Tag Archives: Grace

“Damned Spots”

"Damned Spots" (CaD James 4) Wayfarer

Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.
James 4:8 (NIV)

There is a classic scene in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Lady Macbeth and her husband murder the King of Scotland who is spending the night in their home. Macbeth had received a prophetic word that he would be King. The King unexpectedly shows up for a visit on his travels through the region. The couple decide that it’s their place to make the prophecy come true. They murder the King.

In classic Shakespearean story-telling, the murder successfully launches a chain of events to put Macbeth on the throne. It also launches a chain of events that destroy the couple.

In the final act, Lady Macbeth is descending into madness. Her servant notes that Lady Macbeth often walks in her sleep and acts strangely. She and a physician watch together as Lady Macbeth, sleepwalking in the middle of the night, struggles to wash the blood of her victim off her hands…

Out, damned spot! out, I say!-
…who would have thought the old man
to have had so much blood in him.

What, will these hands ne’er be clean?

Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the
perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little
hand. Oh, oh, oh!

Wash your hands, put on your nightgown; look not so
pale.–I tell you yet again, Banquo’s buried; he
cannot come out on’s grave.

To bed, to bed! there’s knocking at the gate:
come, come, come, come, give me your hand. What’s
done cannot be undone.–To bed, to bed, to bed!


Macbeth Act 5 Scene 1

Almost anyone who has committed awful acts can attest to the fact that a guilty conscience can really do a number on you. I know this because I write from personal experience. Along my life journey, my hands have been stained with the consequences of my own willful transgressions. I remember the pit of despair, the sleepless nights, the heaviness of soul that reverberates with Lady Macbeth’s question: “What? Will these hands ne’er be clean?”

In today’s chapter, James begins by calling out those who have allowed unchecked passions, appetites, greed, and selfishness to lead to transgressions and the dark consequences of the soul that accompany them. James urges:

Come near to God, and he will come near to you.

Like the Prodigal Son, like Lady Macbeth, when I wallowed in the slop of my own making and wrung my hands in hopes of washing away the stains, it was futile exercise. It was only when the Prodigal returned home and “came near” to his Father that things began to change.

Wash your hands…

Notice that the washing of hands comes after the “coming near.” This is not a coincidence because it’s not me doing the washing. It was Jesus who washed my feet of the dirt of where I’ve been. It is the Living Water that springs up to wipe the stubbornly stained conscience clean.

In his letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, Paul addressed those among the local gathering who had once been immoral, adulterers, drunkards, and slanderers. “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

Purify your hearts

Purification from my sins not something I did. It was something Jesus did for me. Once again, like the Prodigal, all I did was to come near and confess.

And, as John wrote to the followers of Jesus: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

I found myself, like the woman caught in adultery. One moment I was lying in the naked shame of what I had done. The next moment I find that Jesus had not condemned me, but had washed me, purified me, and given me a clean start.

“Go,” He said, “and don’t go back to those dark, dirty places.”

This is what I found crucial to understanding the way of Jesus. The repentance, or turning away from sin, was not the result of being shamed, condemned, and/or threatened. It was the result of experiencing Jesus’ kindness as He washed my stains clean and purified my spotted soul when I didn’t deserve it.

Macbeth and his Lady, I’m afraid, did not experience this grace and forgiveness. Lady Macbeth dies, leaving her husband to cynically reflect on their lives, the futile mess they’d made of things, and the meaninglessness he finds of it all:

It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself grateful that in the deepest and darkest stretches of my journey, I was afforded the grace to “come near” to Christ and experience my “damned spots” washed clean.

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

Source, not Compensation

Source, not Compensation (CaD Mk 1) Wayfarer

And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Mark 1:11 (NIV)

Looking back on my life journey, it’s obvious to me that my early thirties were an important stretch of road. My late teens and early twenties were a period of being cocksure of myself. Entering marriage, fatherhood, and adulthood in my early twenties was, for me, a heavy dose of reality. The side-effects of that reality dosage led to a period of intense personal chaos which eventually led to intense introspection, and this eventually led to a more healthy sense of what psychologists would call my individuation. In the parlance of our times, as the Dude would say, I grew up. I became my own person.

As I trekked through that time of life, I began to inspect my family of origin with a critical eye. As with any human system, there were shortcomings which I had to honestly acknowledge, address, and forgive. But I also discovered strengths which had to be equally acknowledged, addressed, and appreciated.

