Tag Archives: Institution

Blood and Covenant

Blood and Covenant (CaD Gen 9) Wayfarer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Showdown!

Showdown! (CaD John 8) Wayfarer

When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
John 8:12 (NIV)

“Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!”
John 8:58 (NIV)

When we left yesterday’s chapter of John’s biography of Jesus, Jesus was teaching and performing miracles at the Temple in Jerusalem during a national religious festival called the Feast of the Tabernacles. Jerusalem and the Temple were teeming with religious pilgrims in town for the festival. Jesus, His teaching, and His miracles are making a huge impression, and there are a myriads of opinions among the people about who Jesus is.

In today’s chapter, John shifts focus from the crowds and their popular opinions to the two leading players in the story: Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders. Today’s chapter is a showdown that has been building between Jesus and the religious institutional establishment, and it’s an important one in the story. Once again, identity is the theme of this showdown: “Who am I?” and “Who are you?”

I find this chapter to be a critical text in what it means to me to be a follower of Jesus. Jesus is an upstart and a maverick. Like Clint Eastwood in his spaghetti westerns, He seemingly shows up out of nowhere to challenge the institutional religious authority. I’ve learned along my life journey that institutions of every kind are about authority, hierarchy, and control. Institutions can be healthy human systems or very dysfunctional human systems, but in either case institutions balk at direct challenges that come from outside the system.

As this question of “who is Jesus” gets bandied about, there are two parties who have never wavered in their opinion. Jesus has claimed to be the Son of God who has come from the Father in heaven to bring God’s Kingdom to earth and salvation to anyone who believes, receives, follows, and obeys. The institutional religious authorities have pegged Jesus as a threat to their prestige and authority, an unknown firebrand who is wildly popular with the unruly poor masses, and a disruptor of their lucrative religious racket.

In this showdown, Jesus steadfastly proclaims and maintains His eternal nature (I came from my Father in heaven to do His will, and I am returning there when my mission is completed) and His condemnation of the religious leaders who have transformed the plan God gave through Moses into an institution that oppresses the poor and needy in order to feed the egos, bank accounts, and authority of the religious ruling class.

In this showdown, the religious leaders proclaim and maintain their authority. These authorities are all essentially lawyers, and they default to multiple legal arguments to condemn Jesus:

  • Objection: You don’t have two witnesses. (vs. 13)
  • Objection: You keep talking about your Father, but you can’t produce Him. (vs. 19)
  • Examination: They directly ask Jesus to say who He is in order to get it on record so as to build a legal case against His claim. (vs. 25)
  • Point-of-order: We’re descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves, so how are you going to “set us free.” (vs. 33)
  • Point-of-order: We are Abraham’s children, God’s chosen institutional authorities, and you are not. (vss 39, 41)
  • Verdict: You, Jesus, are a half-breed, racially inferior, and heretical Samaritan scum, and you’re demon possessed.

What’s fascinating is that Jesus bookends this public showdown with two fascinating claims:

Jesus starts by saying that He is the “Light of the World” which directly connects to John’s assertion in chapter one, that Jesus is the eternal agent of creation and when God said, “Let there be light” it was Jesus flipping the switch.

He ends the showdown by countering the religious leader’s authoritative claim to being Abraham’s children by stating “before Abraham was, I am.” That’s critically important because these lawyers all know that in Exodus chapter 3 God revealed Himself to Moses as “I Am.” In fact, they considered “I Am” as “He who must not be named” and it was strictly forbidden to utter the name “I Am.” Jesus ends the showdown with a bang by firing the claim to be the eternal “I Am” who existed before Abraham. He is essentially proclaiming Himself God, which is why His opponents “picked up stones to stone Him.”

In the quiet this morning I find myself confronted, once again, by John’s story. In relating this debate about Jesus’ identity, I can’t help but see the contrast of Jesus’ personal, relational connection to individuals outside the system and the authoritative, human, religious institution of the Jewish authorities.

