Tag Archives: Jews

Same Story, Different Age

Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”
Jonah 3:4 (NIV)

One of the things I’ve experienced in my continued and repeated reading through God’s Message is that every time I read through a section it is layered with new meaning simply because I am at a different place in my life journey than I was before. I’d like to think that there is some increased depth of wisdom, knowledge, and maturity to account for it. There are times, however, that simply being in a different place on life’s road experiencing different circumstances and challenges offers the opportunity to see things from a different perspective.

I am once again struck this morning by the foreshadowing in the story of Jonah of the experiences of Paul as recorded in the book of Acts.

Reading the ancient prophets can always feel like a long slog in this chapter-a-day journey. They repeat their messages of warning, judgment, instruction, and encouragement over and over again to God’s people. They perform shocking acts of public performance art as metaphorical word pictures. On and on and on they preach and proclaim, and the people rarely responded. While there were periods of repentance and spiritual renewal, most of the story is about God’s people hard-heartedly refusing to listen to God’s Message.

In Jonah’s story, we have a single prophet who proclaims a simple message of eight words. It doesn’t even name God, provide instruction, or offer encouragement. The entire city of Nineveh, from the least to the greatest, repents and seeks God’s forgiveness. An entire city of non-Jewish, Gentile people who are the key enemy of Israel, respond to one minor prophet who proclaims eight words from God.

In the book of Acts, we read of Paul going from city to city proclaiming Jesus’ message. He always began at the Jewish synagogue. More often than not, his message fell on deaf ears and hard hearts while those who were not “God’s chosen people” received it heartily, just like the Ninevites who heard Jonah’s eight-word sermon.

This morning I find myself reminded of the message we heard this past Sunday. It reminded me that life can often be like a new movie that tells an old story with different players. The Lion King is simply the story of Hamlet in the jungle with animals. In the same way, life often repeats itself. How often today are Jesus’ followers like God’s people in ancient times? Do we sit isolated in our holy huddles choosing to hate, condemn, and cast off any concern for those outside the walls of our church building as we ritualistically repeat God’s message of Jesus dying and returning to Life for all people?

Love God,” Jesus basically said as he boiled down God’s commands, adding, “Love people; All people.” God’s Message in six words. Jonah had eight. Pretty simple, if my ears and heart are open to hearing it, believing it, and living it out.

 

Of Vows, Legal Code, and Secret Handshakes

Moses said to the heads of the tribes of Israel: “This is what the Lord commands: When a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.
Numbers 30:1-2 (NIV)

When I was a kid growing up on the northwest side of Des Moines, we had a populous and active neighborhood. There were a lot of kids on our block and along the surrounding streets. We regularly hung out and played together. Freeze-tag, Statue-tag, Ding-Dong Ditch ’em, and any number of games might be in the cards on any given summer evening as a bunch of kids gathered to play until the street lights came on along Madison Avenue.

As kids, when you made a promise to one another there were always ways that we pledged ourselves to our word. Secret handshakes were a staple. When you pledged yourself with a secret handshake the deal was sealed. It was golden, and you were under obligation.

In the files I keep here in my home office I have any number of legal documents binding me to my promises, vows, oaths, and pledges. There’s a mortgage binding me to pay back the money I borrowed from the bank to build my house. There’s the agreement my partner and I made to buy our company from the founder. There’s a marriage certificate binding me in a legal marital obligation to Wendy. All of them are official, legal, and filed with the civic authorities lest I break my obligation and open myself up to the consequences.

Back in the day when Moses and the Hebrew  tribes were wandering around the wilderness, human societies were in the “neighborhood kid” stage of history’s life cycle. There were no well established and precedented legal systems. Writing things down, signing them, and storing a record of an agreement for were out of the question. Writing utensils and the ability to record and store the agreements were thousands of years away from being a reality. Moses and the tribes had basically been stuck making secret handshakes.

Today’s chapter is among the first ancient attempts in human history to create a system of rules by which it was determined if a persons vow was binding or not, and who had authority to overrule a person’s vow or oath. Of course, anyone who’s ever seen a library of legal codes or the tax code knows that over time we humans have a way of creating a dizzying complex system of laws, amendments, precedents, and loopholes.