It was during this time of life that I began to witness a common soul wound that effected a number of my male friends. They had never experienced a father’s love. Never had their ears heard the words “I love you” uttered by their dad. Never had they received a word of affirmation, encouragement, or paternal pride. “The old man” had simply been a stoic source of silence, or constant criticism, or unattainable expectations. The result was a seemingly adult male who was, in reality, the walking wounded endlessly striving to earn a blessing that was hopelessly beyond price.

It was this observation that gave me a much needed contrast in my own process of individuation. Every day of my childhood ended with a hug and kiss from my parents and an “I love you.” My father, as well as my mother, was present, loving, affectionate, proud, and trusting. So much so, in fact, that I was blind to it. I took it for granted. I had no idea how priceless of a gift it was.

With today’s chapter, my chapter-a-day journey embarks on Mark’s biography of Jesus. It is the shortest of the four Jesus Stories contained in the Great Story. It is believed to be the earliest to have been written. Mark, also known as John Mark, was a colleague and assistant to both Peter and Paul. Mark’s mother was one of the circle of women who followed and supported Jesus’ ministry. The early believers met in her home. It is believed that Mark’s biography is his compilation of the stories Peter told as they traveled and taught others in the first century.

It is also believed that a curious side note of Mark’s biography of Jesus was, well, autobiographical. It’s found in his description of Jesus’ arrest:

A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.

This somewhat comical detail stands out, in part, because Mark’s biography of Jesus is short on details compared to Matthew, John, and Luke. It is a condensed compilation of stories, especially in the early chapters. A dramatization of today’s chapter would contain eight different scenes. That’s a lot of material to chew on in one quiet time.

What resonated most with me this morning was the scene of Jesus’ baptism in which all members of the Trinity are present. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit mark the beginning of Jesus earthly ministry and the Father’s voice from heaven declares His love and pleasure with His Son, Jesus. What always stands out to me is that Jesus hasn’t done anything yet.

He hasn’t successfully faced temptation.
He hasn’t hasn’t preached his first sermon.
He has no disciples.
He hasn’t healed anyone.

Jesus has been ritually dunked by His cousin, John. That’s it.

“That’s m’boy,” says the Father. “Man, I love Him. Couldn’t be more proud. It’s such pleasure to be this kid’s Dad!”

Years ago I made this same point during a message I was giving among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. One listener accosted me after the service to take issue with this.

“He was thirty years old,” this person exclaimed. “He’d done stuff!”

This individuals insistence quickly made clear to just how wounded their soul was. They could not fathom parental love, pride, or pleasure that had not been demanded, earned, and merited. I have observed along my life journey that much of religious Christianity suffers from this wound. Churches talk about grace (literally, unmerited favor) while demanding that members faithfully earn the system’s social acceptability by carefully being obedient to the silent rules of dress, speech, relationships, and public behavior. In a meritocracy, love, pride and pleasure are a carrot dangled as motivation. They are to be dearly earned through strict obedience.

Not Jesus’ family system. Love, pride and pleasure are the source of the motivation. The divine love and relational intimacy of the mysterious One-is-Three and Three-is-One is what fueled Jesus’ ministry, His mission, His service, and His sacrifice.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself grateful to my father and mother for modeling love. It has mades it easier for me to understand this essential truth about Jesus’ message: Love is the source not the compensation. It is there. It’s right there. All I have to do is believe, receive, and make room. “We love because He first loved us.”

Perhaps the single-most important lesson of my life journey, thus far, was the realization that God’s eternal love, complete forgiveness, and total acceptance was not the result of my “doing stuff” or not “doing stuff.” It is a gift to be simply received. The realization of just how priceless that gift is has been the greatest motivation of my life and has led me to “do stuff” for forty years, like writing this post.

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

Holy Moment

Holy Moment (CaD Psalm 145.2) Wayfarer

[Note: I know I did Psalm 145 yesterday, but it became obvious to me this morning that I needed to spend some more time in it. So, consider this a blogging BOGO from me to you! :-)]

The eyes of all look to you,
    and you give them their food at the proper time.

Psalm 145:15 (NIV)

He was weeping over the phone. Across the miles, on the other end of the connection, I knew that this moment was qadosh, a holy moment. It was holy, not because of any kind of religious piety or righteous achievement, but because of the depth of its suffering.

Along my life journey I’ve observed that religion has done a number on our concept of holiness. The institutional church has, as it always does, warped holiness into some kind of religious merit badge, a litmus test of morality, a trophy for those religious over-achievers at the top of the Sunday School class. In doing so, religion profanes the fulness of holiness.

Holiness is woven into creation unbound by church membership or religious ritual. Holiness is an encounter with the divine in the human experience. Holiness is not limited to the transcendental, spiritual glory of Jesus’ transfiguration. The emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual agony of his unjust, illegal, blood-drenched execution was a holy moment, as well.