I hear Jesus saying, “This is, and always has been, about a personal, eternal relationship into which each and every one is invited. These people have taken it and made it into just another kingdom of this world, and all the kingdoms of this world are ultimately powered by the prince of this world.”

Here are the questions my soul is asking this morning:

  • What kingdom(s) am I building on this earth journey?
  • Is my faith personal or institutional? How do I, and others, know the difference?
  • How can I be more like Jesus, and less like a card carrying member of an institution?

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.

Every Tribe and Tongue

Every Tribe and Tongue (CaD Ps 129) Wayfarer

“they have greatly oppressed me from my youth,
    but they have not gained the victory over me.”

Psalm 129:2 (NIV)

Wendy and I watched Godfather: Coda a few weeks ago. For those who aren’t familiar, it is the recent re-edit of the final film in the Godfather trilogy by the film’s director, Francis Ford Coppola. Originally released as The Godfather III back in 1990, the film has always been largely criticized for not living up to the first two films. Coppola claimed that he was at odds with the movie Studio on how the story should be told and was forced to rush the film to market. He was finally allowed, 30 years later, to recut it and tell the story as he and Mario Puzo imagined it.

The trilogy is really the story of Michael Corleone. Raised in a mafia family, he swears early on in the first film that he’ll never be part of the family business. The overarching story is how Michael descends into the underworld with the intent to save his family and then can’t escape, as his family is slowly torn apart.

One of the subtle storylines in the third film is that of Michael Corleone’s son, Anthony. Anthony, like his father, wants nothing to do with the family business. “I’ll never be part of the family business,” Anthony states. He then adds, “I have bad memories.”

“Every family has bad memories,” his father replies.

That line has always resonated in my soul because I find it to be true. Just the other day I wrote about my journey of discovery and uncovering some of my families’ bad memories when I was a young man. But there is also the larger reality that we are the product of the systems into which we were born. We are a product of our people. Michael wanted to escape, yet he chose in and tragically couldn’t find the exit.

Wendy and I are both products of a Dutch American tribe who risked everything to come to America, settled as a tribe on the plains of Iowa, and prospered. That prosperity was fueled by our tribe’s deeply rooted values of faith, frugality, and hard work. Wendy and I often acknowledge that we are products of our people with both the blessings and curses that come with every human system.

For the Hebrew tribes, history and identity as a people is one of constant struggle against other tribes and nations and their subjugation by human empires. That is what the writer of today’s chapter, Psalm 129, is pressing into with his lyrics as he describes being enslaved and beaten:

Plowmen have plowed my back
    and made their furrows long.

Psalm 129 was likely written after the return of exiles from captivity in Babylon. The sting of the experience would have still been fresh in the memories of those singing this song on their pilgrimage. It is the cry of a people that first acknowledges that God has blessed them and they have not been overcome, then asks God to justly deal with their oppressors.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself confessing that there are a host of human experiences that I can’t completely fathom because I haven’t experienced them myself, but that doesn’t mean I can’t seek to understand, to empathize, and to learn lessons from the experience of others. Our Dutch American town holds an annual festival of our Dutch heritage. The motto of the festival is “Everyone’s Dutch for a day!” and visitors are encouraged to learn the history, try on a pair of wooden shoes, learn a Dutch dance, and eat lots of pastries. When invited in to learn and embrace the knowledge of other cultures and people groups, I observe that everyone benefits. When excluded from doing so, I observe that the walls of prejudice are fortified to the detriment of all.

One of the sins of the institutional churches and the abuse of their power in history is the perpetuation of prejudice, injustice, violence, and indifference for the sake of power and empire in the kingdom of this world. The Jesus Movement that was about tearing down walls of prejudice and spreading love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness to every human tribe became a human empire. In the black-and-white binary choices to which the world likes to reduce everything, Christianity has been summarily dismissed by many.

