Tag Archives: Institution

“Return”

“For the Lord your God is gracious and merciful, and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him.”
2 Chronicles 30:9b (NRSVCE)

A few years ago I wrote a play and the entire play was created out of one simple truth: At some point, you have to return home. From there I reached out and plucked a leaf off the tree of tales about a young boy who ran away from his true love and stayed away for many years. When tragedy strikes just over a decade later he has no choice but to return home, and with it he must face the thing he’s been running from for so long.

The theme of “returning” is a big one across the Great Story. There are so many stories in which people find themselves off in some kind of wilderness. Sometimes they place themselves there and sometimes they are there against their will, but somehow they eventually return in some fashion whether they are led, they are invited, they are forced by circumstance, or they simply choose to do so.

In today’s chapter we pick up the story of King Hezekiah who is trying to help his nation heal after years in which they’ve willfully wandered from the God of their ancestors and many find themselves in the wilderness of captivity. In yesterday’s chapter, Hezekiah had the Levites clean out the temple and prepare it to be used as it had been intended for the worship God. In today’s chapter he sends out a proclamation throughout the land, even to neighboring countries where people were living in exile and captivity. The proclamation simply asked people to do one thing:  return.  Hezekiah wanted all of the Hebrew people to come to Jerusalem for the biggest annual festival on the Hebrew calendar. The Passover feast celebrated God delivering their nation from slavery in Egypt.

Along my journey I’ve seen the theme of return play out in the lives of many people in many different ways. I’ve observed that we often abandon faith in God early in life. Sometimes it’s a willful choice out of disagreement with the faith institution of our childhood. Sometimes it’s prompted by pain or a tragic victimization of some kind. Sometimes it’s as simple as choosing to go our own way. So we wander, and often our spirits are stuck back in childhood. Then later in our life journey I observe people returning, not necessarily to an institution, but to God whom they find altogether different than those childhood memories of pain, anger, doubt, and frustration. Not because God has changed, but they have changed and with it their understanding and perceptions.

In today’s chapter the people of Judah returned for the Passover. Just as Joseph returned to his family. Just as David returned after years as mercenary in exile. Just as the remnant returned from Babylon in Nehemiah’s day. Just as the prodigal son returned in Jesus’ parable. Just as Peter returned after denying Jesus. Just as Jesus returned to the Father after His resurrection.

Just as….

No matter how far we may wander, no matter where we may roam, I’ve found that God’s Spirit is always whispering to our spirits:

“Return.”

 

The Fool Who Speaks Truth

But as soon as Jeremiah finished telling all the people everything the Lord had commanded him to say, the priests, the prophets and all the people seized him and said, “You must die!”
Jeremiah 26:8 (NIV)

There is a device Shakespeare used in his plays in which the fool, the jester, or the lowly are the individuals who see and speak the truth while the high and mighty continue to live in their deceits and delusions. Great story tellers often use this device. There’s the simple, small Shire-folk who bring about the downfall of the Lord of the Rings, or the eccentric Professor Trelawney who spouts foolishness 99.9% of the time but on at least two rare occasions actually speaks a prophetic word (that she doesn’t even know she uttered). I’m sure you can think of others.

Today’s chapter in the anthology of Jeremiah’s prophetic works goes back in time to the early years of his career. Jeremiah goes to the Temple court and proclaims that God will destroy Jerusalem if the people don’t change their ways. His message of warning and doom is not well received. The leaders of the Temple and other prophets seize Jer in an attempt to kill him. A trial ensues. Even the King and the army want Jeremiah dead, just as they’d extradited and executed a similar prophet named Uriah.

Elders of the community defend Jeremiah, stating that there is plenty of precedent of prophets who spoke unpopular words but were not put to death for their message. A couple of high-ranking officials come to Jeremiah’s defense, and his life is spared.