That’s how I recognized the holy moment as my friend wept from the darkness of his own personal pit. He was joining the ranks of many who have gone before him. He was the woman kneeling naked and ashamed in front of the Son of God as her adultery lay publicly exposed. He was the prodigal covered in pig shit and eating the slop of his own choices. He was the wanton woman knelt down before Jesus as his tears wash the feet of the One he fully expects to condemn him like everyone else is in his life seems to be doing. He was me, 20 years ago, as I wept alone in the darkness of a warehouse apartment crying out over the shattered pieces of my life.

I knew this was a holy moment because I had been there myself. This was a holy moment because every human and religious pretense had been stripped away. He was, in that moment, spiritually naked and empty. He had reached a point when he could no longer play the game. This was his breaking point before the One who redeems, recreates, and uses broken things; The Potter who takes the lump of collapsed clay spinning on His wheel and begins to make something new. Whether my friend recognized it, or not, this was the waypoint on his journey that is the inflection point when old things begin to recede in the rearview mirror, and he will find a light on the horizon leading him in a new direction.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 145, begins the last five songs in this 150 song anthology of ancient Hebrew song lyrics. The editors end their compilation with five songs of praise. Today’s is a beautiful description of God’s goodness and I could have picked out any number of verses to chew on, but it was the phrase “you give them their food at the proper time” that resonated deep in my soul.

Remember that God’s base language is metaphor, and metaphors are layered with meaning. Make no mistake, food is food, as in the miraculous Manna that God provided the Hebrew tribes on their wilderness wanderings and the loaves and fish Jesus turned into an all-you-can-eat, filet-o-fish-o-rama. It’s also that which is necessary for spiritual survival and sustenance, as Jesus reminded the Enemy after fasting for forty days: “You can’t just eat physical bread. You need the spiritual bread of the Word.”

From there the metaphor expands to even more layers of meaning:

“In the beginning was the Word…”

“I am the Bread of Life…”

“He took a loaf and broke it, saying, ‘This is my body, broken for you.'”

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

Along my spiritual journey, I’ve experienced God’s provision of “food” at the “proper time” on both the physical and spiritual level. I remember being married with two small children, my first mortgage, no job, and no idea what was going to happen next. There have been moments when clients unexpectedly pulled the plug on projects, and I wasn’t sure how we would pay the bills. Then there was that lonely night in the dark warehouse apartment when every religious facade I had mistaken for being an actual spiritual resource had been revealed to be impotent, and my soul was starving for a scrap of real spiritual nourishment.

I had religiously participated in the ritual of Communion countless times in my life, yet that moment was the first time I truly tasted the Bread of Life. It was a holy moment. It was qadosh.

In the quiet this morning, I’m praying for my friend who was on the other end of that call. He’s got a long, long road ahead of him. I did my best to assure him that if he relies on the Bread of Life to sustain him, and he doggedly presses on, one-day-at-a-time, towards that Light on the horizon, he will find himself in amazing places. He may find himself in a deep place, but grace is deeper still. He may despair in the moment at the waste he’d made of his life, but God may transform it into wisdom.

I’ve been there.

In the moment all he could see was the unholy ruins of his life.

Little did he know, it was the holy start of a new creation.

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
Revelation 21:5 (NIV)


As always, if you know anyone who might be encouraged with today’s post, please feel free to share.


Cancelled (Not)

Cancelled! [Not] (CaD Ps 130) Wayfarer

If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
    Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
    so that we can, with reverence, serve you.

Psalm 130:4 (NIV)

I’ll never forget the story of a woman I know who told me the story of being a teenager who made a foolish choice. Once it was discovered, she was brought before her church and publicly shamed for her mistake. They threatened her with expulsion and vowed to make her an outcast unless she repented. She told me this as an adult, but the spiritual and emotional scars of the experience were still very much present.

As a student of history, I can tell you that public shaming, scapegoating, and what today we call “cancelling” have been around as long as human civilization. It morphs into various forms, but it is a staple of fundamentalist systems no matter the flavor. When allowed to run amok, it leads to guilt by accusation, mob justice, and the kangaroo court of illogical and unreasonable group-think. It can be lethal, as the residents of Salem, Massachusetts found out when a group of silly girls leveraged the fundamentalist bent of their Puritan faith and began accusing people they didn’t like of being witches.

