Tag Archives: Grace

The Boulevard and the Gate

So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.
Galatians 4:7 (NIV)

In the early stages of my spiritual journey I wandered down the path of legalism. I was never particularly comfortable with it’s straight-and-narrow streets and the authoritarian, self-appointed traffic cops on every block wearing their spit-polished Junior Holy Spirit badges. Nevertheless, I came to an understanding of why so many people find their way to that huge boulevard.

There’s a certain ease to the path of legalism. It requires little in the way of thought, meditation, grace, wisdom, or knowledge. Everything is prescribed for you in black-and-white terms and simple rules of obedience. There’s strict accountability to keep you on the straight-and-narrow. Your fellow wayfarers will, of course, watch you like a hawk, but then there are the self-appointed traffic cops to watch your every move, remind you of the rules, and threaten you with any number of heinous punishments (i.e. alienation, condemnation, damnation) should you stray from their prescribed path.

Along that stretch of the journey I met a number of individuals who had been walking the path of legalism for many years. They had given themselves over. So comfortable had they become with their enslavement to the rules that the simplest notion of grace or freedom became a fright. They reminded me of the Hebrews in the wilderness begging to return to slavery in Egypt. “At least we knew the rules. Life was so much easier to understand. It wasn’t so hard or so complicated.”

In Paul’s letter to the believers in Galatia, he finds them in a similar spot. Having received the Message of Jesus by faith when Paul was with them, they are now being told by some self-appointed traffic cops from the path of Legalism to get themselves back on the straight-and-narrow. These Officers of Legalism are demanding obedience to their list of religious rules.

In his letter Paul calls on a powerful word picture. He argues that Jesus came to make us children of God and co-heirs with Christ. We are, therefore, no longer slaves to be herded down the path of legalism constantly threatened with alienation, condemnation and damnation should we fail to march lock-step in accordance with the self-appointed traffic cops.

Paul argues that we are free to walk down a very different path as heirs of grace freely given, of forgiveness poured out in excess, of extravagant acceptance, and of unalterable love. Why, Paul asks, would you ever want to go back to Legalism Boulevard?

Along my journey I’ve observed that some people find the path of legalism to be easier than the path of love. Having walked that Legalism Boulevard for a block or two, a piece of me gets why people spend their entire lives on its pristine concrete between its high curbs. I found obedience to a set of well defined rules less painful than dying to myself. I found that condemning rule breakers was easier (and even felt self-righteously satisfying) than forgiving them as I have been forgiven. And, I found that following the straight-and-narrow of Legalism Boulevard was guaranteed not to twist, turn, or lead me to uncomfortable neighborhoods where people look different than me, act different than me, think differently than me, or speak differently than me. There’s a comfort in that.

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that Jesus said that the path of Life lies behind a narrow gate that’s not particularly well-marked. It’s narrow and not necessarily easy to make out because, like Frost’s poem, it’s less traveled than Legalism Boulevard. But those who ask directions will find their way there. Those who seek it out will find their way there. Those who knock on the narrow gate will find it open to them.

I’ve found it a messy and slippery path with some steep inclines and deep valleys. There have been lonely stretches where faith was required. There were some stretches I shared with companions that required humility, trust, forgiveness, teamwork, and grace to get through some of the terrain. I’ve also found myself in some foreign places that forced me to get past my fears. It hasn’t always been easy, but the further I travel on the path the more Life I’ve experienced.

I’ve never regretted leaving Legalism Boulevard. In fact, I’d encourage anyone who’s walking lock-step down that street to make their way down the alley. Ask about a narrow gate. Seek it out. You’ll be glad you did.

Just don’t let the Traffic Cops see you 😉

The Gap Instinct

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Galatians 3:28 (NIV)

This week I started reading a book called Factfulness by Hans Rosling, a doctor and professor from Sweden. In his opening chapter he makes the case that we as humans have a “gap instinct.” We like to divide things into two extremes with a gap between them:

  • rich or poor
  • black or white
  • developed or developing
  • white collar or blue collar
  • liberal or conservative

Rosling goes on to state:

We love to dichotomize. Good versus bad. Heroes versus villains. My country versus the rest. Dividing the world into two distinct sides is simple and intuitive, and also dramatic because it implies conflict, and we do it without thinking, all the time.

The gap instinct makes us imagine division where there is just a smooth range, difference where there is convergence, and conflict where there is agreement.”