Along my life journey I have learned that great stories echo wisdom of the Great Story. When emotions are high and “the crowd” is in an uproar (especially when stirred by those in institutional authority) I often perk up my ears to listen for a still, small, contrarian voice amidst the din. Throughout the Great Story I find that God’s messengers are typically unpopular with the crowd. That’s why Jesus told His followers, “You’re blessed when people revile and rebuke you – when they speak all manner of slander against you.”

This morning in the quiet I’m reminded that Truth is rarely popular. Jesus said that the road to Life is a narrow, dusty footpath. It isn’t particularly well-marked and the trek is challenging for the relative few who are willing to embark on the journey. By contrast, the super highway the crowd follows is an easy commute (though one typically has to deal with traffic jams). And so, at the beginning of another day I find myself pondering which path I will choose today. Which role will I choose to play in the Great Story? Am I, like Jeremiah, willing to play the role of “the wise fool” who speaks Truth?

I guess my answer will be revealed in the choices I make today.

 

A Tyrant, My Faith, and Possibility

“I will summon all the peoples of the north and my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon,” declares the Lord, “and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants and against all the surrounding nations.”
Jeremiah 25:9 (NIV)

On my spiritual journey I’ve had the opportunity to worship with, and serve among, a wide variety of denominational groups. Methodist, Regular Baptist, American Baptist, Presbyterians, Quakers, and Reformed denominations to name the major ones, though the list expands to everything from Roman Catholic to Pentecostal when you consider a vast number of smaller experiences and events. I’ve observed along the way that most institutions dedicated to the notion of following Jesus, along with their respective followers, are reductionist in their faith.

Take the little town where I live, for example. The town was settled by one group of Jesus followers who were led to America from the Netherlands by their pastor. Not long after settling the group split. With time, the two groups split again. Most often, divisions were predicated on some minor disagreement in doctrinal belief. Eventually, some groups aligned with one denominational institution while others joined another. Rinse and repeat. Eventually there are over twenty different shades of the same belief system; Small groups of seemingly homogeneous people who have boxed themselves in their respective neighborhood church entrenched in their firm belief that the way they dot the “i” on their doctrinal statement or the music they sing on Sunday is the correct way.

The problem with this systemic pattern, I’ve come to believe, is that eventually my understanding of God’s designs and purposes get reduced right along side my insistence that my particular corner of truth is the correct way. It’s so easy to get lulled into believing and accepting that God’s official stamp of approval is really only good in my particular box. God can’t possibly bless or be at work in the box across the street where they dot their doctrinal “i” with little happy faces. [cue: rolling of the eyes] (“Goodness, where’s their sense of holiness and propriety?”)

As I journey through God’s Message time and time again I’m always struck at how expansive God’s purposes and designs really are. In today’s chapter, God calls the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar “my servant” and when I read the book of Daniel I find God going to great lengths to reveal Himself to the pagan monarch from “outside” God’s people, to humble Nebuchadnezzar, and to draw the Persian king in. In other words, God is working outside the box and outside the defined lines of “God’s people.” God uses and cares about an evil, arrogant, murderous tyrant who is so deceived as to believe himself a god. God expresses a genuine desire for Nebuchadnezzar to know Him.

This morning in the quiet I’m thinking about all of the different shades of denominational institutions I’ve experienced and the ways in which I saw God at work in and through each and every one of them. I’m also thinking about specific individuals with whom I shared each of those stretches of my faith journey; Individuals who isolated themselves within their denominational box to the point of believing that God could not, would not possibly bless those outside their particular box.

Lord, have mercy on us.

The further I get in my own journey the less reductionist, and more expansive my faith has become. I realize that the eyes of my heart are in the process of increasingly seeing that the divine dance of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit reaches further, has far greater design, and pulls in far more people from every walk of life than I can possibly know or imagine.

Who can possibly be saved?” Jesus’ disciples asked Him.

With man, it is impossible,” Jesus replied, and then He continued: “But, with God all things are possible.”