I have found, however, that the heart of the Jesus Movement has always continued in the hearts and lives of individuals who embrace it and seek to carry out the original mission. A mission in which every human being of every people group can experience love, forgiveness, and redemption. When given a vision of eternity, John described the crowd as persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. When U2 described it in their psalm they sang, “I believe in the Kingdom come, when all the colors bleed into one.”

My heart this morning is crying out with the prayer of St. Francis. Perhaps it expresses more succinctly what my heart is trying to say in this post:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offense, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.

A Time to Shout!

A Time to Shout! (CaD Ps 100) Wayfarer

Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth.
Psalm 100:1 (NIV)

I have shared over the years that one of the things Wendy and I enjoy doing is being sports fans. We’re not “rabid win-at-all-costs because our lives are ruled by it” fans, which is a good thing since most of the teams we cheer for have long histories of being underdogs and perennial losers. We just enjoy choosing a team, following the team and the players, rooting for them through the season, and generally being loyal fans.

January in Iowa has typically been made even more bleak for Wendy and me because of the lack of sports that we enjoy. Our Vikings season generally ends early in disappointing fashion. Spring training for our Cubs is weeks away. Our son-in-law, Clayton, influenced Wendy and me to find a English Premier League team to cheer for in order to bridge the gap. It just so happens that his team and our team have a big match this weekend. We’re already planning our watch party. It will be something fun in the midst of quarantine.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 100, is the final in a series of ten ancient Hebrew songs of praise. This little ditty is only five verses long and it begins by calling the worshiper to “Shout with joy to the LORD.”

Throughout my spiritual journey, I have heard teachers challenge congregations with the fact that we cheer more for our teams than we do for God. This, in the institutional and denominational churches I’ve attended throughout my journey, is very true. When Christianity became the official religion of Rome, the Jesus movement became a political empire that was more interested in controlling the masses than it was in sincere worship. The Holy Roman Empire controlled worship in the Western world for 1200 years. When the Protestant Reformation came along, it led into the “age of reason” in which head knowledge of the scriptures and theology was held as utmost in importance. Thus, the Catholic Church and the vast majority of Protestant denominations were given to quiet, reverent, and generally passive worship styles.

And yet, throughout the Great Story the examples of worship and calls to worship I’ve been reading in the psalms are active, loud, and participatory. Shout, sing, dance, raise your hands, clap your hands, and raise the roof! King David got in trouble with his wife when he was so worked up in dancing and singing to God that he had peeled down like silly shirtless college boys in a December Iowa State football game. I confess that the last time Wendy and I got that excited was the Cubs winning the World Series and the Minneapolis Miracle.

At the same time, the further I’ve gotten in my spiritual journey, the freer I’ve become in worship among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. I sing loud. I’ll lift my hands in prayer. Yes, I’ll even shout. And what’s hilarious is that this is not the worship tradition of my local gathering. I once had an elder of the church who was a pious, multi-generational loyalist of the denomination ask me sincerely why I raised my hands when I sang in worship. I pointed him to a number of places in the Great Story where God’s people are called to lift hands in praise and prayer. Funny how individuals who claim to live in devout obedience choose to ignore those things with which they are uncomfortable. Greet anyone with a holy kiss lately?

Don’t hear what I’m not saying. There are times for spiritual quiet, silence, and reverence. Lord knows we need a lot of it right now amidst the 24/7 din of politics and pandemic conflict in the news and on social media. The Sage who wrote Ecclesiastes would tell us that there is a time for quiet reverence, and there’s a time to shout, dance, and blow the roof off. And, I get that there are individuals who will forever be hands-in-your-pockets mouth shut type of followers, and that’s cool too. Whatever.

It’s just that Wendy and I have noticed as we worship that there’s often what feels like a spiritual lid on the room. You can feel people waiting for an excuse, or for someone to give permission to shout, cheer, and let out some God-given, human emotion. Countless times we’ve witnessed that when one person breaks the ice, then the praise really begins to flow.

