Tag Archives: Jesus

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.

Kindness without Discernment is Foolishness

Hezekiah received the envoys and showed them all that was in his storehouses—the silver, the gold, the spices and the fine olive oil—his armory and everything found among his treasures. There was nothing in his palace or in all his kingdom that Hezekiah did not show them.
2 Kings 20:13 (NIV)

Whether it be books, plays, television or movies, Wendy and I are lovers of good stories. We often find ourselves sitting on the couch watching a scene of a television program or movie and we will suddenly realize where this is leading. It’s really funny when it hits us at the same time and we turn to one another to exclaim our prophetic realization.

I had a similar moment this morning as I read the story of King Hezekiah welcoming the Babylonian envoys. As it describes him welcoming the envoys with open arms and showing them all his treasures my heart was like “Dude! Can’t you see they’re casing the joint!?!

In the very next paragraph, the prophet Isaiah confirmed my premonition.

Along this journey we encounter many people. As a follower of Jesus I am called to love them. My life, my words, and my relationships are to marked by patience, kindness, and gentleness. This does not mean, however, that I am to be naive and foolish. Jesus told His followers “be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves.” Most people don’t even know that quote. let alone have it memorized. It doesn’t get artistically posted on Pinterest. I’ve never heard a sermon preached on that one. But it’s important. Loving kindness without wisdom and discernment becomes foolishness.

My thoughts go to a person I know whose life has been marked by a long string of bad relationships. Out of a desire to be loving and kind to others in need, this person has attracted a string of crazy makers into their life. Like Hezekiah, I’ve watched them open up the treasures of their heart and life to others who are only too happy to take advantage. The crazy makers tragically raid this person’s being through manipulation and they don’t realize it until much injury of life and soul has occurred.

This morning I’m reminded of the importance of discernment. I am called to love, but also be shrewd. Everyone needs love, but there are those who (consciously or subconsciously) seek innocent “lovers” whom they can take advantage for their own self-centered motivations. In following Jesus’ command, I want to be innocent enough not to be suspicious of everyone, but shrewd enough to discern when someone is merely casing the joint.

The Wisdom of Silence

But the people remained silent and said nothing in reply….
2 Kings 18:36 (NIV)

Wendy’s and my morning routine begins each day meeting in our dining room for breakfast. Our dining room looks east over our back yard and the field of prairie grass behind it. If the sun isn’t too bright we get to watch the sun rise up over the tree line as we drink our respective tea and coffee and catch up on the news of the morning.

Of late Wendy and I have been reading a lot about the outbursts that are happening all over the States from college campuses to the streets and parks of various cities. As most of us know, it spills over into social media where it seems one cannot share a reasoned, personal opinion without getting pummeled, insulted and threatened by strangers or people you barely know. Just a few weeks ago my friend Dr. Bob shared with me a brief glance at the vitriolic string of threatening comments and emails he’d received after his editorial appeared in the New York Times. We are living in reactive times.

During our quiet morning conversations Wendy and I have mulled over a couple of thoughts about this entire trend. First, at least in some cases the screams and conflict are meant to create a reaction and the press coverage that goes along with it. National attention is exactly what some groups desire to recruit like minded individuals and financial support. Second, we live in an unprecedented age of 24/7 news coverage from endless outlets competing for ratings and advertising dollars. These news outlets have a need for news they can report and keep audience attention. I wonder, at times, how complicit the media is in creating or sustaining the conflicts with their coverage to the point that it gets blown out of proportion compared to the reality of the situation. Finally, it has come to light that another country had agents trolling American social media during our election year stirring up reactive anger between those of opposing political views. They believed that the conflict would be destabilizing. Mission accomplished. Welcome to a new era of cyber warfare: stimulating your enemies to destroy themselves from within.

This came to mind this morning as I read today’s chapter about a very ancient conflict. The Assyrian empire was blitzing its way through the region. They destroyed Israel and were now at the gates of the walled city of Jerusalem. The strategy for thousands of years of siege warfare was for the raiding army to send its best communicator to have a parley with the besieged city’s leaders. The city officials would stand on the wall and the besieging army’s mouthpiece would stand below and yell up at them. The goal was to threaten, cajole, and intimidate those in the city into giving up.