I find it fascinating to watch what is happening in our own current version of it. I observe that cancel culture has all the same quintessential ingredients that existed among the reviled Puritans of Salem. I have had more than one person tell me in the past year that if an enemy at their workplace chooses to go back and uncover the silly, foolish things they did and said in their youth and make them public, they’re screwed.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 130, is an ancient Hebrew song that expresses the emotions of one crying out from “the depths.” The metaphor of the original Hebrew lyrics are that of deep waters. The songwriter is drowning in a sea of their own mistakes and foolish choices. In experiencing God’s forgiveness, mercy, grace, and redemption, the songwriter is moved to gratefully serve God.

As I read through the teachings of Jesus, I don’t find religious shaming and cancel culture. In fact, the most pointed condemnation Jesus dished out were to orthodox religious fundamentalists who were carrying out their own brand of cancel culture. Jesus actions and words were gracious, forgiving, and redemptive. Paul, one who was drowning in his own deep waters on a trip to Damascus, told Jesus’ followers in Rome that its God’s kindness that leads to repentance not shaming, condemnation, and threats of cancellation. He also wrote to the believers in Corinth that it was Christ’s love that compelled him to risk life and limb to share that love with others. In my experience, condemnation, hatred, public shaming, and threats don’t compel anything worthwhile.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself recalling the “deep waters” of my own life journey. I find myself mindful of the many foolish thoughts, words and actions that dot my journey, and for which others would gladly cancel me. I find myself grateful for Jesus who, by His own words, claimed that he didn’t come to condemn the world, but to save it through love, servant-heartedness, self-sacrifice, forgiveness, grace and redemption.

As He has not condemned, shamed, nor cancelled me, I find myself compelled not to condemn, shame nor cancel anyone else.

The Person I Want to Be

The Person I Want to Be (CaD Ps 112) Wayfarer

Praise the LORD!
Blessed are those who fear the Lord,
    who find great delight in his commands.
Psalm 112:1 (NIV)

I happen to be in the middle of a rather large project for a client. Our company has been helping them design, develop, launch, and implement a Quality Assessment (QA) program for their company. You know, the ol’ “Your call may be monitored for training and coaching purposes“? That’s a big chunk of what I do.

So it was this weekend that I’ve been deep in the weeds producing some training to introduce the program to my client’s front-line team members. One of the things I stated in the training is that you always want to build a QA program with the goal in mind, and in this case, the goal is to actually achieve the client’s corporate Mission and Vision statement.

Many years ago, as my life was emerging from the ash heap I had made of it, I happened upon today’s chapter, Psalm 112. I remember reading the lyrics to this ancient Hebrew song and realizing that it described the person I want to become and to be on this earthly journey. I remember thinking that day, “When this journey’s over and my number is up, I would hope that when friends and loved ones gather to celebrate my homecoming they could read Psalm 112 and say, ‘THAT was Tom.'”

“Blessed…” (vs. 1)
I have been blessed in so many ways, and never want to lose sight of that or fail to acknowledge it and be grateful for the grace given to me that my life doesn’t merit.

Children mighty in the land…” (vs. 2)
I want to leave a legacy, not of earthly accomplishments, wealth, and fame, but children, grandchildren, and descendants whose life journeys walk the path of Psalm 112, as well.

Wealth and riches are in their houses…” (vs. 3)
I never thought of this as a monetary blessing, but a spiritual one. Jesus said, “Don’t seek treasure on earth where it can be stolen, decay, and where you will leave it behind for all eternity. Seek eternal spiritual treasure that can’t be stolen. It doesn’t rot, and it will profit you through all eternity.” As a follower of Jesus, that’s the goal. That said, It also reminds me that if I manage my blessings and resources with the wisdom and the principles found in the Great Story, I will likely be just fine from a financial perspective. I haven’t arrived, by the way. I’m still in process.

Even in darkness light dawns…” (vs. 4)
They have no fear of bad news. Their hearts are secure, trusting in the Lord…” (vs. 7)
Their hearts are secure. They will have no fear…” (vs. 8)
As an Enneagram Type Four, my core temperament always fights pessimism. Ironic, then, that God led me into a career in which my monthly and annual income is an ever-changing sum and has never been a sure-thing that secured by a corporation, a government, or a union (even though even that sense of security is ultimately an illusion). Recently I told our daughter that I perpetually assume that I’m one day away from living in a van down by the river. These words from Psalm 112 have become a spiritual bulwark against my pessimistic personality. It gives me an anchor in life’s “Chain Reaction of Praise” moments. I haven’t arrived, by the way. I’m still in process.

