Tag Archives: Justice

Hats, Fasting, and a Couple of Important Questions

“Ask all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted?”
Zechariah 7: 5 (NIV)

Yesterday I had the privilege of leading our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. I was kicking off a series of messages on Paul’s letter to the believers in Corinth. And so, I’ve been mired in studying the letter and the situation in Corinth around 55 A.D.  One of the themes that bubbles to the surface over and over again are instructions that Paul gave which are rooted in contemporary Corinthian culture. Other instructions are universal to human culture in all times.

I find myself asking, “What instructions were for the Corinthian believers at that time (that don’t fit our current realities)? What instructions may speak to me in 2018 (that the Corinthians couldn’t fathom almost 2000 years ago)? What instruction are ours (they apply to anyone, at any time, in any culture)?”

For example, one set of instructions is about covering your head. In first century Corinth there were layers of meaning in the cultural and religious aspects of whether you covered your head and when. Some of it came from Jewish law and tradition (which the Greek believers probably thought silly) and some of it was the practical differentiation of woman broadcasting in publicly that she was not one of Aphrodite’s temple priestess-prostitutes.

The truth of the matter is that until a generation or so ago, the tradition of women covering their heads in church and men removing their caps/hats was still a big thing culturally. The local Costume Shop has hundreds and hundreds of gorgeous women’s hats with cute little veils that locals have donated over the years (see featured photo). There was a time just a few decades ago when a woman would not go to church without a hat on. Today, in our culture, if a woman does so it’s simply a fashionable novelty.

Likewise, my dad and I have a good-natured, on-going feud when we’re gathered for family meals and it’s time to pray and eat. My dad gives me grief if I have a cap on. I have never been able to discern a good reason for having to remove my hat when the family is  informally ordering a pizza and watching the game. I joke with my dad that it’s actually more sanitary if I keep my cap on. He always wins the argument on his authority and my respect, but I’ve still never heard a good reason.

The bottom-line question is: “Why (or why not) are we doing this?”

That was the exact question God had for the prophet Zechariah. Zechariah and company inquired of the Lord whether they should continue to observe traditional months of fasting. God replied, “Why are you fasting?” God then goes on to point out that what Zac and the boys are not doing are things like being just, showing compassion to people who are different, looking out for the needs of orphans, widows, and the oppressed. The implied question God is asking as I read between the lines is this: “Why would I care if you self-righteously starve yourself in some public display of your religiosity when you’re missing the heart of what I desire from you — to love others as you love yourself?”

Good question, and a good question for those of us who claim to follow Jesus and have wrapped ourselves in religious traditions of all kinds over the years.

“What does God care about? What, therefore, should I really care about? What in my religious practices, rituals, and cultural rules do I make a higher priority than the things God truly cares about?

Ancient Vengeance Cloaked in Modern Technology

“Six of the towns you give the Levites will be cities of refuge, to which a person who has killed someone may flee.”
Numbers 35:6 (NIV)

Last night as Wendy and I sat on the couch she expressed grief and frustration over a pattern of behavior we’ve been observing on social media. It is quite common for the discourse on Facebook and Twitter and online forums to sink into petty jabs, unnecessary name calling, and a general spirit of anger, hatred, and conflict. And this, we routinely notice, from many whom we love and who eagerly claim to be followers of Jesus.

For the past month or two my chapter-a-day journey through the book of Numbers has taken me back to an ancient times. I’ve been mulling over the lives and times of Moses and the Hebrew tribes. It was, without a doubt, a very bloody and ugly period of human society. Ancient tribal societies lived in a time without laws, law enforcement agents, and a system of justice. It was a time of blood feuds, vengeance and “an eye-for-an-eye” free-for-all of individual retribution.

I can’t help but think of the stories we know like The Godfather in which warring families get embroiled in ever escalating acts of violence and murder against one another. The Tataglia family attempts to kill but only wounds Vito Corleone. Vito’s son, Sonny, actually kills Bruno Tataglia in retribution. But, that’s not enough. Michael Corleone also kills the man who orchestrated the plot and the Police Captain who protects him. But that’s not enough. Everyone goes to the mattresses. But that’s not enough. Michael eventually kills the heads of all the other mafia families to protect himself from retribution. The violence and vengeance never ends.

As Sean Connery famously quips in The Untouchables, “He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue!”

What Wendy was observing last night is an example of the old saying “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” We’re still embroiling ourselves in petty, ever escalating feuds between political, religious, and social clans. Now, however, we do it from a safe distance and use words as our weapons. Somehow, we believe that this is better on the grading curve of human society. Name calling on Facebook isn’t as barbaric as literally sticking a knife in someone’s back. Or is it?

I’m reminded in the quiet this morning of Jesus words:

“For the mouth speaks [and the hand types] what the heart is full of.  A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken.For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”

In today’s chapter, God through Moses is leading a radical step forward in human history. It is a formalized system of justice. The priestly clan of the Levites are scattered to live among all the other tribes. Within those tribes the priestly Levites create “cities of refuge” to which murderers and those who commit manslaughter may flee. The priests gave sanctuary so that a trial, complete with witnesses, could be conducted and a just verdict could be rendered. The accused was required to stay under the protection of priest in the city of refuge. But get this: If the High Priest died, a period of amnesty was unleashed. The accused were free. Any blood feud or vendetta of vengeance was to end.