In the quiet this morning, I’m thinking about all the worship traditions I’ve experienced and enjoyed along my spiritual journey from the silence of the Quakers to the call and response of a black Baptist congregation. From the pomp of a Roman Catholic cathedral in Ireland to the down-home fire-and-brimstone of a back-woods Pentecostal church in Appalachia. I find that so often people put their own spiritual experiences in the box of their traditions. Along the way, I’ve found that it’s not a right-or-wrong either-or thing. Once again, it’s a “yes, and.” I can learn from experiencing and participating in diverse styles and traditions of worship. I take things that are meaningful for me and find ways to weave them into my own spiritual expressions. It’s been good. It’s helped me grow. It’s expanded my spiritual understanding.

I promise that if/when I see you next I won’t greet you with a holy kiss.

Finally, it was a bit of synchronicity that I saw this post this morning of a mother shouting her praise as she finds out her son passed the bar exam. It’s worth the watch!

The Church’s Blueprint

The Church's Blueprint (CaD Ex 27) Wayfarer

You shall further command the Israelites to bring you pure oil of beaten olives for the light, so that a lamp may be set up to burn regularly.
Exodus 27:20 (NRSVCE)

I was raised attending a Methodist church that many would describe as “high church.” The sanctuary was designed to reflect the ancient churches of Europe complete with stained-glass and a pipe organ. In the center was an altar raised so that one had to ascend to it. Above the altar hung a giant cross and from the cross hung what appeared to be a candle holder, but was actually an electric light bulb that was always illuminated.

In today’s chapter of Exodus, God continues to give Moses very intricate and detailed plans for the traveling temple that the Hebrews will build for worship and sacrifice. Todays chapter describes the altar on which sacrifices would be burned and an oil lamp that would be placed outside the entrance to the Most Holy Place where the Ark of the Covenant was held. The lamp was to burn continuously, an eternal flame.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. An altar? A lamp that burned continuously? Those were front-and-center elements of the church in which I grew up. And yet, when I became a follower of Jesus (in contrast to simply being a member of my church) and I read Jesus’ actual words, I found it interesting that Jesus never gave instructions for church buildings and altars and choir lofts and pipe organs. Nowhere in all the letters of Paul, Peter, James, and John are there Exodus-like instructions for the construction of a church, cathedral, basilica, sanctuary, altar, or an eternal flame.

In part, this is because the followers of Jesus were originally part of the Hebrew tribes and they continued to worship in the Hebrew tradition. But, as Jesus’ followers fulfilled their mission to take the message of Jesus to the world, the Hebrew believers became outnumbered by the non-Hebrew followers. Many of the letters that make up what we call the New Testament address the division and the conflict that followed. Nevertheless, the Jesus movement had no church buildings for the first three hundred years, though there were gathering places. It was only after the Jesus Movement became the institution of the Holy Roman Empire in the fourth century that churches were built for all the citizens of the Roman Empire who dutifully obeyed Emperor Constantine and signed up to become members of the new state religion: Christianity.

The Roman Empire then built churches, cathedrals, and basilicas and borrowed the basic elements of all the religions they knew including altars, lamps, candles, and incense. Fast forward 1700 years and we who belong to Christian institutions around the world continue to think of “church” a the local building where we sign-up for membership and gather to worship.

I can’t help but be reminded of the words of Jesus that I quoted in yesterday’s post in which He said that He would “destroy the Temple and raise it in three days.” That was the point of yesterday’s post, and the further I get into the description of the Hebrew Tabernacle the clearer it comes into focus for me. Jesus never gave His followers blueprints for building the church because the church was never meant to be a building. Jesus didn’t tell His followers to go to church. He told them to be the church.

Jesus promised to be wherever two or three believers gathered, which makes worship possible anywhere.

Jesus never gave instructions for lighting candles or having an eternal flame because He called followers to be the Light of the World through their acts of love for others.

Jesus never gave instructions for an altar because with His death the ultimate sacrifice had been made, once-for-all.