I don’t want my faith shrinking into the belief that it’s impossible that God would dance in the lives of others simply because they are different from me, hold to different traditions, have radically different views on religion/doctrine/life/economics/politics, or live a very different life style than mine. I want my own faith dancing and growing into the possibilities that God is dancing with the Nebuchadnezzars of my day (and in my life) as His Great Story continues to be revealed day-by-day, moment-by-moment.

Spiritual Vision and Hearing Loss

Hear this, you foolish and senseless people,
    who have eyes but do not see,
    who have ears but do not hear….
Jeremiah 5:21 (NIV)

The other night Wendy and I finished watching the third season of Grantchester produced as part of BBC’s Masterpiece Mysteries. I’m four books into James Runcie’s tales from which the television series sprung (a book review to be published on this blog one of these days). It has been interesting to both read the books and to watch the series which was adapted for the screen by Daisy Coulam. The storylines are quite different between the books and the television series.

The protagonist is an Anglican priest named Sidney Chambers who solves mysteries with the crusty, unbelieving local police Inspector, Geordie Keating. As the third season winds down Sidney finds himself having a crisis of faith that is rooted in his institutional church’s inability to see beyond rigid religiosity and demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit in any real human way.

As I have been fond of saying over the years, all good stories are reflections of the Great Story. The theme of spiritual blindness and deafness is woven throughout God’s Message. In the days of Jeremiah the prophet it was the people of Judah who were afflicted with spiritual blindness and spiritual hearing loss, as we read in today’s chapter.

By the time Jesus came on the scene some 600 years later, it was the institutional religious establishment who suffered from the affliction. Jesus was constantly accused and criticized, not by the “sinners” and common people with whom He associated and ministered, but by the institutional priests, teachers, and lawyers who incessantly criticized Him and found fault with Jesus’ teaching and lifestyle:

“To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:

“‘We played the pipe for you,
    and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
    and you did not mourn.’

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’

The upstanding, committed religious people who should have been the first to recognize what God was doing were the very ones who suffered from spiritual vision and hearing loss.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, as the saying goes. Or, as the Teacher of Ecclesiastes reminds us, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Along my journey I have found that spiritual vision and hearing loss is more acutely present within the walls of the religious establishment than without.

Wendy and I watched the character of Sidney Chambers struggle through his crisis of faith and grapple honestly with the blind, deaf church. I felt for him. I know that struggle. Many memorable episodes from my own journey bubbled to the surface. I confess, it pissed me off.

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded to accept that dealing with those who suffer spiritual vision and hearing loss will ebb and flow along the journey, but will never really end. It is a part of the Story. My role is to continually and increasingly channel the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control to which institutional religion is so often blind and deaf.

Micro Aggressions; Macro Issues

The Lord said to Moses, “Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink.”

 Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff.
Numbers 20:7-8, 11a (NIV)

I’m currently doing character study for a play my friend and I are producing next year entitled Freud’s Last Session. The script is a “What if?” play that imagines an ailing Sigmund Freud inviting a young C.S. Lewis for a visit in his study in London. Freud escaped Nazi Germany to England where he worked and lived out the end of his life. The play is set on the day Britain entered war with Germany. The two intellectuals match wits for an hour on matters of life, death, faith, and the impending war.

In the play Freud makes an argument against Hitler’s use of Christianity and religion to support his fascist regime. Lewis concedes that the institutional church is an easy target. History is filled with evil done in the name of God.

The truth is, however, that what is true on a macro level (e.g. the institutional church in Germany supporting Hitler’s evil regime) can also exist on the micro level (e.g. me doing the wrong thing and cloaking it in spiritual motives). I have no control over the macro level concerns of the institutional church, but I do control my own thoughts, words, and actions.

In today’s chapter, the Hebrew tribes are once again in grumbling mode. The wayfaring nation is camped in the desert and there is no good water source. A couple million people wandering in the desert require a lot of water to survive. Let the rebellion commence.