“…for those who are gracious, compassionate, righteous.” (vs. 4)
Good will come to those who are generous and lend freely,
who conduct their affairs with justice
…” (vs. 5)
They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor…” (vs. 9)
Much of my life journey has been marked by a scarcity mentality. Along the way, I have come to realize that this has come from the perfect storm of my Type 4 personality, the realities of growing up as the youngest sibling, and growing up in a home in which my needs were always met, but there was never had a lot of financial margin. Psalm 112 and it’s repeated call to grace, compassion, generosity, and justice has been instrumental in helping me grow out of my scarcity thought-patterns and into the loving generosity that Jesus asks of me. I haven’t arrived, by the way. I’m still in process.

“…their righteousness endures forever.” (vs. 3)
Surely the righteous will never be shaken;
they will be remembered forever.
..” (vs. 6)
“…their righteousness endures forever;
their horn will be lifted high in honor.
” (vs. 9)
As I grew up, there was a period of time in which the women from my mother’s family would gather together. They would feast, laugh, share memories, and honor my great-grandmother, Grandma Daisy. Grandma Daisy Day made an impression on me as a kid. It revealed to me the legacy and impression that my maternal clan’s matriarch made on her descendants through her faith, love, grace, and generosity. She died pretty much penniless after a life dotted with tragedy and struggle. Her eternal bank account was full, and the legacy she left on her descendants was priceless. That’s the kind of legacy I’d like to leave behind, as well.

In the quiet this morning, I am celebrating the impression Psalm 112 has had on my life journey. It’s memorized, and etched in my soul. I have the song title inked on my right bicep, where it reminds me that my strength lies in becoming the person Psalm 112 describes.

It’s good reminder on this “reset” day that Monday is on a weekly basis and I’m heading back into life’s fray.

Have a great week, my friend!

A Psalm 51 Moment

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Psalm 51:17 (NRSVCE)

For anyone who does not know the story behind David’s song, known to us as Psalm 51, it is critical in order to have a complete understanding of the lyrics.

First of all, David had been the “good guy” his entire life journey. As a boy God declared him “a man after my own heart” and God chose David, through the prophet Samuel, to be God’s anointed king. David killed Goliath. David refused to raise his hand against King Saul and wait for God to fulfill the promise to give him the throne. David did everything right. David was devout. David was faithful. David was sincere. David was God’s man through-and-through.

Until he wasn’t.

The Reader’s Digest version is this: From the roof of his palace he creeped out on a beautiful young woman taking a bath on a nearby rooftop. David used his power to find out who she was. She was the wife of one of David’s soldiers, but the army was out on a military campaign and David knew it. David used his influence as King to invite her over. They had a one night stand. She ended up pregnant, and now a “no harm no foul” fling became a potentially Monica Lewinsky level political scandal.

The first step in the cover-up was to create the illusion of normal. David uses his commander-and-chief authority to give the woman’s husband, a soldier named Uriah, a special leave to come home and take a break from the action. It turns out, however, that Uriah was a “good guy” and a “man of integrity” like David had always been. Perhaps David had been his role model. Uriah, thinking of all his buddies on the front-line who didn’t get to come home and sleep with their wives, refuses to even go into his house.

Ironically, Uriah’s integrity leads to David’s further descent into depravity. To avoid his moral failure from coming to light and the scandal it would create, David sends Uriah back to the front with a sealed message to his general in the field. The message orders his general to place Uriah into the thick of the battle, order his fellow soldiers to abandon him, and ensure Uriah has an “honorable” death.

Uriah is buried with military honors. David makes a big deal out of caring for the widow of one of his soldiers by agreeing to marry and take care of her. Scandal averted and David is given the opportunity to improve his polling numbers and maintain his “good guy” image. David gets away it. No one is the wiser.

Except God.

God sends a prophet named Nathan to visit the King who regales David with the story of a wealthy land baron and sheep farmer who stole the only lamb of the poor tenant farmer next-door. David, angered, assures Nathan that the evil land baron will be forced to pay the victim back with four lambs for the one that was stolen.

Then Nathan informs David that the whole story was a metaphor and that he is the land baron in the story. He had a palace full of wives and thought he could steal poor Uriah’s wife and cover the whole thing up. David is devastated and has to own up to what he has done. He pours out his guilt and plea for forgiveness into a song.

If you’ve never read Psalm 51 in the context of this story, I encourage you to take the minute or two required to read the lyrics of the song in their entirety right now while the story is fresh in your head.

One of the interesting things about this chapter-a-day journey is the experience of coming upon chapters that I know really well, and have read countless times in the past 40 years. Do they have any fresh layers of meaning for me at this particular waypoint of life’s journey?