Jesus never talked about the designs for the central location where His followers would gather because the mission was not about gathering, but dispersing to bring God’s Kingdom to earth and to bring Light to dark places.

Please don’t read what I’m not writing. A central meeting place for believers to gather and worship is a no-brainer. Jesus prescribed the sacraments. Music, liturgy, and traditions of worship began with Jesus and the Twelve and were part of worship for believers meeting in homes for hundreds of years.

In the quiet, however, I find myself feeling adamant about a few key points. Jesus didn’t ask me to go to church, but to be the church. An altar is not a table in my local church sanctuary, it’s my life itself at home, at work, and wherever I happen to be carrying my cross and sacrificially giving myself to bring God’s Kingdom to earth. The eternal flame is not a 40 watt light-bulb hanging over the altar in a church, it’s the Light of Christ that is supposed to shine through my words, actions, and relationships with others.

I’m back to where I ended yesterday’s post. Not bricks-and-mortar but flesh-and-blood.

If there was a blueprint Jesus provided for design of the church, it would look exactly like me.

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

Losing the Truth of Loss

Losing the Truth of Loss (CaD Ex 22) Wayfarer

You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.
Exodus 22:21-24 (NRSVCE)

I find it fascinating, as I read the laws of Moses in today’s chapter, that the Hebrews were commanded by God to take care of foreigners living among them, and to take care of socially and economically disadvantaged groups within their society. By the time Jesus arrived on the scene some 1500 years later, the Temple in Jerusalem had become a religious racket (which is why Jesus drove the currency exchange vendors out of the Temple). The religious system prescribed through Moses had become an institution that made money for the the chief priests and religious leaders who then leveraged their power and authority to line their own pockets at the expense of their own people, while they prejudicially looked down on anyone who wasn’t one of them. They religiously kept the rules that made them look pious while finding excuses for ignoring those that might require real compassion and generosity.

One of the reasons the early Jesus Movement grew so rapidly was the fact that Jesus’ followers were radically challenging the social structures of the day. There were no church buildings. They met in homes around the supper table and, at that table, everyone was welcome to sit together. Both women and men, Jews and non-Jews, and even slaves were welcomed to sit at the table with their master. Beyond that, the followers of Jesus took care of those who were socially and economically disadvantaged in the society of that day including widows, orphans, and lepers.

When Christianity became the state religion of Rome a few hundred years later, the Jesus Movement became a powerful religious and political institution almost overnight. The good news is that Christians would no longer be persecuted and fed to the lions in the Roman Circus. The way was paved for sincere teachers and theologians to meet together, debate, and establish core doctrines. With the authority of the Roman Empire, there was an opportunity for real change.

Interestingly enough, what followed was ironically similar to the very things Jesus criticized in the religious leaders of His own people. The movement moved from the supper tables in peoples homes to churches and cathedrals, which required a lot of money. Generosity to disadvantaged groups was curtailed as funds were shifted to lining the pockets of the church leaders and their churches and residences. Women were once again diminished as male dominance was established within the institution. Those who threatened the emerging orthodoxy, like the desert fathers and mothers, were branded heretics and either killed or forced to flee. Leadership positions in the church suddenly became positions of socio-economic and political power that were bought, sold, and traded by rich, powerful, and connected families. That’s how we eventually ended up with an eleven-year-old pope (Pope Benedict IX).

In the quiet this morning, I find myself asking a lot of questions. Our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has spent the last year grappling with the mega-trends we’re seeing in our culture and our world. There are fewer and fewer individuals claiming to be Christians. Churches, especially here in rural and small-town America, are closing for lack of members. Christianity is no longer accepted as the prevailing cultural worldview in our culture, and there is open and growing antagonism as the historic sins and failings of church institutions spark anger and resentment in many circles. Meanwhile, around the world, Christians are being persecuted and killed without earning much attention.

