”
John 4:7 (NIV)

One of the things I’ve observed in life is the way human beings see others and then begin to identify self in contrast to others. I see myself in contrast to what others seemingly have, or have not. I see myself in contrast to how others live, where they live, what they look like, how they dress, their social status, their education, their economic status, their popularity, their influence, their dress, and yes, even the color of their skin. If I’m not careful, I can begin to identify myself by what I’m not rather than what I am.

In my journey through John’s biography of Jesus, I’ve been resonating on the theme of identity, and in yesterday’s chapter and today’s chapter there is an interesting contrast between the individuals to whom John chooses to introduce us.

Nicodemus was rich and powerful. The Samaritan woman was not.

Nicodemus was educated. The Samaritan woman was not.

Nicodemus had social standing. The Samaritan woman was an outcast.

Nicodemus was known. The Samaritan woman remains anonymous.

Nicodemus was an influencer. The Samaritan woman was a nobody.

Nicodemus met Jesus at night. The Samaritan woman met Jesus at noon.

It was socially acceptable for Jesus to speak with Nicodemus, but it was socially unacceptable for Jesus to speak with a woman or a Samaritan.

Nicodemus was religiously upright. The Samaritan woman was a sinner.

Nicodemus didn’t get Jesus. The Samaritan woman did.

There is so much happening in the subtext and contrast of these two encounters that I think I could chew on it all day. If I was doing a character study in preparation to portray either of these individuals on stage, I would likely conclude that Nicodemus’ perception of himself was rather haughty given his place in position in contrast with others. It’s hard for me to believe that the poor woman in a patriarchal system, racially outcast, with five failed marriages on her resume would have a particularly positive self-image.

How does my self perception affect my spiritual perception?

I have to confess that my earthly standing is closer to that of Nicodemus. How does that affect my spiritual receptors, my image of self, and my grasp of the divine? At the same time, my life is riddled with failures. I’m regularly reminded that people think I’m an idiot. I’ve even been told by others more religious than me that I am, in fact, going to hell (complete with scriptural references to prove it). What does that do for my self-image and my spiritual perceptions?

In the quiet this morning, my head and my heart are contemplative as they churn on these questions. As I look back on my journey as a follower of Jesus, I recognize that it has been a process of learning who I truly am in relationship to who Jesus truly is. It has been a process of both knowing myself and knowing God, and the two are as mysteriously and intricately interwoven as the circle dance of Father, Son, and Spirit. I can also see that the further I’ve progressed in this journey, the more the contrast with others, which dominated my self-perception for so long, transforms into my growing perception of seeing Jesus in every other person.

The Contrast

The Contrast (CaD Mk 7) Wayfarer

“Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.”
Mark 7:18-19 (NIV)

When I was a young man, I spent a short period of time working in a county office building where I participated in the the legal investigation and documentation of real estate transactions. I did it for less than a year, but it was an eye opening experience. I observed and learned how government worked under the control of a political machine. I observed and learned how people use the letter of the law to circumvent the spirit of the law to achieve their own selfish ends. I learned and observed how people try to use real estate to con others, and once or twice I actually caught people doing it. It was a crash-course in “how the world works.”

In yesterday’s post/podcast I mentioned that it’s easy to get stuck looking at the text with a microscope while ignoring the bigger picture. I can lose the forest in the trees, as the old saying goes. In today’s chapter, what resonated most with me was, once again, not mired in the minutia of Jesus words, but the larger context of what is happening in the story.

Jesus ministry, at this point, has taken place in the rural backwaters of Judea. If I were to use the United States for context, I would say that Jesus has been spending all of his time and energy in fly-over country while avoiding both coasts. All of the miracles, crowds, and exorcisms have Jesus trending off the charts and the establishment powers-that-be have begun to notice. Since the beginning of time, power-brokers at the top of the political, commercial, and religious establishments have known to ceaselessly look for any threat to the stability of their power and the continuity of their cashflow.

I found Mark’s observation fascinating:

“Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it.”

The more they talk about it, the more of a potential threat Jesus becomes to the religious powers-that-be. In the beginning of today’s chapter, Mark notes that an entourage of political and religious leaders from Jerusalem come to see for themselves what the hub-bub is all about. They are big fish coming to the small pond of Galilee, but along the blue-collar shores of Galilee they are not in their own environment while Jesus is definitely in His.

The Jerusalem entourage are here to find ways to discredit this threat to their control on the religious institution and the lives of all who adhere to it. They quickly call Jesus out for not washing his hands before supper, which the establishment long ago elevated onto the checklist of religious rituals and behaviors they used to maintain their self-righteous judgement of who is naughty-or-nice, who is in-or-out.

Jesus response resonated with me because He calls them out on a point of legal order. Nowhere in the Ten Commandments or the laws of Moses was ritual hand washing a thing. The religious-types, over time, had created rules that were part of legal codes which codified and expanded the interpretation of the original spiritual principle. Jesus turns this into a very simple illustration that gets to the core of the difference between His teaching and that of the institutional human religious establishment.

The religious leaders made a spectacle of their ritual hand-washing before meals to show how pious and righteous they were. Jesus quickly points out that at the same time these same religious leaders had used the letter of the law to allow children to avoid the obligation of adult children to care for their elderly parents. They allowed people to bring “offerings” as a charitable donation to the religious establishment which would otherwise have been the money needed to pay for their parents needs. They then declare a form of bankruptcy as to escape their financial obligation to their elderly parents with the absolution of the religious institution who benefitted handsomely for it.

This is a version of what I observed and learned in the county office building when I was a young men. This is how the Kingdoms of this World work.

Jesus’ response was a simple word picture. Along with hand-washing, the power-brokers from Jerusalem also had many dietary restrictions which also fell into the category of religious rule-keeping. Jesus’ observation is so simple. Food, he says, goes in the mouth, through the stomach, and out the other end. Whether eaten with ritually cleansed hands or dirty hands, the food never passes through the heart.

From a spiritual perspective, the distinction is essential, Jesus says:

“It’s what comes out of a person that pollutes: obscenities, lusts, thefts, murders, adulteries, greed, depravity, deceptive dealings, carousing, mean looks, slander, arrogance, foolishness—all these are vomit from the heart. There is the source of your pollution.” Mark 7: 20-23 (MSG)

The entourage will return to Jerusalem. Their dossier on Jesus will speak of a popular teacher among the poor and simple masses who follow Him in throngs, hang on His every word, and are won-over by His miracles. He will be labeled an enemy of the institution. He threatens the stability of their power, their control over the masses, and ultimately the stream of cashflow from their religious racket. We are still a couple of years away from this religio-political machine condemning Jesus and conspiring to hang Him on a cross, but the pieces are already moving on the chess board.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself once again inspired by Jesus. The more I read the story, and read His teachings, the more I see the contrast between the heart-principles of the Kingdom of God and the religious rule keeping of the institutions of this world. I am compelled to continue following the former with all my heart while exposing the latter for what it is. In other words, I want to be more and more like Jesus while shunning the religious institutions and establishments who point to their moral codes and religious rules and say, “this is what Jesus meant.”

I believe that humans will perpetually turn eternal Truth into earthly rules and religious systems. C’est la vie. It’s part of the fabric of a fallen world in this Great Story.

Nevertheless, I get to choose every day which I follow.

“Hang on Jesus. I’m lacing up my shoes for another day. I’m right behind you. Where are we headed?”