As I read this morning I kept hearkening back to one of David’s psalms from a couple of weeks ago. I went back to Psalm 26 in the quiet this morning and read it again:

Vindicate me, O Lord,
    for I have walked in my integrity,
    and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering.
Prove me, O Lord, and try me;
    test my heart and mind.
For your steadfast love is before my eyes,
    and I walk in faithfulness to you.

Wow. What a contrast.

I know Psalm 51 really well. It’s tatted on my left bicep as a reminder. I have a chapter of my own story that is a rough parallel of David’s. I was the “good guy” who everyone knew was a Jesus freak, a moral puritan, and who walked the straight-and-narrow. I’m sure I was even guilty of waxing self-righteously in my own way like David did in Psalm 26. Then I found myself in a place I swore I’d never be found. I had my own Psalm 51 moment.

Along this spiritual journey, I’ve come to understand that I never really understood and experienced grace, forgiveness, and mercy until I hit rock-bottom and the veneer of self-righteousness was peeled away like the striking of a stage set. Like David, it came much further along in my journey, but I can now look back realize how important, make that essential, my own mistakes were in teaching me humility, empathy, mercy, and grace.

I enter another work week this morning soberly reminded of my own need of grace, as well as my need to extend it to others having their own Psalm 51 moments.

Of Rules and Appetites

Of Rules and Appetites (CaD Ps 24) Wayfarer

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
    And who shall stand in his holy place?
Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
    who do not lift up their souls to what is false…

Psalm 24:3-4b (NRSVCE)

The further I get in my life journey, the more I’ve come to understand that the black-and-white behavioral rules of the most strictly religious groups are really about social control in which an institution or group exercise authority over another. The goal and benefit is a sense of order, collective security, and control. Within this type of system, the individual’s role is simple and strict obedience to the group’s behavioral rules (those written, and those insidiously unwritten but understood) under the threat of public shaming and being socially ostracized from the group. This type of system exists as religious fundamentalist sects and denominations, fraternal organizations, gangs, cults, secret societies, and the systemic equivalent can even exist in businesses, corporations, sports teams, and community organizations.

Systems like this have existed throughout history and continue to this day. It is this type of system with which Jesus conflicted in the Temple when he overturned the moneychangers’ tables and railed against the Temple’s religious cabal. It was this conflict that led them to treat Jesus as a threat who was to be ostracized and executed. It is the same system out of which Paul transitioned to becoming a follower of Jesus. Paul also was considered a threat they needed to ostracize and execute.

Please don’t read what I’m not writing. Don’t hear what I’m not saying. It doesn’t really matter which system we’re talking about. They all operate the same way and follow the same basic systemic rules.

The problem with this type of system is that it chains the individual to the group rather than freeing the individual from self. Behavior modification is not about spiritual health but of social order. The individual tries to control behaviors rather than be spiritually transformed. Paul recognized that all the behavioral rules of the system only created more rulebreakers sneaking around in the dark breaking the rules and trying not to get caught.

Scholars believe that today’s psalm was a song David wrote to be sung as the people entered God’s Temple in Jerusalem. If you read it and imagine the Hebrews carrying the Ark of the Covenant (cue: Raiders of the Ark Theme) into the Temple as they sing this song you get the gist. It starts by asking the question: “Who can ascend the hill of the Lord?” (That refers to Zion, on which the Temple was built) and then “Who can stand in his holy place?” (That would refer to the “Holy Place” within the Temple as designed and prescribed through Moses).

The lyric of the song then describes who may do these things. The description is that of a good person, but here’s where translation from the original language (Hebrew) to English can make a huge difference. In verse 4 the English phrase “do not lift up their souls” has an original Hebrew physiological imagery that references the throat. Some scholars argue that the word picture here is more like “nursing an appetite” and the Hebrew word translated “false” is rooted in the idea of “empty” or “vain.” So it’s really about those who don’t nurse their appetites for things that are empty.

In the quiet this morning, that’s what really struck me. What I’ve learned along my journey is that all the religious and systemic rule keeping does not address the real issues of Spirit that lead to transformation. Keeping the rules so as to appease my church leaders, parents, college, pastors, teachers, and peer group in the attempt to avoid being shamed and ostracized did not transform my soul.

What really led to transformation for me was when I realized that all my human appetites were good and created within in me by God. Paul realized it too when he said “Nothing is unlawful for me. It’s just that some things aren’t beneficial.” My appetite for food, for drink, for pleasure, for rest, for sex, for relationship, for security, for peace, for affirmation…all of them are good and part of what God created in me. It’s when I “nurse my appetite,” any one of them, and indulge my good and healthy appetites in empty and unhealthy ways that I hurt myself. And, I bring the unhealthy results to every relationship and system in which I am a part.