As a follower of Jesus, I find myself wondering if all of this is simply going to lead Jesus’ followers back to our roots. The history of the Hebrews and the history of Christianity both reveal to me that when the heart of God’s message to care for strangers, aliens, and disadvantaged groups is lost amidst the desire for social, economic, and political power, then there is a loss of spiritual potency and legitimacy. I can’t help but believe that the loss of cultural prominence is actually the road back to spiritual progress. The way of Jesus has always been about letting go, giving up, and leaving behind. The diminishment of self for the gain of others is not an optional path for those followers of Jesus who want an advanced spiritual placement. It’s foundational to being a follower at all:

“and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

-Jesus

I think that this has been lost. I confess that as I reflect on my own journey it’s clear that I am as guilty as anyone.

My heart and mind return to yesterday’s post. I want to stop being an ally to Jesus’ teachings and become an accomplice in putting them to work in tangible ways.

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

Exile, Then and Now

Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
Mark 16:8 (NIV)

As I have mentioned in previous posts, my local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been entrenched in the them of exile since this past September. It’s been a fascinating and challenging theme. On one hand, the theme of exile is a meta-theme of the Great Story:

  • Since the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden at the very beginning of the Great Story, humanity has been exiled from the intended, eternal relationship with God. This is relationship is restored at the very end of the Great Story at the end of the book of Revelation.
  • Jesus left His “home” in eternity with the Father and Spirit, to come to an exile on Earth to live an earthly existence as one of us in order to make the way for the redemption of all things.
  • Abraham followed God’s call to leave his home and wander in exile so that he might be led by God to “a land that I will show you.” (I talked about this in the most recent Wayfarer podcast).
  • Jacob and his family left Canaan to live in exile in Egypt where they escaped famine and were later enslaved by the Egyptians.
  • The tribes of Israel escaped slavery in Egypt and spent 40 years in the exilic wandering of the Sinai.
  • David had to escape from King Saul and spent many years living in exile in the desert where he became a mercenary.
  • The major prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah warned of the coming Babylonian exile.
  • The northern tribes of Israel were taken into captivity and exile by the Assyrians.
  • The tribes of Benjamin and Judah were taken into captivity and exile by the Babylonians.
  • The prophet Ezekiel prophesied in the Babylonian exile.
  • The story of Daniel takes place in the Babylonian exile.
  • The story of Esther takes place during the Babylonian exile under the Persian empire.
  • The stories of Ezra and Nehemiah are about the return from the Babylonian exile.

What struck me in the abrupt end of Mark’s version of the Jesus Story (abrupt endings were not unusual for writings and speeches of the period) is both the irony and the exile.

What is ironic is that Jesus spent much of His ministry telling those whom He healed and delivered to keep it to themselves. In almost every circumstance the person ignored Jesus and spread the good news. Now Jesus completes His mission and does exactly what He predicted He would do multiple times. The Marys are told to spread the good news, only this time they fearfully clam up.

This represents the dramatic shift that took place during the final week of Jesus’ earthly exile. He had arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover as a celebrity. Crowds gathered to praise Him with their “Hosannas!” Jesus followers were vying for positions of prominence in what they were sure would be the Messiah’s earthly reign. “Jesus” was trending in all of the social media outlets of the day and His approval ratings were through the roof.

The Marys’ fear, trembling, and Fifth-Amendment-like silence indicate just how quickly the tables had turned. The powerful political and religious leaders of Jerusalem had successfully turned the fickle crowds against Jesus. Having executed the “Head,” the Marys and the rest of Jesus’ followers knew that their own lives had become expendable. The Godfathers of the Temple’s religious racket could very well be coming for them next. And, it wasn’t just the Jewish authorities. The power of the Roman Empire itself had hung Jesus on the cross, and the Romans were notorious for snuffing out any hint of opposition to their power.

In one week the followers of Jesus had experienced a shift from exaltation to exile. This makes the events chronicled in the book of Acts even more profound for me. If the body had been stolen, or if Jesus’ followers had not met, seen, touched, and received instructions from the resurrected Christ, then how do I explain their fearless 180-degree turn from “trembling, bewildered,” and hidden followers into fearless proponents walking boldly into the Temple courts just 40 days later to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection and face both persecution and martyrdom?