Per the systemic pattern that’s been well established at this point, the people’s grumbling complaints prompt Moses and Aaron to go before God and throw themselves on the ground in exasperation. Also well established by this point is the fact that God has proven to come through with provision when the survival of the people is at stake. God tells Moses to “speak” to a rock there in the camp and it will miraculously produce flowing water.

Moses, however, goes on a bit of a rant against his grumbling people and “raises his hand” to strike the rock. In his rage Moses strikes the rock not once, but twice.

Moses actions are a micro level spiritual problem with macro implications. God was very specific about speaking to the rock. Moses lost his temper and went postal on the thing. My first impression is that it seems a small matter for God to get upset about, but as every psychologist knows micro aggressions hide macro issues. As Freud explains to Lewis in Freud’s Last Session, what his patients tell him is not as important as what they don’t.

This morning I’m doing a little spiritual inventory. Are there places in my life where I’m striking when God has directed me to speak? Are there places in life in which I’m speaking or acting for my own self-centered motives and cloaking under a guise of “doing it for the Lord”?

Something to Say

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.
1 John 1:1 (NIV)

My local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been doing something rather novel and exciting over the past couple of years. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to be a part of it.

God’s Message teaches that every follower of Jesus receives spiritual “gifts” from Holy Spirit. Paul wrote to the believers in Corinth, “to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” These “manifestations” or “gifts” are specific yet diverse bents and abilities that are intended to help build up and encourage all the other believers. One of those gifts is teaching.

For the past several hundred years the prevailing paradigm in the institutional church has been that the pulpit and the Sunday morning message at my local neighborhood church is reserved for a person (typically a man) who has received a Masters Degree at a seminary approved by whatever denomination my church belongs to. This person has received a stamp of approval from the denominational board, administration, or tribunal authorizing them to teach from the pulpit on Sunday morning.

Along my journey, here’s what I’ve observed: any individual can attend seminary and get certified whether they have a teaching gift or not. And, I’ve heard some educated and approved teachers who definitely did not have the gift of teaching. By the same token, Holy Spirit can bestow the gift of teaching on any person of any age or gender despite that person never having jumped through the educational and ecclesiastical hoops dictated by  a given denominational institution.

So, our local gather of Jesus’ followers has been identifying fellow believers within our midst who may have a Holy Spirit given gift of teaching. We’re allowing them the opportunity to try out that gift on a Sunday morning in our church’s auditorium. We’re working with them to train them up and develop that gift. I’ve been asked to lead and mentor these individuals. There is, of course, a lot more to it than I have time to explain here. It’s a work in progress, but an exciting one.

As mentor of these inexperienced preachers, one of the common fears and anxieties that I hear from individuals when tasked with teaching a large group is “Who am I to teach these people?” This nagging doubt can be paralyzing during the preparation and presentation of a message.

Just last week while I was driving to Minneapolis I started listening to a series of talks called Something to Say by Rob Bell (available for download; name your own price). One of the things that Rob brings out is the fact that everyone has the authority to speak about what he or she has witnessed and experienced in their own lives. If you’ve lost a child, then you have the authority to speak about that experience. If you swam the English Channel then you’re an authority on that subject. If you’ve been a diesel mechanic your entire life then you have the authority to speak about diagnosing and fixing a diesel engine. If you were on upper Manhattan on 9/11 then you can authoritatively speak to what happened that day from your own experience.

This morning we begin a letter written by John, one of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples, who was writing what scholars believe was a “circular letter” intended to be copied and passed around to all believers. John begins his letter the same way he begins his biography of Jesus,  by stating clearly that he is speaking to what he heard with his own ears, saw with his own eyes, touched with his own hands. “I was there,” John says. “I was with Jesus. I saw the miracles. I heard the teaching. I witness Him die on the cross. I saw Him risen from the dead. I am a primary source witness to it all.”

As I lead and mentor our fledgling group of teachers, I try to instill within them the power of our stories. In my almost 40 years of teaching, preaching, training, and presentations I have rarely had a person tell me that they remember the arcane theological point I made in a message ten years ago. I continue to have, however, a steady stream of people who tell me that they have never forgotten the story that I told even when I’ve long forgotten what it was.