Along my journey I’ve noticed that the institutional church and those of us who follow Jesus often allow the gap instinct to invade our belief system and religious lives in unhealthy ways. God’s Message is quite direct in stating that “all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory” and “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” Yet, all of the time we condemn ugly sins while silently ignoring the pretty ones. We like to categorize others as sinners and ourselves as righteous. A job in the institutional church is “ministry” while all other occupations are not. Everything from music, to art, to books are divided into either “secular” or “sacred.”

In Paul’s letter to the believers in the region of ancient Galatia he finds himself struggling to keep Jesus’ followers from falling back into their gap instincts. One of the marks of Jesus’ teaching and the believers of the early Jesus Movement was that they bridged long-held gaps between people. In Jesus, there were no distinctions. Everyone was welcome at the table regardless of gender, race, background, history, or socio-economic standing.

Now, in Paul’s absence, some Jewish legalists claiming to be followers of Jesus have begun to rebuild the distinctions. Primarily, they were teaching that if a person wanted to follow Jesus they would have to follow all the old rules and regulations of the Jewish law and customs. Gentiles who wanted to follow Jesus could only do so through being a good Jew. With it, all the old gaps, distinctions, and differences would be firmly back in place.

Paul does not mince words. He tells the believers that falling back into their old gap instincts is complete foolishness. For his good Jewish readers who need convincing, he makes his case by citing both Law and prophet. He, once again, tears down the gaps:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

In the quiet this morning I’ve been examining my own heart and looking for my own person gap instincts. Where have I set up distinctions in my own mind? Who’s in and who’s out? Who’s acceptable and who’s not? Who is wrong where I am right? Who is the sinner on the opposite side of my (self-)righteousness?

Lord, have mercy on me. Tear down the distinctions routinely I make with my own gap instincts. Renew my mind. Help me see as you see, think as you think.

In my silent prayer, the Spirit whispered this passage to my spirit:

If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.

Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.
Philippians 2:1-8 (MSG)

Have a great day, my friend. If you need me today, you’ll find me over there bridging some of my gaps.

Transition of Leadership

After the death of Jehoiada, the officials of Judah came and paid homage to the king, and he listened to them.They abandoned the temple of the Lord, the God of their ancestors, and worshiped Asherah poles and idols.
2 Chronicles 24:17-18 (NIV)

Along my life journey I’ve witnessed, or been part of, a number of leadership transitions. Churches, schools, civic organizations, business, clients, not to mention the transition of power our nation peacefully experiences every 2-4 years. Some transitions I’ve experienced have been positive experiences, some have not.

In today’s chapter the Chronicler relates some fascinating details about the reign of young King Joash of Judah. In the previous two chapters we learned that the entire royal family of David had been wiped out. Joash had been hidden away as an infant in the Temple of Solomon for seven years. Then the high priest, Jehoiada, let a coup and placed Joash on the throne.

Reading between the lines on the Chronicler’s papyrus, we see there may have been a bit of an ebb and flow to the relationship between Jehoiada and young King Joash, between monarch and priest, between politics and religion. Jehoiada was, no doubt, a powerful figure. He was the one who hid the infant and protected him. He was the one who plotted and carried out the coup. He was the one who put Joash on the throne. Jehoiada was the power behind the child king, and he even oversaw who Joash would marry and with whom the king would have children.

The king grows up and gives orders for a tax to be collected to repair Solomon’s Temple, but the King’s wishes are not immediately carried out. Jehoiada was the power behind the throne, and the Levites knew to take their orders from the high priest, not the king. Joash summons Jehoiada before him. Joash had always taken his commands from Jehoiada, now the young king was testing and exerting his own power and authority over Jehoiada. The high priest submits, but we as readers are left wondering just how these two powerful men managed their relationship with one another.

The Chronicler then tells us about another transition of leadership. The powerful religious leader, Jehoiada, dies. There is now a vacuum of religious leadership. Immediately, the “officials” of Judah (leaders of clans, businessmen, state officials. and etc.) swoop into that power vacuum and pay a visit to King Joash. They convince the King to loosen Jehoiada’s powerful stranglehold on local religion and support the resurgence of the local Canaanite gods. Joash does so despite many prophetic warnings. The Chronicler makes it clear that this doesn’t end well.

