Tag Archives: Jesus

Touch and Cleansing

“Anything that an unclean person touches becomes unclean, and anyone who touches it becomes unclean till evening.”
Numbers 19:22 (NIV)

There is an old saying that “cleanliness is next to godliness” and the saying may well be rooted in the religious rituals God gave to the ancient Hebrews in the book of Numbers. The theme of today’s chapter are the things that made one “unclean” and the rituals for making them “clean” again. While there is certainly spiritual metaphor at work here, there is also practical application for keeping a nation of nomads alive approximately 3500 years ago.

Throughout today’s chapter I got the sense of reading an ancient hygiene manual. Being around things like dead bodies (which may carry all manner of contagion) make a person “unclean.” You had to remain outside the camp for seven days (we call that quarantine), ritually wash, and then wash your clothes before you could be enter the camp once more. Through the ritual, God protects the community from that which could harm it.

By the time Jesus arrived on the scene in history 1500 years later, the “clean” and “unclean” designations of Moses’ law had morphed into systemic religious and social prejudice. Rules had been made to define the rules. Religious Hebrews weren’t using the “unclean” designation to protect the community, but to separate themselves from lower class individuals and those with whom they didn’t want to mix socially.

Read Jesus’ story and you’ll find that time and time again He was breaking the rules. He broke the rules for working on the Sabbath. He touched that which the Hebrew religious leaders said was “unclean” (e.g. a leper, a woman bleeding, a woman caught in adultery).

One of the most powerful stories is when a leper falls before Jesus and says, “If you want to, you can make me clean.”

He didn’t say “you can heal me” or “you can take my leprosy away” or “you can make me whole.” He said you can make me “clean.”

The leper was an outcast, and he was required to shout “Unclean!” wherever he went so that everyone else could avoid him. No one was to touch him. Every day the social system ensured that he repeatedly confirm his unworthiness, dishonor, and shame. All day, every day he would repeat “Unclean! Unclean! Unclean!” and watch people’s faces contort with disgust. He would watch mothers hurrying their children away from him. He watch people cross the street to walk on the other side of the road. This is why you still hear the phrase “social leper” in context of a person who has become an outcast of society.

Matthew is careful to record (Matthew 8:3) that Jesus reached out and touched the leper. This was not a casual touch. This was breaking the rules. This was supposed to mean that Jesus would be unclean, too. But Jesus’ touch healed the man’s leprosy. The touch made him clean.

This morning I’m reminded of the many times and circumstances along my life journey when I’ve felt unclean. Despite the common misperception of those who’ve never really read the story, Jesus didn’t come to perpetuate systemic uncleanliness. He didn’t come to double down on societal rules, stigmas, and shame. He didn’t come to tell me how terrible, unworthy, and unclean I am. I’m well aware of my uncleanliness without having to be reminded.

Jesus came to reach out with grace and love and compassion and power. Jesus came to touch the unclean person and make them clean. Present company included.

Prejudice, Comparison, and That Which I Control

Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite. “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?” they asked. “Hasn’t he also spoken through us?” And the Lord heard this.
Numbers 12:1-2 (NIV)

Our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has spent the past eight weeks in a series on “Kingdom Culture.” In the prayer Jesus taught His followers to pray it says, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We’ve been talking about what it means to live and relate with one another as a part of God’s kingdom on earth.

The sticky wicket, of course, is that any group of humans in an organization tend to have relational struggles and conflicts over time. Despite what Dr. Luke described in Acts 2: 42-47 as an idyllic beginning, even the early church began to struggle rather quickly. Most of the letters that make up what we call the New Testament address relational struggles within the local groups of Jesus’ followers. Paul himself had famous rows with Peter and Barnabas.

It was no different for Moses and the Hebrew tribes as they leave Egypt and begin to be make a nation of themselves. In the previous chapter the conflict was with the whines of the “rabble” within their midst. Today is is Moses very own siblings.

What’s fascinating to me is that Miriam and Aaron at first complain about Moses’ wife being a Cushite. There were multiple regions referenced as Cush in ancient times. It is not known for sure who they were referencing here. At least some scholars believe that they were referencing Moses’ wife Zippora who was from the land of Midian. Whatever the case, they complained about Moses’ wife being a foreigner, but then immediately discuss what appears to be envy and jealousy for their brother, Moses’, standing and position. How very human of us it is to complain about one thing on the surface (Moses being married to a Cushite) that masks a deeper resentment (sibling rivalry, envy, and jealousy about brother Moses’ standing with God as leader and prophet).

This morning I’m thinking about how common the human penchant is for prejudice, jealousy, and envy which leads to back-biting, quarrels, and conflicts both small and great. I’m reminded of Jesus’ conversation with Peter on the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee when he prophetically reveals to Peter the violent end he will endure. Peter’s immediate response was to look at John and ask, “What about him?

