Tag Archives: Institution

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.

My Butt Ain’t That Big

God’s Message to his anointed,
    to Cyrus, whom he took by the hand…
…I’ve singled you out, called you by name,
    and given you this privileged work.
    And you don’t even know me!
Isaiah 45:1,4 (MSG)

Yesterday, over coffee with a friend, I was sharing my experiences of attending a fundamentalist Bible college one semester. My friend asked me where the college was and I told him where it was located.

He looked at me in surprise.

I never knew there was a Bible college there!” he exclaimed.

Shhhhh!” I whispered, lifting my finger to my mouth. “They don’t want you to know they’re there!

I was jesting, of course, but the truth of the matter is that throughout most of my life journey I’ve found many followers of Jesus, and especially many of the denominational institutions, are an exclusionary bunch. Membership requires strict adherence to a rigid set of doctrinal beliefs and/or public adherence to a list (sometimes formal, sometimes not) of moral and puritanical behavioral rules. If you don’t tow the line, you’re not welcome. Many will go so far as to say that if you don’t tow the line then you’re not only not welcome in their church but you’re also not going to be welcome in heaven either.

The further I get in my spiritual journey, and the deeper I get in my relationship with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the more I’ve come to see this exclusionary religious model, adhered to by so many proclaimed Christian institutions and denominations, as antithetical to God’s actual Message and example.

In today’s chapter the prophet Isaiah gives a message about Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid empire in the middle part of the sixth century B.C.. Cyrus was not Jewish. He didn’t claim to believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. In fact, Cyrus had a reputation of a “live and let live” policy for allowing the nations he conquered continue to pursue their local religions. It was quite progressive in his day. Cyrus was not one of “God’s chosen” people, and yet God through the prophet Isaiah calls Cyrus his “anointed” whom He has “taken by the hand.” God has “singled Cyrus out” and “called him by name” even though Cyrus has no knowledge of this.

This morning I am reminded that the Creator, and Almighty God, does not live inside the box of my personal doctrinal and religious parameters. I am responsible to follow the path to which I am called, to follow Jesus’ teachings and example, to live out the comprehensive law of Love, to let God be God, and leave judgment to the Judge who is infinitely beyond all that my finite mind can think or imagine.

The Judgment Seat of Christ is a huge chair.

My butt isn’t nearly big enough to fit on it.

 

We Love Our Rules

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say: No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God.
Leviticus 21:16-17 (NRSV)

One of the things that I must continually remind myself as I read through the ancient laws of Moses: They didn’t work.

The rules did provide a moral and religious framework for guiding Hebrew society. One could argue that the ideals presented in the chapters we’re reading provided an idealistic goal for Hebrew society to shoot for. The rest of history, however, proves that they continually fell short of the mark. The books of history are a record of the Israelites perpetually doing the things they knew they shouldn’t do. That’s why there are so many books of prophets, because God would always have to call them back to repentance.

One of the cornerstones of theology for followers of Jesus is this very fact. You can’t work to earn salvation because no person perfectly executes the perfection God requires. No human being can reach moral perfection of their own human effort. We are broken people who perpetually do things we know we shouldn’t do and refuse to do things we know we should. All of these rules for moral and spiritual perfection taught us how we couldn’t do it on our own, in and of ourselves. We need a savior.

This morning I’m thinking about the ways I have seen and experienced the institutional church and religious organizations trying to lay Levitical-type legalistic rules over the grace of Jesus’ sacrifice. “You are saved by grace through faith,” we often say and then continue with: “and you must do this and that and not do that or this because it says so in God’s law.” I find it fascinating that God provides forgiveness and salvation freely to anyone who will simply accept it, regardless of our moral standing, and we still want to run back to embrace the religious rules we’ve never been able to keep in the first place.

Inclusivity

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people.
Titus 2:11 (NIV)

While in Israel I attended Shabat services at the National Synagogue. It was a fascinating experience for me. Prior to the service I watched outside the main entrance as men kissed their wives and children before separating. As an adult male I was allowed to enter and sit on the main floor. Women and children were not allowed in that section. I found it curious how many women just waited in the lobby for their husbands, seemingly uninterested in the service.

One of the things that marked the early followers of Jesus was an inclusivity that stood in stark contrast to the Jewish culture out of which it sprang. The Jewish cultural of that day was a hierarchical system in which gender, education, and socio-economic status separated people into clearly defined strata of those who were blessed and acceptable to God and those to whom, they believed, God looked down His divine nose.

Jesus blew all of that up. He spoke to women publicly and women were among his most devout followers. In fact, evidence suggests that Jesus’ ministry was largely bankrolled by wealthy women. Jesus’ closest disciples were relatively poor and uneducated yokels from outside the ranks of worldly power. Jesus healed Romans, women, and social outcasts. Despite the intense internal conflict it created, Jesus’ early followers did not discriminate in their gatherings and worship. Women, men, Jews, Greeks, and Romans all worshiped together. Everyone sat together at the table to partake in the “love feast” which culminated in sharing the bread and the cup of Communion. Even slaves and their masters were seated at the Lord’s table as equals in the eyes of God. I can scarcely imagine what a mind bending, social paradigm shift this must have been.

In today’s chapter, Paul urges the young leader Titus to devote himself to his teaching to older men, younger men, older women, younger women, and slaves. Even the fact that Titus is expected to minister to each group of individual in their respective spiritual needs was a radical departure from the norm.

Today I’m wrestling in thought and spirit with the ways our human institutions, across history, always drift back towards exclusivity. Race, nationality, gender, age, education, occupation, and socio-economic standing are among the demarkation points from which society and the institutional church, and we as members thereof, exclude others. As I enter my second half-century on this earthly journey, my desire is that my life be increasingly marked by the inclusivity that marked Jesus’ example and teaching. I want my words and actions to exemplify love, patience, peace, kindness, and gentleness with all.

chapter a day banner 2015Featured image of First United Methodist Church (Shreveport, Louisiana) Love Feast as covered in this Shreveport Times article.

Prophets and Political Satire

“This is a lament and is to be used as a lament.”
Ezekiel 19:14c (NIV)

One of the popular theatre events in London these days is a play entitled King Charles III in which the playwright audaciously imagines the reign of Queen Elizabeth’s son. What makes the plays so controversial is that the characters are still alive and the events depicted haven’t happened yet. Queen Elizabeth is stubbornly alive and remains on the throne. Her son, Charles, is still waiting to ascend to the throne of England that he’s been preparing for his entire (and, at this point, long) life. The play created quite a stir when it first opened and more than a few people questioned its propriety.

In a similar fashion, today’s chapter would have created quite a stir when Ezekiel first performed it. The chapter begins and ends establishing the fact that it is a lament . In fact, the last line (pasted above) is an authors note to the reader/performer that it is lament and is only to be used as such. It is a poem, perhaps put to music and sung, meant as a funeral dirge. But, the metaphorical subjects of the lament were members of the royal house of Judah who were very much alive.

Ezekiel’s lament was both prophetic and politically satirical. It was an SNL skit of his day. It would have offended, poked, and prodded the political power brokers of his day. He was trying to make a point: your days are numbered and we will all be lamenting your eventual downfall.

Today, I’m thinking about the power of satire, which I believe has been a part of culture since the birth of culture. Even God was not afraid of using his prophets to satirically poke at His ancient people and their rulers. It’s one of the things that I love about theatre in all of its various forms. It has the ability to provoke thought, conversation, and change. It’s too bad the institutional church of our day is so uptight. We could use regular doses of satire.