This morning I find myself contemplating a similar seismic shift that I have observed during my earthly journey. I have, in my lifetime, witnessed the waning of institutional Christianity in our world. All of the mainline denominations have fractured and imploded. I continue to witness arguably the most powerful Christian institution, the Roman Catholic church, as it suffers the consequences of its own internal corruption and deep moral failings. I observe that the current era is almost universally being dubbed the “Post-Christian” world. Even the positive contributions of Christianity and the critical role that Christian faith played in the lives of important figures over the past 2000 years are being erased from the historical narrative. In recent films such as Little Women, Tolkien, and Unbroken, I observe that the critical role that Christian faith played in the lives of the characters and protagonists has been completely removed from the narrative.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself mulling over what all of this means. Please don’t hear what I’m not saying. In the first century, many followers of Jesus fled persecution in Jerusalem and lived in their own personal exiles. Scattered across the Roman Empire, their exile became a key ingredient in the spread of Jesus’ message. Perhaps followers of Jesus are, once again, finding ourselves entering a period of social exile. Looking back at the recurring presence and spiritual purpose of exile in the Great Story, I’m not sure that what I’m observing isn’t simply part of the divine storyboard.

No matter what, I come to the conclusion this morning that my role remains the same. To follow, to love, and to press on one step at a time.

Have a good week, my friend. Thanks for reading.

A Good Day

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
Mark 10:35 (NIV)

Every parent knows a set-up question when they hear it.

“Dad? I’m going to ask you something and you have to answer ‘yes.'”

“Mom? Haven’t I been really, really good this week?”

The set-up question is intended to get the desired answer from the real question. I remember being a young boy playing this game in my prayers with God. If I wanted the Vikings to win the game or my older brothers girlfriends to simply “stop by” our house (they always doted on me, and I loved it), then I would barter with the Almighty to get my wish. I might make the case for my good behavior to have been good enough to “earn” what it is I wanted. I might have promised all sorts of obedient services I could render on the back-end of my fulfilled wish should my Genie-God grant my self-centered request.

Obviously, as a young boy, I had a lot to learn about God, prayer, the Great Story, and my role in it. I’m grateful that God is eternally patient and faithful.

In today’s chapter, I found my lesson wrapped in the layout of events that Mark includes as Jesus prepares to enter Jerusalem for the climactic week of His earthly sojourn.

First, Jesus sends a rich, young man away sad because the man was unwilling to do the one thing that stood between him and God: sell everything he owned and give it to the poor. In the post-event discussion with His followers, Jesus reminds them that in the economy of God’s Kingdom (the real one, not the false one that the institutional church created for 1700 years) “the first will be last and the last will be first.”

The very next thing, Jesus tells #TheTwelve for the third time exactly what’s going to happen:

“We are going up to Jerusalem and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”

Sometimes I’ve noticed that the chapter breaks and headings that modern scholars have introduced into the text keep me from seeing the flow and connections between pieces of the story. Today was a great example. Jesus reminds the disciples that the first will be last, and then He gives them the ultimate example: I, the miracle-working Son of God who heals, frees, feeds, and raises people from the dead, am going to submit myself to suffer and die in order to redeem all things.

What happens next?

James and John come to Jesus with a “set-up question!”

“Um, Jesus? We want you to promise to do whatever it is we’re about to ask you.”

What was the question? They were looking out for numero uno. If Jesus was going to die, then the brothers Zebedee just wanted to tie up some loose ends. They wanted to make sure that their eternal future was secure. They wanted to ink the deal with Jesus, once and for all, to make sure they ended up “Top Dog” on the heavenly food chain.

I can hear the echo of Jesus’ words from what seems like every single chapter I’ve read the past two weeks: “Do you still not understand?”

For the record, James and John got about as far as I did with the Vikings winning the Super Bowl.