Jesus answered, If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.”

I am so given to worrying about others, comparing myself to others, and seeking some sort of perceived personal equity with others. Jesus response to Peter tells me to stop concerning myself with useless and destructive comparisons. Each person is on his or her own respective journey, and their journey will not look like mine. My time, energy and resources are to be focused on my own journey, my own relationship with God, and the personal thoughts, words, and actions I control with my heart, mind, eyes, ears, mouth, hands and feet.

Leadership and Rabble Cravings

The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat!
Numbers 11:4 (NIV)

Throughout my life journey I’ve had the privilege of serving in numerous leadership positions from small groups to decent sized organizations. Leading others can be both a joy and a curse and it is almost always a challenge. When you step into the spotlight of leadership you immediately become an easy target.

This morning as I started reading the chapter I immediately laughed to myself. We just read at the end of yesterday’s chapter that the Hebrew tribes had finally embarked on their journey through the wilderness to the promised land.  We’re only four verses into journey and people are complaining. Not only are there complaints, but I found it humorous that the author describes the complainers as “rabble” driven by their “cravings.”

Complaints are part of the territory for any leader. Sometimes the complaints are well-founded and point to critical needs that need to be contemplated and addressed by leadership. There are also complaints that arise from disgruntled members whose focus is less about the vision, mission, or good of the whole and more about their individual felt needs and self-centric perceptions. When you’re busy trying to lead a major group effort, these grumblers can be maddeningly frustrating to manage. They drove Moses to such madness that he asked God to kill him rather than have to deal with them. Even God’s reply sounds like an exasperated parent dealing with whining children:

“Tell the people, Consecrate yourselves. Get ready for tomorrow when you’re going to eat meat. You’ve been whining to God, ‘We want meat; give us meat. We had a better life in Egypt.’ God has heard your whining and he’s going to give you meat. You’re going to eat meat. And it’s not just for a day that you’ll eat meat, and not two days, or five or ten or twenty, but for a whole month. You’re going to eat meat until it’s coming out your nostrils. You’re going to be so sick of meat that you’ll throw up at the mere mention of it.”

I’m reminded of whiners and complainers I’ve had the opportunity to manage over the years. I confess that the word “rabble” seems an apt moniker in some cases. In every case, however, I have to recognize that they were/are not evil individuals or bad people. I think today’s chapter is a great object lesson in the fact that whiners and complainers are often individuals discomforted by their own felt needs. These poorly managed inner cravings get expressed as tantrum-like complaints and childish demands that steal leaders’ time, energy, and attention away from more important matters.

This morning I’m encouraged by the truth that Moses, and it appears even God Himself, can reach a point of exasperation. I’m reminded that more than once Jesus expressed exasperation (i.e. “How long shall I put up with you?” Lk 9:41). When I as a leader experience craving-driven whines I am in good company.

I’m also reminded this morning that listening to and addressing complaints is part of every leader’s job description. It comes with the territory and being a good leader means managing complaints, including the craving-driven whines of self-centered rabble. Jesus said if you want to be a good leader you have to be a good servant, even to those can be frustrating and distracting.

God, grant me wisdom, patience and grace in the positions of leadership to which I have been called. Help me to serve well, love well, and lead well – even in my periods of utter exasperation.

featured photo courtesy of Tamara via Flickr

Old Ways Die Hard

“Take the Levites from among all the Israelites and make them ceremonially clean.”
Numbers 8:6 (NIV)

When I was a kid, I remember the feeling that the Reverend of our family’s church was different. There was something special about him. He dressed differently, he was treated differently, and we children were told to be on our best behavior around him. If he came to visit our house it was a special occasion and we were give instructions that didn’t accompany any other visitor.

The idea of priests, pastors, imams and rabbis being afforded special status runs deep in us. In the Judeo-Christian tradition is goes all the way back to the days of Moses and the ancient religious prescriptions we’re reading about here in the book of Numbers. The priesthood was reserved for the descendants of Aaron. Assistance to the priests was reserved only for those men in the tribe of Levi. There were special rituals of consecration for both. The priests were made “holy” and, according to today’s chapter, the Levites were made “clean.” The priests took on special priestly garments, the Levites washed theirs. Blood was applied to the priests but just waved over the Levites. It is a spiritual caste system in the making.

God’s Message clearly points to a radically new paradigm after Jesus’ ascension and the outpouring of Holy Spirit. There is now no distinctions between Jews and non-Jews, men and women, rich and poor, slave and free. Salvation is offered to all without distinction. Each and every one is an essential part of the same body. Every member is part of a royal priesthood. Spiritual gifts are given to all without regard to age, education, status, maturity, or purity. Old paradigms have passed away, a new paradigm has come. The religious caste system is over.

Or not.