This morning I’m thinking about transitions of leadership and of power. Jehoiada saw to it that Joash was placed on the throne, but the Chronicler’s account leaves me believing that he may have looked upon the young monarch as a puppet to be controlled rather than a protegé to be mentored. The difference is monumental and the fact that there was no successor to Jehoiada with the authority to command respect of the King and his “officials” says that the high priest had equally not done an adequate job preparing for his successor and ensuring that the legacy of his leadership would continue.

I have been blessed and privileged to be in many different leadership positions in my lifetime. In the quiet this morning I’m taking stock of how I have handled the transition of power and leadership to others. The results, I confess, are mixed. In some cases I feel that I’ve done well, and in others I realize that, like Jehoiada, I’ve missed the opportunity to bless my successor and those under my leadership with a wisely planned transition. I can’t change the past, but I can ensure that I handle future opportunities with greater wisdom and grace. I pray I do so.

Have a great week, my friends!

 

Overturning the Scales on the Spiritual Economy

There is, however, some good in you.
2 Chronicles 19:3 (NIV)

In the past few months my past has resurfaced. It happens once in a while. My many failures are a matter of public record. I have spoken openly about them. For certain individuals my record makes me questionable, and every so often the questions come around again.

I find spiritual economics to be a fascinating thing; The way in which we determine, quantify, and respond to the “good” and “bad” (or “righteousness” and “sin”) within ourselves and others. The way we use key indicators within our spiritual economy to determine our view of everyone and everything around us.

The Chronicler and his ancient world had a very ordered system. He dictates for us whether Kings were winners and losers in the spiritual economy. The good and bad are spelled out in black and white terms. In the previous chapter Jehoshaphat made an alliance with Ahab, so in today’s chapter the Seer Jehu calls him out for his “bad,” but then declares “There is, however, some good in you.” The rest of the chapter goes on to describe Jehoshaphat’s exemplary efforts to promote and improve domestic justice in his kingdom. We the readers feel the scales on the spiritual economy tipping back and forth.

It’s no wonder that to this day we perpetuate variations on this system of weighing and judging people on our personal, spiritual economic scales. It’s a very human thing to do. Yet, one of the radical things that Jesus brought to the table was a radically new spiritual economy. He turned the system upside down. In Jesus’ spiritual economy there was no one who measured up on their own. No personal righteousness was enough to tip the scales to the “good.” Every person was in need of grace and mercy. As James 2:10 says “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” So the “righteous” religious people who were “good” in the standard spiritual economic system incurred Jesus’ wrath, while He made a habit of hanging out and showing kindness, love, grace, forgiveness, and mercy to the “bad,” the sinful, the marginal, and the questionable.

This morning I’m once again looking back across my journey. I don’t think I would have fared particularly well in the Chronicler’s spiritual economic scale. I don’t fare particularly well in the spiritual economic scales of some of my fellow believers.

Two things come to mind as I mull these things over in my heart.

One is a passage I memorized long ago. I like how The Message puts it:

Now God has us where he wants us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus. Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving. He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing.
Ephesians 2:7-10

The other is these lyrics from Bob Dylan:

I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea.
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there.
Other times it’s only me.
I’m hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow fallen.
Like every grain of sand.

The Hard Facts

As for the other events of Solomon’s reign, from beginning to end, are they not written in the records of Nathan the prophet, in the prophecy of Ahijah the Shilonite and in the visions of Iddo the seer concerning Jeroboam son of Nebat?
2 Chronicles 9:29 (NIV)

In today’s chapter, the author of Chronicles concludes his account of Solomon’s reign. He chooses, however, to leave out some pertinent facts provided in the eleventh chapter of 1 Kings.

Solomon was a womanizer. He married 700 wives, most of them were daughters or women from foreign royal families seeking to make political alliances with the king. On top of that, Solomon kept 300 concubines. Solomon’s wives worshiped foreign gods, and they convinced Solomon to build altars and temples to their gods. Solomon even worshipped the gods of his wives, including a couple of nasty ones who demanded child sacrifice.

By the end of his reign, Solomon’s years of conscripting slave-labor had created political problems for him. The nation his father worked so hard to unite was falling apart. Rebellions and uprisings began to occur. Prophets began prophesying the end of the united kingdom. Solomon resorted to assassination to maintain power and rid himself of threats.

All of this, the Chronicler fails to mention.