In the quiet, on this Good Friday morning, I am reminded of all the ways I have cast myself in the role of James and John. It might have been cloaked in religious set-up questions, bartered goodness, and the economics of a worldly institutional kingdom dressed in religious robes. The truth is what I’ve been quietly contemplating this week. In so many ways, I know that I still don’t completely get it.

Good Friday. The secret trials. The kangaroo court. The beatings. The mocking. The jeering. The crowd screaming for blood. The scourging. The nails driven into wrists and feet. The hanging naked on a cross as public spectacle; Naked, bleeding and losing control of his bodily functions in front of His own mother. And, as He hangs there between heaven and earth on the cusp of death…

Making sure his mother will be cared for.

Forgiving His executioners.

Extending grace to a confessed and convicted thief.

“The first shall be last. If you want to be the greatest, you must become the servant of all.”

A good day to open my head and heart to continue understanding, to continue getting it, and continuing to let it change me.

The Pursuit

Whoever pursues righteousness and love
    finds life, prosperity and honor.

Proverbs 21:21 (NIV)

A recently released study showed that the number of church-going Christians in the United States has dropped significantly in the past twenty years. As usual, I have heard a number of media outlets fanning the flames of fear, anxiety, and panic at the news. I’m not getting my undies in a bunch over it. There are some fascinating questions to be asked, contemplated, and discussed regarding the details in the data. Fear leads to all sorts of silly, reactive behavior.

When I was young and starting out on my faith journey, many institutional churches had a keen interest in morality and political power. There was, I know, a genuine motivation in being followers of Jesus. I experienced it first hand in my own life and in the sincere mentors I wrote about yesterday who taught me spiritual disciplines. There was also, however, a drive for size, numbers, and political influence within media-driven pastors and leaders. I myself witnessed and was often a part of a push to get people to pray the sinner’s prayer and walk an aisle to accept Jesus. While that launched many faith journeys, my own included, there were many who simply believed that they had received the heavenly stamp of approval. They had their spiritual “fire insurance” policy that would keep them out of hell, and their ticket was punched for heaven. This was often not the start of a faith journey towards becoming more like Jesus, but a transactional religious rite.

Jesus addressed this in His parable of the sower. The seed falls on all sorts of soil. Some show signs of life and growth, but never grows to maturity or produces a healthy, abundant crop.

My own observation is that there have been many who were part of institutional denominations and churches for reasons that were far different than a personal spiritual journey to follow Jesus. It could have been familial, cultural, and/or social expectation in a time when the institutional church was part of the fabric of our society. There has been a huge shift in the past twenty years. Denominations are imploding. The institutions are falling apart. In addition, being a follower of Jesus involves regular fellowship with other believers and worship. Membership and participation in an institutional church provide the opportunity for those things. At the same time, I have known many regular church members and attenders who neither worship nor participate in any real spiritual relationship with others. In addition, an institutional church is not the only place that the disciplines of worship and fellowship can be found.

This brings me back to the proverb from today’s chapter that I pasted above. It cuts right to the heart of the matter and makes me ask: “What am I pursuing?” If it’s simply a religious rite or a transactional moment that gives me some sense of eternal security, then it’s a very different thing than me being a follower of Jesus. What I have discovered is that being a follower of Jesus is a faith journey because it is a never-ending pursuit and a seeking after becoming the person Jesus calls me to be. As the proverb states, it’s not a pursuit of religion and heaven, but of righteousness and love.

Jesus said:

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things [life’s basic necessities] will be given to you as well.

Matthew 6:33 (NIV)

So, in the quiet this morning I find myself asking the very simple question: “What am I pursuing?” Then there is a follow-up question that is difficult, but necessary: “What do I want to say I am pursuing, and what do my daily words, actions, relationships, purchases, time spent, and energy expended reveal to be my life’s pursuits?

Righteousness and love.

Sometimes, I have to recalibrate and remember what the goal is. Otherwise, I get distracted pursuing so many other things.