People are people. Deeply held beliefs and traditions are hard to break. Along my spiritual journey I’ve witnessed that we continually rebuild systems with which we’re comfortable. We make special schools for “ministry” and then pick and choose who may attend (by gender, by socio-economic status, by social standing, by educational merit, by perceived moral purity). We develop special rituals and hoops for individuals to jump through, and then we treat them special and “different” once they’ve successfully jumped through them.

Having spent time as both pastor in the pulpit and as (seemingly) peon in the cheap seats, I’ve witnessed our penchant for treating pastors and priests differently from both sides. Having a systematic process of education for leadership is not a bad thing, but when the institutional system begins affording special social rank and privilege (by design or default), then it begins to tear at the heart of what Jesus was all about.

This morning I’m thinking about how given we are as humans to accepting certain thoughts, beliefs, and social mores without question. I’ve noticed along the way that some people get less likely to question them the further they get in life. I’m finding myself becoming more inclined to question, to prod, to push. “Old things pass away, new things come,” it is said. But we only have room for new things if we are willing to let go of the old. The tighter we cling to that which is dead, the more impossible it is to truly experience new life.

Love and Life; Hatred and Murder

 For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother…

Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.
1 John 3:11-12a, 15 (NIV)

Once again yesterday we citizens of the U.S. were shaking our heads in disbelief at the unfathomable event that took place in Las Vegas late on Sunday evening. While this event was unprecedented in its scope, there is a repetition that I feel when these tragic events unfold.

The endless press coverage. The same video clips played in a ceaseless loop. The scramble to learn everything possible about the perpetrator and the victim. The press conferences with law enforcement. The statements from world leaders. The eyewitness interviews on the street. The outcry from every side of the political spectrum. The talking heads giving psychological profiles and “expert” opinion.

We’ve been down this road before. Here we are again going through the same motions.

This morning’s chapter provided some synchronicity for me. John makes a direct connection between love/hate and life/death. It caught me off guard when John reminds me of Jesus’ command to love others, then immediately switches to the word picture of Cain (If you don’t know the story, see Genesis 4) who murdered his brother.

Whoa. Wait a minute. Hold the phone. How do we get from “love” to “Cain?”

John answers this at the end of the paragraph:

Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.

So, here’s what I’ve been meditating on in the quiet of my walk around the hotel parking lot this morning:

Jesus said He came to give Life. Life is the goal. Increasing Life, abundant Life, eternal Life, fullness of Life.

The conduit, the flow, to Life is love.  Love God. Love others.

When we refuse to love, we shut off the conduit. We shut love down like a valve. The flow stops. Things back up. Stop the flow of water in the eco system and everything dies. Stop the flow of blood and the body dies. Without the flow of love there is a very real spiritual and universal death that  naturally occurs.

When we choose into hate, we are consciously, willfully choosing to stop the flow of love that allows for Life.

Hatred is cosmic murder.

One can say that it’s not the same thing as the physical carnage on the Las Vegas strip, but that’s the very point that John was making in his connection between hatred and Cain. In an eternal perspective it is very much the same. There is direct correlation between hatred and murder.

And, that leaves me with some very serious personal questions to mull over today.

 

From Spiritual Mountain Top to Relational Valley

Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness.
1 John 2:9 (NIV)

A topic of much conversation in our home and circles of friends of late has been that of community. It’s a topic our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been pushing into. In short, we’re talking about how we all do life together and related to one another. It doesn’t take long for the conversation to bring out three common observations:

  • “It is messy.”
  • “It is hard.”
  • “It is complicated.”

Yes. It always has been, and it always will be living East of Eden.

Along this life journey I often encounter those who love the description of believers in the heady first days of the Jesus’ movement as described by Dr. Luke in his book The Acts of the Apostles:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts,praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

This is often held as an ideal to which all of us should strive and aspire. Striving for unity, sharing, and love in life with others is a worthy goal. I have actually had experiences that feel a lot like what Luke describes.

This idyllic experience usually happens at a camp or some kind of retreat environment. It’s that long weekend or week with other like-minded individuals in beautiful natural surroundings. I often hear it described as a “mountain-top experience.” You want to stay there. You want to bottle it up so you can can continue to consume the experience over and over and over again. When you’re at camp having a mountain-top experience you don’t want to leave and go back to “real life.” You’d love to “stay here forever.”

But, that doesn’t happen.

It didn’t happen long-term for the believers in Jerusalem, either. Jesus’ twelve disciples were scattered across the known world sharing the Message. Most of them endured violent ends. Despite the mountain-top experience of that early period of time, history tells us that the believers in Jerusalem eventually faced persecution, conflict, disagreements, strained relationships, and struggle.

Most of the books of what we call the New Testament were originally letters. The letters were by-and-large addressed to individuals or small “communities” of Jesus’ followers. What motivated the authors of the letters was typically problems that were being experienced in community. There were disagreements, relational struggles, theological controversies, moral controversies, personal controversies, persecutions, attacks from outside the community, and attacks from within the community. Leaders such as John, Peter, Paul and Timothy took up their stylus and papyrus to address these problems.

