Tag Archives: Grace

The Inclusive Exclusivity Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus came to change all that.

And, we’ve messed that up, too.

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

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

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

Creation and Re-Creation

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
2 Corinthians 5:17 (NIV)

I got my first tattoo in the fall of 2005. It was an incredibly tumultuous time in my journey. It was the most tumultuous stretch of the journey I’ve yet experienced, in fact. I was recently divorced, a reality I’d never imagined for myself, with two teenage daughters trying to make sense of their own shattered realities. Wendy had also entered my life. This was another unexpected and unlooked for reality that I knew in my heart was of God’s doing, but it made the whole picture a hot mess.

So, why not get a tattoo?

The tat is a celtic cross on my back. In the circle at the crux of the cross is a reference to Revelation 21:5:

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.”

Wendy also got a tat that day. A butterfly with the same reference. It was a permanent reminder amidst temporary circumstances of the hope we had in Jesus. Wendy and I both knew by the faith that Paul writes about in today’s chapter that Jesus, the Creator, was in the process of picking up the shattered pieces of life and the mess that had been wrought by our respective human flaws and failings, and together was making something new out of it.

It was months later that I went to a weekend retreat for teens that our daughter Taylor was attending. She was going to speak to her peers and I had been invited to listen. It was hard. She spoke about her own pain amidst the divorce and remarriage and the tumultuous changes in her own experience and realities. “One of my dad’s favorite verses is Revelation 21:5,” she said before adding, “I don’t like that verse.” Ugh.

Our human failings create so much pain for the ones we love most.

Mea culpa.

Along my spiritual journey I’ve learned that God expresses themselves over and over and over again through the theme of creation and re-creation. It’s an integral theme in the divine dance. Old things pass, new things come. On the macro level consider the first chapter, Genesis 1, in which God creates the heavens and the earth. In the final two chapters of Revelation God creates a new heaven and a new Earth (Rev 21:1). On the cosmic level it happens at the cross and the empty tomb. Jesus refers to this creation and re-creation theme over and over again. “Unless a kernel dies and is buried in the ground,” He said, “It can’t spring to new life.”

I’ve also observed that many of my fellow followers of Jesus like to gloss over this theme with broad religious brush strokes of propriety. They like “old things pass away and new things come” to look pretty and proper with an emotionally moving musical score underneath. It’s so much easier to swallow when it’s neat and easy.

Maybe it is that way for some. I haven’t found it to be that way. Resurrection is proceeded by crucifixion. Crucifixion is a raw, naked, shameful, bloody mess. Just like my life back in 2005 when I got my first tat.

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that when Jesus called followers, He made it clear that things would change. Old things would pass away. New things would come. And, not necessarily in comfortable ways.

The Grace Response

For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecutedthe church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them….
1 Corinthians 15:9-10a (NIV)

I was reminded yesterday of a high school teacher who showed me grace. That is, he showed favor to me that I did not merit. As I recall it was the last day of the semester and my grade was teetering between an A and a B. There was one assignment, a book report, that was sitting there blank in the teacher’s grade book. I hated reading when I was that age, a condition that didn’t change until late into my college years. I simply didn’t want to read a book and write a paper on it. I kept putting it off until it was too late. And so it was, I was called up to the teacher’s desk. He explained that the missing book report was the only thing standing in the way of me getting an A in the class.

I didn’t do it,” I told the teacher honestly.

He looked at me curiously. “You ‘didn’t do it’?” he asked. “That’s all you have to say?”

Look,” I answered, “I could stand here and tell you that the dog ate my paper or give you all sorts of excuses about why I didn’t get it done, but they would all be lies. The honest truth is that I simply procrastinated and didn’t get it done. I understand. I’ll have to accept a B for the course.”

Weeks later when my grades came in the mail (In the old days, you had to wait for the Postal Service to deliver your grades to your home), I was shocked to discover that the teacher had given me an A. Perhaps he was rewarding my honesty and candor. Perhaps he was simply doing a good deed. I don’t know why he graciously gave me the grade I didn’t deserve.

I can tell you that I was truly humbled by the gesture. I didn’t feel like I’d gotten away with something. It didn’t motivate me to try blowing off other assignments assuming that the “honesty ruse” would work again. Quite the opposite, the teacher’s grace motivated me to not do it again. Making sure I got my assignments done, even the book reports I didn’t want to do in college, was a way of honoring and showing gratitude for the grace that my teacher showed me. The favor I didn’t deserve.