We can only assume why the writer of 2 Chronicles whitewashes Solomon’s story. Scholars believe that the Chronicles were written at the time the Hebrew exiles returned from captivity in Babylon. The temple needed to be rebuilt, and the Chronicler’s account may have been intended to drum up support for the new temple by glorifying Solomon and the old temple. This scholarly assumption concludes that the Chronicler chose to focus on Solomon’s glory and  leave the inconvenient truths buried in the bibliography.

This past Sunday at our local gathering of Jesus’ followers I gave a message about “Story.” Over the centuries the institutional church has turned the concept of “witnessing” into a host of systematic programs for communicating the theological concepts of salvation. However, when Jesus told his followers to be “witnesses” He simply meant for them to share their stories about their experiences with Him. In the opening lines of the letter that became 1 John, Jesus’ disciple literally gives the testimony “I heard him. I saw him. I touched him.” John’s story is how his experiences with Jesus transformed him from being known as a “Son of Thunder” (because of his anger and rage) to “The disciple of love.” Each of us has a story. Each of us has a God story whether that story is how we came to believe or disbelieve.

We also choose how to tell our stories, how to give witness, and what that testimony will be. We may choose to tell our story differently depending on the audience and the circumstances. This is  not only common, but I would argue that sometimes it is even wise. Nevertheless, our stories all contain hard facts. I made huge mistakes in life. I became addicted to porn as a child. My first marriage failed. I was unfaithful. I made a complete mess of things. A big theme of my God story is the grace, forgiveness, and redemption God has shown me despite my being a complete boogerhead. I can’t tell that story without also sharing some hard facts about what a deeply flawed person I am.

This morning I’m thinking about my story. I’m thinking about the hard facts of my life. My life journey is riddled with big mistakes I’ve made. To this day I struggle with being self-ish and self-centered. Wendy can give witness to my melancholy and pessimism, my emotional overreactions, and complete blindness to anyone or anything other than what I’m focused on in the moment.  But there’s also the story of my journey, of God growing me up, freeing me, and giving me second chances. There’s a story of transformation that has come from following Jesus and what God has done in me. It’s a good story.

For whatever reason, the Chronicler chose to leave out the hard facts about Solomon. It makes me sad. Our stories are much more powerful and interesting when we’re honest about the hard facts. Even tragedies make powerful stories from which we can benefit.

Not Getting It

There were still people left from the Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites (these people were not Israelites). Solomon conscripted the descendants of all these people remaining in the land—whom the Israelites had not destroyed—to serve as slave labor, as it is to this day.
2 Chronicles 8:7-8 (NIV)

Jesus told a simple parable of the King’s servant who owed the king 10,000 bags of gold. To those who listened to Jesus tell this story, the idea of owing 10,000 bags of gold was a ridiculous amount of money. It would be like me owing someone billions or trillions of dollars. More than I could pay back in many lifetimes.

Be patient with me and I’ll pay it back,” the servant said to the king. This is also ridiculous because I couldn’t pay back billions or trillions of dollars in many lifetimes. The king decides to forgive the debt and let the servant go.

As he’s leaving the palace, the servant runs into his buddy who owed him a hundred bucks. When he demanded repayment of the debt, his buddy says, “Be patient with me and I’ll pay it back!” (Sound familiar?) The King’s servant who’d just been forgiven from multiple lifetimes worth of debt refused to forgive his buddy a debt of a hundred bucks.

Jesus point was clear. If God forgives me for my lifetime of mistakes and poor choices and then I refuse to forgive an individual who offended me, then I’ve completely missed the point of everything Jesus came to teach me.

Buried in today’s chapter is a simple observation that brought this parable to mind this morning. Solomon, King of Israel, builds his temples and palaces by forcing all of the non-Israelite people of the land into slave-labor. Now, this was common practice among nations and empires of that day. Solomon was not doing anything differently than what every other King around him would do. But there’s a difference.

The roots of Solomon’s Kingdom were in the story of the Exodus. When Solomon’s people were living in the land of Egypt they were forced into slave labor to work for Pharaoh. God went to great lengths to free them from their slavery and lead them back to Canaan. Now, Solomon builds his Temple to the God who freed his people from slavery, by enslaving others.

As if to add insult to injury, Solomon then has his slaves build a palace for his queen, Pharaoh’s daughter of Egypt, the very nation from whom his people were freed from slavery.