I’m reminded by John this morning that I may not have all the knowledge, education, or professional training this world offers me. Neither did he. I do, however, have my stories. I have seen things, heard things, touched things, and experienced things to which I can bear witness. That means that, like John, I have something to say.

When Generosity Becomes Compulsory it Becomes Something Else

Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
2 Corinthians 9:7 (NIV)

In today’s chapter, Paul continues his encouragement to the followers of Jesus in Corinth to be generous. Paul was specifically asking them to give to an offering that was being collected to support impoverished fellow believers in Jerusalem. Paul wanted all believers in Greece and Asia Minor to give so to help their fellow believers in Palestine and it was a significant personal undertaking that had social as well as economic implications. If believers in the “gentile” world gave to the predominantly Jewish believers in Judea then it could only help tear down the walls and prejudices between the two groups.

Yesterday morning Wendy and I were discussing Paul’s encouragement to generously give to their fellow believers in need. Our conversation deepened from the subject of yesterday’s blog post on generosity to the section of Paul’s letter about equality. Paul argues that those in plenty should give to those who have little so as to bring a level of equality between all.

The conversation between Wendy and me quickly meandered into the fact that the early church is often seen as a shining example of socialism. Based on the evidence, there is no doubt that the followers of Jesus in the first century, connected by a common faith, supported one another financially and were encouraged to do so. As our conversation progressed, Wendy and I surfaced what I believe are some important distinctions in the contemplation of today’s chapter.

The giving and sharing among early Christians was not uniform system but an organic one. It looked very different in varying locations and times. During my life journey I’ve personally become weary of the way our culture (the institutional church in particular) loves to turn everything into a repeatable, marketable formula. We love to try and package what Holy Spirit did at church A and market it in a cool new program so that churches B through Z can easily replicate the experience. It usually creates popularity but I rarely see it result in a replication of spiritual power.

I’ve learned that there’s a reason why God gives us wind as a word picture of Holy Spirit. Holy Spirit mysteriously blows here and quickly moves there. Holy Spirit waxes for a time in one place then inexplicably wanes. You cannot manufacture it or replicate it at will as much as we try.

Paul’s offering was never made compulsory. Money was not demanded of the believers in Corinth. Rather, they were encouraged to be generous and the decision of what and how much was to be sourced in their own hearts. I find this a critical distinction. In Paul’s paradigm each believer was to give as each believer determined and was led personally by God’s Spirit. Paul certainly gave a full court press of encouragement explaining that generosity was a part of spiritual maturity and provided examples of other believers giving. There were, however, no formulas or discussion of percentages of income. There was no larger governing authority demanding it of the Corinthians, nor were there material consequences to be doled out if they chose not to give.

This leads to a final thought. The giving and sharing between believers in the early church happened on a micro-economic level. This was a  relatively small societal sub-culture connected to one another by a loose system of communication and a common faith. It wasn’t an authoritative institutional system trying to provide for all of society. There was no governing authority compelling believers to pay a percentage of their wealth and income to be redistributed to others as that particular governing authority determined. My experience is that things which work on a micro-level in small groups, especially things which are spiritual in nature, are rarely successful at being systemized and institutionally applied at a macro-level across society.

I hope no one will read what I’m not writing this morning. I am not arguing for or against socialism as an economic or governmental construct. I’m not arguing for or against any economic or governmental system or another. They all have their strengths and weaknesses, and thus we experience the never ending debate around our globe.

The conclusion my heart is coming to this morning is this: As a follower of Jesus, no matter what the societal economic system I find myself living in, generosity is an essentially spiritual act. My free choice and willing decision to give of what I have been given to others in need is, and should be, an act of loving kindness. What’s more, as a follower of Jesus the measure to which I give should be personally motivated by the measure of love and grace I have received from Christ Jesus.

As soon as my generosity becomes compulsory, it becomes something else.