It’s not about me behaving for acceptance in a system. It’s about me being the person, the true and healthy self, God created me to be. It’s about what Jesus said when He told His followers to nurse their appetites for the things of God, and not for the things of this earth (including the safety and acceptance of a human system). How can I “love my neighbor as myself” if my unhealthy indulgence of natural appetites is leading to my continual self-injury and disrupting my relationships, my work, my family, and my life?

What appetite am I going to nurse today? That’s the question as I head into the weekend.

Have a great weekend.

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

David’s “Seven Steps”

David's "Seven Steps" (CaD Ps 4) Wayfarer

When you are disturbed, do not sin;
    ponder it on your beds, and be silent.

Psalm 4:4 (NRSVCE)

Not long ago I happened to be talking to a friend who experienced the tragic death of a child. As we talked, I asked how he was doing in the process of grief. He honestly shared with me some of the havoc that grief had wreaked in everyday life. He then shared about conversations he’d had with others who were walking the same, difficult stretch of life’s road. One, he shared, had been drinking heavily. He then confessed that he had been over-indulging his appetite for sweets every night.

“We all have the same grief. We cope in different ways,” he said. “My friend medicates with one appetite. I medicate with another.”

Along this life journey, I’ve observed and experienced that it is a natural human reaction to want to self-medicate by indulging our appetites whenever we encounter a difficult stretch of the journey. It could be one of the “ugly” social taboos like alcohol, drugs, gambling, smoking, or sex. It could equally be an unhealthy indulgence in what’s considered a normal appetite, like that to which my friend confessed: over-eating, over-sleeping, over-spending, over-exercising, binging on screens, or isolation. I’ve even observed those who have become zealously over-religious in an attempt to feel some kind of control over out-of-control emotions, circumstances, and relationships. Twelve Step groups often teach members to be aware of negative feelings that often trigger appetite indulgences. They use the acronym S.A.L.T. (sad, angry, lonely, tired).

In today’s psalm, King David expresses his frustration with finding himself the object of public ridicule and scorn, especially among the socially elite power brokers in his world. He begins his song imploring God to listen to his prayer, he then lays out his troubles and frustration.

What happens next is a Hebrew word: Selah. Scholars believe that this was a musical notation calling on there to be a “rest” in the song.

David then reminds himself that God has called him to be faithful, and reminds himself that God has repeatedly answered his prayers.

Then comes the verse I pulled out and quoted at the top of the post:

When you are disturbed, do not sin;
    ponder it on your beds, and be silent.

It is followed with another Selah.

I couldn’t help but notice that the pattern of David’s lyric is a really great reminder of how to approach troubles, anxieties, fear, grief, sadness, anger, loneliness, or weariness. Not the Twelve Steps, but the Seven Steps:

  1. Take it to God.
  2. Get it out, express it, be honest about your feelings.
  3. Rest. Take a deep breath.
  4. Remind myself of God’s faithfulness and promises.
  5. Avoid my natural inclination to exit and indulge my favorite appetite as an escape hatch of the negative emotions.
  6. Be silent. Ponder. Feel.
  7. Rest. Breathe.

The final lyrics of the song are a testament to David discovering a “gladness” in his heart that is better than feasting and drinking. Certainly healthier than over-eating and over-drinking.

Just as with yesterday’s psalm, David ends up with a peaceful night’s sleep.

In the quiet this morning I find myself accepting the fact that, despite 54 years on the journey and almost 40 years of following Jesus, I still have very human struggles with responding to negative emotions and circumstances in healthy ways. What I have learned, however, is that I have to allow myself the grace to be human. I also have learned to surround myself with companions who love me unconditionally, are honest with me in my weakness, and never cease to encourage and support me in the process of growing.

It’s a journey, my friend. It’s about progress, not perfection.

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

Seemingly Safe Assumptions

Seemingly Safe Assumptions (CaD Ex 5) Wayfarer

Then Moses turned again to the Lord and said, “O Lord, why have you mistreated this people? Why did you ever send me? Since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people, and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people.”
Exodus 5:22-23 (NRSVCE)

Wendy and I have, of late, participated in multiple conversations with others who are grieving. The grief being experienced is not the result of the death of a loved one, but rather the unexpected demise of seemingly safe assumptions.