The Assyrian commander comes to wall of Jerusalem and does his best to smack talk the people of Judah into fear. He tells them not to listen to their king, not to trust their God, and to look at how things ended up for their other enemies. For added effect he throws in that a long siege would result in them being so starved for food and drink that they’d eat and drink their own excrement.

But then the scribes record that the people said nothing. They didn’t react in anger. They didn’t talk smack back. They didn’t take the bait. They remained silent.

This morning I’m reminded that the teacher of Ecclesiastes wisely reminds us “there is a time to speak, and a time to be silent.” I’m reminded that when brought before the kangaroo court of His accusers bent on state-sanctioned homicide, Jesus remained silent. There is a time for discussion and reasoned debate. There are times to raise our voices in protest. But there are also times like the people of Judah before the Assyrian parley when we need the wisdom to be silent and ignore the taunts of others.

God, grant me the wisdom to know when to speak, when to be silent, and the discernment to know the difference.

[Now, if you’ll excuse me I have a breakfast date with Wendy down in the dining room.] Have a great week everyone.]

Still Using the Same Bloody Playbook

So Jehu destroyed Baal worship in Israel. However, he did not turn away from the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit—the worship of the golden calves at Bethel and Dan.
2 Kings 10:28-29 (NIV)

As I read the chapter this morning, I couldn’t help but think about the news reports coming out of the cities held by ISIS. Our own media have been slow to report the brutal daily realities there. People forced into religious submission and immediate death sentences for any who do not proclaim religious allegiance. Immediate death for anyone caught in the most minor moral infraction such as smoking a cigarette or not wearing the right garb. Those of other faiths beheaded or crucified. Dead bodies hung out for public display as a warning to all.

Life in ancient times was bloody and brutal. Today’s chapter is not a light, devotional read. It’s a veritable blood bath. Last week I used the Godfather saga as a modern parallel to Jehu’s take over of Ahab and Jezebel’s regime. The word picture continues to parallel in the today’s chapter. Having “capped” Ahab and Jezebel, the new Godfather Jehu consolidates his power by killing all of Ahab and Jezebel’s sons, all of their inner circle, their loyal followers, and then all of the members of the religious cult of Baal to whom Ahab and Jezebel zealously ascribed.

For ancient political upstarts like Jehu this type of bloody takeover was nothing new or groundbreaking. There was a well-worn playbook for taking over and consolidating power, and Jehu’s actions were strictly takeover “by the book.” Even in The Godfather II they reference the ancient Roman Empire as blueprint for how they organized and carried out “business.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I thought the most important thing mentioned in today’s chapter was when it is reported that Jehu had wiped out the corruption and idolatry of Ahab and Jezebel, but then he continued to commit his own personal idolatry by worshipping the idols of golden calves. One idolatrous regime gives way to another. Jehu was happy to violently wipe-out his enemies and set up his own personal empire, but in the end he wasn’t that much different from his predecessors.

Which brings me back to today’s headlines, and my own thoughts in the quiet of the morning. The more things change, the more they stay the same. The reports out of cities controlled by Islamic State read like the ancient story of Jehu (and the Inquisition, as well). Even in our own “modern” and “enlightened” culture we have groups of people both left and right who have actively ascribed to violence, power, and intimidation to do away with those who disagree and subject others to their personal world views.

Maybe we’re not so civilized as we think we are.

I’m reminded this morning of Jesus’ words, “You have heard it said…, but I say….” As a follower of Jesus I am called to a different playbook that says if you want to gain power you have to let it go, if you want to lead you have to serve, if you want to ascend you must humbly bow. Jesus’ playbook begins with a change of heart that leads to a change in behavior and relationships. It grows organically by contagion.

The problem with Ahab, Jehu, Rome, the Corleones, Islamic State, the Alt-Right, and Antifa is that it’s all about external power to subject others to their will, but this only serves to sow seeds of hatred and rebellion in the hearts those subjected. Thousands of years of human history and we still haven’t learned the lesson. We’re still falling back to the old playbook. It often works, for a time.

I much prefer Jesus’ strategy. Start with changing the individual heart and then working outward using simple tactics of love, grace, forgiveness, and generosity. I’m not forcing anyone to follow this path, mind you, but I’m happy to buy you a cup of coffee or a pint and tell you about my own personal experience.