The letter of 1 John is exactly that. A philosophical movement known as gnosticism had sprung up both outside and inside the community of believers teaching things contrary to what John, the other disciples, and the leaders of the community had originally taught about Jesus and his teachings. John was writing to directly address some of these issues. Breaking down today’s chapter, I find John addressing several of them in and between the lines of almost every sentence.

What struck me this morning, however, was John’s bold claim that anyone who claimed to be in “the light” but hated someone in the community, that person was clearly not in the light, but in darkness. In other words, if you are part of Jesus, the “Light of the World” then your life will be marked by love. Jesus taught that we were to love both our friends and our enemies. John is reminding us of the utter foundation of all Jesus’ teaching. Love God. Love others. Everything else is built on these two commands. We have to get that right before anything else.

This morning I’m thinking about some of the disagreements, controversies, relational strife, strains, and struggles I know in my own life, relationships, and community. I experience the “mountain-top” for a moment or a period of time, but eventually I find myself back in the valley of relationship. Community is messy. Community is hard. Community is complicated. John’s reminder is apt.

As a follower of Jesus, I have to accept that there is no exemption from the command to love. If I’m not ceaselessly, actively working to get that right every day with every relationship, I’m not sure anything else really matters.

 

Taking Measure of Life

I will stretch out over Jerusalem the measuring line used against Samaria and the plumb line used against the house of Ahab.
2 Kings 21:13 (NIV)

It’s been about two and a half years since Wendy and I moved into our new house. I think we grow to appreciate it more as time goes on. We’re incredibly grateful for our home.

It has been an interesting experience for me to move into a newly built house and see how the structure stands the process of settling and the test of time. The contrasting heat of Iowa summers and cold of Iowa winters makes for a tremendous amount of expanding and contracting. As we sit and have breakfast in the mornings we watch the sun coming up in the eastern sky and can hear the little structural creaks of as the suns rays warm the house and things expand. Moulding that was flush when we moved in now shows a hint of a gap. You begin to see a house’s strengths and weaknesses when measured against time and the elements.

In today’s chapter the scribes record the words that the prophets (they don’t specify who) spoke about King Mannaseh’s life and reign. They use a word picture that God shared through the ancient prophets repeatedly. The metaphor was a measuring line and/or a plumb line:

  • I will make justice the measuring line
        and righteousness the plumb line (Isaiah)
  • This is what he showed me: The Lord was standing by a wall that had been built true to plumb, with a plumb line in his hand. (Amos)
  • Who marked off [the sky’s] dimensions? Surely you know!
        Who stretched a measuring line across it? (Job)
  • “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when this city will be rebuilt for me from the Tower of Hananel to the Corner Gate. The measuring line will stretch from there straight to the hill of Gareb and then turn to Goah. (Jeremiah)
  • He took me there, and I saw a man whose appearance was like bronze; he was standing in the gateway with a linen cord and a measuring rod in his hand. (Ezekiel)
  • Then I looked up, and there before me was a man with a measuring line in his hand. (Zechariah)

Both a measuring line and plumb line are construction tools used to make sure a structure is measured correctly and on the level. Different versions are used to this day. My friend Doug is a master carpenter. Despite all of the modern technology available to him, I’ve watched him pull out his trusty, dusty old “plumb bob” when he’s hanging a door just as carpenters have done for thousands of years.

It’s a powerful metaphor when you think about it. Does my life measure up to what I say it does? Are my intentions, thoughts, words, and actions on the level with what I profess to believe? Even Jesus used this word picture parallel between life and construction. It eerily apt this morning in light of watching coastal homes destroyed by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in recent weeks:

“These words I speak to you are not incidental additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living. They are foundational words, words to build a life on. If you work these words into your life, you are like a smart carpenter who built his house on solid rock. Rain poured down, the river flooded, a tornado hit—but nothing moved that house. It was fixed to the rock.

“But if you just use my words in Bible studies and don’t work them into your life, you are like a stupid carpenter who built his house on the sandy beach. When a storm rolled in and the waves came up, it collapsed like a house of cards.” Matthew 7:24-27 (MSG)

This morning I’m prompted to take an honest “measurement” of my own life. Mannaseh was King of Judah and a branch of the tree of David, who was “a man after God’s own heart,” but Mannaseh’s life and actions didn’t measure up. His life was “off-plumb.”

What about me? Where has time settled me into behaviors that have slowly left me off-center? Where have the elements and circumstances of life revealed weaknesses in my foundation? Where is my life creaking? Where are my relationships worn?

One of the things that I’ve learned as a homeowner is that its far easier and less expensive in the long run to catch small, “off-plumb” problems and fix them before they become disastrous headaches.