The Jews were just as human. The fairly basic, straightforward text of today’s chapter became a burdensome cultural and religious system in which oaths and vows were taken seriously based on the specific wording you used. If you vowed “by heaven” it might be more binding than if you vowed “by earth” although not was binding if you swore “by my head” except in certain circumstances, in which case it would have to be determined by section C, paragraph 2, sub-paragraph Q…. You get where I’m going with this, right?

Which is why Jesus quoted today’s chapter and said,

“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”

Say what you’ll do. Do what you say. Freedom in simplicity.

Today, I pledge myself to that simplicity.

Pinky swear.

Conflict and the Narrative

Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.
John 16:2b (NRSV)

Stories are boring if there is no conflict.

In 8th grade, Mrs. McLaren taught me that conflict in stories and literature can, in general, be broken down into a handful of categories:

Person vs. Self (think A Beautiful Mind)
Person vs. Person (think Kramer vs. Kramer)
Person vs. Nature (think Tom Hanks in Castaway)
Person vs. God/fate (think Michael Corleone in The Godfather)
Person vs. Supernatural (think of any ghost story)
Person vs. Technology (think The Matrix)
Person vs. Society (think Fahrenheit 451)

The epic stories, whatever mix of narrative they employ, are stories of good versus evil. Good stories are a reflection of the Great Story, and I have encountered many people along my journey who seem to forget that even the Jesus story is a story of good versus evil. Jesus regularly came in conflict with demonic power. He spoke clearly of the enemy who was arranging circumstances that would lead to His death. In todays chapter, Jesus’ even told His followers to expect that others will try to kill them and think they are worshipping God.

The tactics of evil do not change much over time. I have come to believe that we, as human beings, are lemmings by our sinful nature. As such, our enemy uses common tactics across generations. Despite our desire to think ourselves progressive and enlightened, we have, I fear, learned very little from history. Getting people to commit deathly acts as “worship” of God is evil 101. In Jesus’ day the Jews were trying to kill Jesus and His followers thinking they were doing God a favor. Later the Christians would kill the Jews and muslims thinking they were doing God a favor. Today, ISIS and their ilk are killing Jews, Christians, and any who refuse to accept Allah.

How fascinating to think that Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same God of Abraham. What goes around, comes around.

[sigh]

Today, I am reminded that in each chapter of my personal narrative I may encounter different types of conflict from conflict with others, to conflict with myself, conflict with fate, conflict with society, et al. As I live out my role in the Great Story, I must not forget that this is a story of good versus evil. I do not want to be caught unaware, but rather desire to be ever mindful of how my words and actions are contributing to the grand narrative. In my story, as it dovetails into the Great Story, I want to be an agent of Love, Life, Light and redemption.

chapter a day banner 2015

Breaking Social Boundaries

source: krayker via Flickr
source: krayker via Flickr

…and [Peter] said to them, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” Acts 10:28 (NSRV)

In high school, people were separated by social sub-cultures: jocks, nerds, burnouts, toughs, bookworms, and etc. There was also separation by ethnicity in my high school which, at the time, was the most racially and ethnically diverse school in the district with whites, blacks, asians, and hispanics. Then there were separation by world-views. Christian kids hung tight, as did partiers, smokers, drugees, and so on. You get the picture.

I’ve observed along my life journey that adults are typically children who learn to mask, obfuscate, deny, normalize, and justify our childishness.

The cultural realities faced by the early followers of Jesus was like an extremely bad case of high school. Romans, Greeks, Africans, and Judeans all had their separate and unequal cultures. Pagans and Jews had their separate groups. Within sub-cultures like the Jews you had sub-groups dedicated to religious, political, and ethnic bents. The region around Jerusalem was a melting pot turned powder keg. You belonged to your sub-culture, you hung with your homeys, and you kept to yourselves.

And, Jesus was about to radically change all of that. The seeds had been sown. Jesus had led the way. In a misogynistic, self-righteous, ethnic Jewish culture Jesus broke social norms by speaking with a Samaritan woman at a well and extended gracious kindness and forgiveness to prostitutes. In a culture of political silos, Jesus was publicly seen with both Jews and Romans, the religious and the secular, the rich and the poor. Jesus called twelve men from a diverse panacea of political views including liberal Roman sympathizers, Jewish zealots, Jewish conservatives. They came from diverse socio-economic strata of the day.