Along my journey I continually encounter individuals who live very religious lives. They never miss a church service. They listen only to Christian music and Christian radio stations, watch only Christian television, read only books written by Christian authors, refuse to darken the door of a pub, associate only with Christians of acceptable repute in the community, and etc. And yet, among these types of squeaky-clean religious types I’ve known I can recall specific individuals who were slum lords, deceptive businessmen, money launderers, bigots, misogynists, and the like.

This morning I’m thinking about Solomon. I’m thinking about the religious individuals I’ve observed and described. I’m thinking about Jesus’ parable. I’m thinking about my own life. Where are the blind spots in my own life? Are there any areas of my life when I’m subjecting others to judgement or burdens from which I, myself, have been freed? Where are the places in my life where it’s obvious to God that I still don’t get what He came to teach me?

The Depressed Prophet

Cursed be the day I was born!
    May the day my mother bore me not be blessed!
Cursed be the man who brought my father the news,
    who made him very glad, saying,
    “A child is born to you—a son!”
May that man be like the towns
    the Lord overthrew without pity.
May he hear wailing in the morning,
    a battle cry at noon.
For he did not kill me in the womb,
    with my mother as my grave,
    her womb enlarged forever.
Why did I ever come out of the womb
    to see trouble and sorrow
    and to end my days in shame?
Jeremiah 20:13-18 (NIV)

Across the ages, the ancient prophet Jeremiah has been labeled with  the moniker “The Weeping Prophet.” In our bedroom at the lake Wendy and I have a copy of Rembrandt’s portrait of Jeremiah looking depressed and sullen as he sits amidst the ruins of Jerusalem. It reminds me that the lake is a thin place where any who are burdened can find rest for their souls. Alas, it would seem that Jeremiah had no such place.

In today’s chapter we read of a confrontation between Jeremiah and a priest named Pashur, who was “the official in charge of the Temple of the Lord.” The fact that the one “in charge” was out to get Jeremiah is a good indication of just how corrupt the system had become in Jeremiah’s day. The priest in charge of the Temple was overseeing all of the pagan rituals and cults operating out of the Temple. The Temple had become a religious corporation, a powerful money-maker for those in charge (not unlike the way Jesus’ found the Temple in His day).

While Jeremiah had been protected from the death-threats that had already been made against him, Pashur decided to at least punish the prophet for his inflammatory prophesies of doom and destruction. I’m quite sure they were bad for business. In fact, I can almost hear Pashur saying, “This isn’t personal, Jer. It’s strictly business.” Once again, this is not unlike Jesus who, after His repeated rants against their corruption and His stirring up of the people, pressured the Temple leaders to plot His death .

After his time in the stocks, Jeremiah immediately confronts Pashur with a stubborn and willful repeating of his prophetic message: Jerusalem will be destroyed and its people led into captivity at the hands of Babylon. Obviously the prophet wanted Pashur to know his punishment did not have the desired effect. In fact, it simply appears to have pissed Jeremiah off.

What comes next is fascinating. The weeping prophet goes into a depression and pens a dark poem that graphically expresses his wish that he’d never been born. Obviously, the burden of his role, his prophecies, and the steady threats and persecution were getting to him. Of course they were. It would get to me too.

This morning I’m thinking about how common it is for humans to go through periods of depression. If you were privy to my medical records you’d find that I’ve had a few bouts with the blues along my life journey, and I never faced anything like what Jeremiah was dealing with. I’m also thinking about how common it is for individuals in history (artists, musicians, writers, thinkers) who saw and expressed things no one else could see were given to depression, madness, mental illness, and even suicide. I’d certainly put Jeremiah alongside the likes of Van Gogh, Hemingway, and Parker.

I’m struck by the contrast this morning between the spit-shined image I believe we often have of a “godly” person or a “servant of God.” We demand so much, expect so much, and are so quick to scapegoat individuals for their weaknesses and shortcomings. Jeremiah reminds me this morning that God’s servants were fully human, carried human flaws and weaknesses, were susceptible to all the shortcomings known to humanity, and were even given to deep depression and suicidal thoughts. Jeremiah reminds me to cut others a break. He even reminds me to be a bit more gracious with myself.

Wendy and I were at the lake late last week opening it up for the coming summer season. Once again, I saw and pondered Jeremiah’s portrait as I lay in bed.

I’m looking forward to getting back there.

(FWIW: My latest message was added to the Messages page.)