Along this life journey, I have observed that I am constantly making seemingly safe assumptions about what the road up ahead is going to look like. When I was first married, I assumed my marital life would be “happily ever after,” until I found myself in the middle of a divorce. I raised our daughters never realizing that I assumed all sorts of things about what their education, careers, lives, and world-views would look like until they ended up looking much different in almost every way. I assumed I would go to college and get a college degree and successfully pursue my chosen career, but then I ended up in a job I never wanted nor expected. I have saved for retirement and look forward to many golden years traveling with Wendy and doting on our grandchildren, but I’ve witnessed, first-hand, the harsh realities of lives cut far short of that seemingly safe assumption.

In today’s chapter, our reluctant hero, Moses, obediently follows God’s call to return to Egypt. Moses and Aaron make their appeal asking Pharaoh to let the people go into the wilderness to make sacrifices to God. Instead, Pharaoh both refuses and places a heavier burden on his Hebrew slave labor. This leaves Moses stuck between a rock and a hard place. There is no sign of Pharaoh capitulating and Moses’ people are ticked off as they are forced to work harder to meet impossible quotas for which they will likely be beaten and punished.

As I read Moses’ complaint to God about the situation, I found myself remembering exactly what God said to Moses in the burning bush conversation:

“I know, however, that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand. So I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all my wonders that I will perform in it; after that he will let you go.
Exodus 3:19-20

In the painful realities of the moment, Moses was quick to remember God’s promise to deliver his people and plunder the Egyptians. However, Moses conveniently forgot the part about Pharaoh’s obstinance and that it would take a process of wonders before Pharaoh would relent. Based on the power and wonders God had shown Moses back at the burning bush, Moses made a seemingly safe assumption that this whole deliverer gig had a quick turnaround.

I find myself this morning thinking about the many seemingly safe assumptions I made earlier in life. Never did I expect to find myself wading through my own moral failure, navigating divorce, life in a small town, remarriage, blended family, infertility, unexpected pregnancy, and spending my life in a career I’d never wanted but to which I was called and found myself perfectly suited to accomplish.

I can’t help but remember Jesus’ words:

“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.”
Matthew 6:34 (MSG)

I have come to believe that any “seemingly safe assumption” about what my life, or the lives of my loved ones, will look like down the road is part of what Jesus is urging me to avoid. I don’t know what tomorrow holds. I only know that “God promised to help me deal with whatever hard things come when the time comes.”

God, allow me the wisdom to give my entire attention to what you are doing in and through me this day, and the grace to entrust you with any and every tomorrow.

The Curse of Being Religious

While being a follower of Jesus may lead me to participate in religious behaviors, being a religious person does not necessarily make me a follower of Jesus. The following post was originally published back in may of 2013. It still resonates with me. Another good one to sow out there again. By the way, tomorrow I plan to start journeying through Exodus. It’s been 11 years since the last time I blogged through it. It’s time to return to the story of Moses. In the meantime, enjoy…

The Lord is more pleased when we do what is right and just
    than when we offer him sacrifices.
Proverbs 21:3 (NLT)

Over the years I’ve had many people refer to me as a religious person. The term has always bothered me. The truth of the matter is that when you read the first-hand accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry you find that He saved His most harsh criticism and angry judgment for the most religious people of His day.

When Jesus encountered a woman caught in the act of adultery He said to her:

I don’t condemn you. Go and sin no more.”

When Jesus talked to the religious church goers He said:

“You hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”

When Jesus encountered a man with leprosy who said, “If you’re willing, you can make me clean,” Jesus reached out and touched the leprous man and said:

I’m willing. Be clean.”

When Jesus talked to the religious church elders He said:

“You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.”

When a poor, paralytic man was brought to Jesus, He said to the man:

Friend, your sins are forgiven.” Then Jesus healed the man.

When Jesus talked to the religious fundamentalists He said:

“You religiously give your ten percent, but you have neglected the more important matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.”

When Jesus took the time to ask a woman, who was a social outcast and racially persecuted, for a drink, He said to her:

Whoever drinks the water I give will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give will become a spring of living water welling up to eternal life.”

When Jesus talked to the strict, religious people He said:

“You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

My desire is to follow Jesus each day in the way I forgive, touch, heal, reach, cleanse, embrace, and love. If I fail in this attempt while becoming a good, conservative, church-going, religious person then it is clear to me from Jesus’ own words that I have left the path of His footsteps and have failed miserably in my quest.

So, when I hear people refer to me as a “religious” person, I’ll confess that my heart sinks. I know they may not mean it the way that I receive it, but still. Religious is not the goal. Love is the goal. So, at the moment I hear someone calling me religious, I silently ask God to forgive me for being religious. Then I quietly ask Him to help me be more like Jesus.

Featured Photo: Christ forgives the woman caught in adultery by Boucher (French). From the Met Collection. Public Domain.