Jesus is now gone, and His followers are falling back into their high school sub-cultures. In today’s chapter, God intervenes by making an introduction between the conservative, religiously self-righteous Peter and the “unclean” Roman foreigner, Cornelius. God makes a radical, paradigm shifting demand of Peter, the appointed leader of Jesus’ followers: stop considering any person unclean (e.g. less than, lower than, other) or profane (e.g. meaningless, not worth my time).

This morning I’m having a serious heart-to-heart with God. Who is my Cornelius? Have I slipped back into high school mode hanging with my homeys and steering clear of those who look differently, were raised different, believe differently, have different political views, come from different social strata? Lord, have mercy on me. Forgive me for my mindless, thoughtless, unintentional way I treat others as unclean and/or profane.

Yesterday is gone, but I have today before me. Help me cross and erase social boundaries in my thoughts, words, and actions.

Good Samaritan Redux

This screenshot shows Paul Henreid and Humphre...
“I’m not interested in politics. The problems of the world are not in my department.” – Humphrey Bogart as Rick in “Casablanca” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Solomon conscripted the descendants of all these peoples remaining in the land—whom the Israelites could not exterminate—to serve as slave labor, as it is to this day. But Solomon did not make slaves of any of the Israelites; they were his fighting men, his government officials, his officers, his captains, and the commanders of his chariots and charioteers. 1 Kings 9:21-22 (NIV)

I find it fascinating that throughout history almost every tribe, nation, and people on this earth have practiced some form of racial or tribal differentiation, dominance, and inequity. The systemic system of conscripted slavery described during Solomon’s reign is not unlike what the Israelites themselves experienced in Egypt, and what they would someday experience again with the occupations of Assyria and Babylon. What goes around comes around.

I sometimes hear people speak as if the world is getting better all the time, and that humanity is moving towards peace, harmony, and universal political correctness. Then I watch the evening news. Beheadings, genocide, mass graves, tribal conflict, racial discrimination, and religious intolerance are commonplace. We are all guilty.

Next to the major problems of the world that get pushed to the home screen of my phone on a constant basis, I sometimes feel small and insignificant living in my little Iowa hometown. I hear Humphrey Bogart’s voice in my head from Casablanca as Rick says to Laszlow: “The problems of the world are not in my department.”

And yet, they are in my department. I affect the people and world around me in my sphere of influence. I can recognize and fight the prejudices in my own thoughts, words, relationships, and actions. Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan was about the reality that the “neighbor” in His command to “love your neighbor as yourself” was not just your homogenous tribal group but also the person who is your tribal, racial, social and political enemy. The Jews and Samaritans hated each other the same way the Jews and Palestinians hate each other today. THAT was the whole point of the story.

This morning I wake up far from home amidst a culture very different from my own. I can choose to hold these people, who are very different from me, at arm’s length. Or, I can fight my natural inclinations and choose to understand them, listen to them, feel for them, and love them as I love the quirky white people of my Dutch American heritage back home.

 

 

Chapter-a-Day Matthew 2

Star of Bethlehem, Magi - wise men or wise kin...
Image by Wonderlane via Flickr

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem village, Judah territory— this was during Herod’s kingship—a band of scholars arrived in Jerusalem from the East. They asked around, “Where can we find and pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews? We observed a star in the eastern sky that signaled his birth. We’re on pilgrimage to worship him.” Matthew 2:1 (MSG)

It’s interesting to read this passage in light of our recent journey through Jeremiah’s story. Five hundred years before the events in today’s chapter, the people of Israel had been taken into exile. Where? To Babylon and Assyria, in the east. Those taken into exile were the best and the brightest of Israel‘s young men who, in some cases, rose to positions of leadership and influence.

Now, hundreds of years later, a celestial phenomena sends these foreign scholars and astronamers searching for its meaning. How did they know this event in the heavens signaled the birth of “the king of the Jews?” Since there is no record of the prophetic sign in the scripture, it’s most likely that a prophetic word was given through one of the Israelites in exile hundreds of years before. Perhaps it was Daniel or one of his friends. We may never know who it was, but we know that these many years later God weaves the tragic events of the exile into the timeless story of Jesus’ birth. The scholars from the east become a beautiful word picture. Among the very first to recognize the messiah and worship him were non-Jewish gentiles. Even at his birth, Jesus was gathering the nations.

Today, I’m encouraged reading the story of the Magi. It’s a great reminder that God is in control. He weaves the threads of past events into our present circumstances to accomplish his purpose. Like the Magi, my journey is simply a thread in a much larger tapestry.

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