During the early years of the Jesus Movement, there was a group within the community who argued that Jesus’ forgiveness and grace was a moral “Get Out of Jail Free” card. “If I’m forgiven from my sins,” they reasoned, “I’m going to sin all I want! Jesus will forgive me! In fact, if I increase the rate of my sinning it means I get more of grace!” Paul addressed this foolishness in his letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome (see Romans 6).

In today’s chapter, Paul points to the unmerited favor he had been shown by Jesus when, as a murderer of Stephen and a persecutor of Jesus’ followers, Jesus forgave him and called him to be an apostle. Paul knew he didn’t deserve to be an apostle. He deserved to by punished for what he’d done. Paul knew he deserved Jesus’ forgiveness and call to apostleship less than any of the other apostles. It motivated him to work harder than all the rest – to show his gratitude for the grace he’d been shown.

Along the journey I’ve come to observe that you can tell a lot about a person’s faith by the way he or she responds to grace.

 

My Lessons from Diverse Experiences

But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.
1 Corinthians 14:40

Along my journey I have experienced worship in diverse traditions and settings. I grew up in a mainline Protestant tradition that could be described as “high church.” I grew up wearing a formal choir robe and marching in a long, formal, choral processional into the sanctuary accompanied by a pipe organ. There was a dictated pattern and order to every service even to the point of the minister standing in different positions to deliver different parts of the liturgy and message.

From that launching point I’ve worshipped in rather raucous Pentecostal services, in cold medieval cathedrals, in squirrelly Junior High church camp chapels, in fundamentalist Baptist churches with their own take on legalistic liturgy, in a third world, tin-shack hut you would scarcely call a church, in stadium revivals, and, well, you get my point.

In my early adult years I spent some time in the Quaker tradition, which is 180 degrees from the experience of my youth. The Quakers attempt to recapture the spirit of the early gatherings of the Jesus Movement like what Paul is addressing in his letter to the believers in Corinth. It’s a small, egalitarian setting. Everyone is welcome to participate. They spend time in silence to “center” themselves and wait for Holy Spirit move. People stand and speak as the Spirit prompts them with a word, or a song, or a prayer. It was a fascinating experience from which I learned some valuable lessons.

In today’s chapter, Paul is addressing what was a pressing issue within the context of the corporate gatherings of Jesus’ followers when there was no real tradition, very little organization, a loose authority structure, and everything that was happening was new and different than anyone had experienced. With lack of structure, authority, and order things can quickly get out of control. That was happening among the Corinthian believers. Paul is writing to try and to encourage some order.

There are three broad lessons that I’ve learned from the diversity of my worship experiences in different traditions.

First, if my spirit is open I can learn from every experience. The metaphor and pageantry of high church liturgy is beautiful and layered with meaning once you begin to see it. The Quaker tradition taught me the power of quiet, and that Holy Spirit can and does speak through the most unlikely of vessels in extraordinary ways. It’s so easy to fall into “either-or” thinking when it comes to different worship traditions. I have benefitted from the “both and” approach, entering every worship experience with an open and seeking heart and mind.

Second, there are opportunities and threats in every established tradition. I found the liturgical provides me the opportunity of structure, order, and a comfort that comes with repetition and discipline. The threat is that it can easily become rote words and religious actions void of the Spirit or any personal connection. Likewise, the contrasting organic style of the Quaker tradition gave me the opportunity to experience learning from diverse individuals and recognizing how God can move and speak through everyone. The threat I found is that discerning between flesh and Spirit is always a bit messy, and individuals sometimes speak their own personal desires and opinions cloaked in “God told me” language.

Third, no matter the corporate worship setting or experience, ultimately I am responsible for my own spiritual journey and my own divine dance in every corporate worship experience. I am responsible for my attitudes going into corporate worship. I am responsible to be humble, loving, and gracious in the midst of it. I am responsible to observe, to learn, to ask, seek, and knock. I am am responsible to be grateful for the opportunity, forgiving of that which may possibly offend me, and humble enough to admit there may be things which I don’t fully understand.

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!