What great foreshadowing God gives in today’s chapter for what He is going to do on a cosmic spiritual scale in the Great Story. Jesus, High Priest (Heb 6:20) in the mysterious order of Melchizedek, comes to live among us like the priests sent to live among the tribes. [cue: Silent Night] To Jesus we may flee for refuge with all the accusation, guilt, condemnation and social vengeance nipping at our heels. When Jesus, the High Priest, dies then amnesty reigns. Forgiveness and grace (literally, favor we don’t deserve and didn’t earn) are poured out to the accused and condemned. Prisoners are freed. Vengeance ends.

Wait, there’s more. Those of us who follow Jesus are called “a royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9). Spiritually, I become a Levite of our time. I’m a priest in the order of Jesus. I am to be a person and place where “others” (even those of other tribes I don’t particularly like) may flee to find protection, understanding, kindness, mercy, grace, compassion, and justice.

So, I have to ask myself: When I allow myself to get stirred up  and let that f*ing, clueless, ignorant, MORON on Facebook know just what a #*&%-eating, #@)#-faced, #)@(#* they are… am I extending the royal, priestly rites handed down to me by Jesus? Am I being marked by the Spirit of protection, forgiveness, grace, mercy, and compassion that I claim to have received from Jesus, my High Priest? Am I fulfilling my calling to be part of that royal priesthood? Or, am I perpetuating a deep, very entrenched human part of me that is given to bloody, feudal vengeance cloaked in 21st century technology?

Ugh.

Lord, have mercy on me. Help me lay down my weaponized words; My vengeance which I try to costume as “justice” and “righteousness.” Make me a refuge for “others” – all “others.”

External Ritual Sans Spiritual Reality

‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
    ‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
    and you have not noticed?’

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
    and exploit all your workers.”
Isaiah 58:3 (NIV)

When people think about what it means to be religious, the mind is quickly filled with mental pictures of what religious-types do. Taking an hour or two each week to attend services, praying over meals or certain hours of the day, reading the Bible (and perhaps, blogging about it :-)), lighting candles, burning incense, and all the other rituals and trappings that commonly seem to accompany the religions of the world.

As someone who could easily be labeled a religious person for most of my earthly journey, I can tell you that there are metaphorical reasons for most of the rituals and trappings. Metaphor is the language of God, and it’s the best we have for trying to embody that which is beyond our finite ability to fully comprehend and communicate. God gives us many and diverse metaphors to express His person: wind, fire, water, gate, bread, lamb, lion, and etc.. God also provided tangible external metaphors and spiritual exercises to connect us with the spiritual internal realities He wants us to experience in oneness with Him: bread, wine, water, rest, sacrifice, prayer, fasting, and etc..

The problems comes, however, when the external ritualistic metaphors are carried out without the requisite spiritual realities being experienced. What was supposed to connect us is disconnected. Ritual and religion without repentance, redemption, and righteousness becomes empty and even dangerous.

In today’s chapter God speaks through the ancient prophet Isaiah to address this very disconnection. The people of Isaiah’s day had ritualistically gone without food and covered themselves in the clothes of mourning and repentance hoping for God to respond with blessing. God, however, points out that while they are acting out religious ritual in public, in private they have been self-centered, exploitive, greedy,  unjust, and selfish. There is a fundamental core disconnect between true, internal, spiritual oneness with God, and external, rote religious ritual. When that happens, religion becomes all of the ugly and profane things it has been guilty of across time.

This morning I’m reminded that if my spirit is not connected to Holy Spirit in ways that tangibly increase my love for, and actions towards, others (especially those who are different, down-trodden, beat-down, and in need), then all of my church going, hand-raising, worship singing, communion taking, prayer whispering, Bible reading, (and blog posting) is empty and worthless.

Lord, have mercy… please.

Justice (and therefore Wisdom) Needed

You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.
Deuteronomy 16:19 (NRSV)

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

I’m sure we all had that question when we were young. Like most people, I think the answer changed for me a time or two. Growing up with the Apollo lunar missions, I think astronaut was on my mind in my earliest years. There came a time later in my childhood when I became enamored with the idea of running for political office.  Growing up in Iowa, we are inundated with the Presidential races every four years and that probably had an influence on my thinking.

As I got older, the idyllic visions I had of political office gave way to the harsh realities. At the highest levels the political game is about money. You generally can’t win the office without money, and to get money you have to put your hand out to big donors and special interests who will expect favors for their “donation.” By the way, corruption is an equal opportunity consequence. It is found in every political camp. That’s just the reality of it.

To stay in office, I watch lawmakers rig rules and pad their war chests. They shun term limits to extend their power and influence. They make sketchy deals and look out for each other and their own.

Somewhere along the way I realized that I didn’t think I could be a part of all that and keep my soul healthy. My political aspirations gave way to other things.

Today I am reminded that from the very beginning God has desired justice, honesty, and impartiality from His people. I didn’t pursue public office, but I still find myself in positions of leadership and authority. God’s call is the same for me in those positions as it was for the judges in Moses day. God desires that I make right and just decisions for the good of the whole. Even in my relatively minor spheres of influence, I continue to need wisdom and a generous measure of grace for that.

chapter a day banner 2015

A Good Person is not a Perfect Person

source: bjornstar via Flickr
source: bjornstar via Flickr

“If I have walked with falsehood
    or my foot has hurried after deceit—
let God weigh me in honest scales
    and he will know that I am blameless—”
Job 31:5-6 (NIV)

Wendy, Suzanna and I stood in the kitchen this past Sunday night and had one of those really important conversations about life. It wasn’t chit-chat. It wasn’t casual. We wandered into some deep weeds and talked about why it is we all do things we know we shouldn’t, and why it is we choose out of doing things we know we should. We talked about the process each one of us must go through of figuring these things out so that we can successfully move forward in our life journey.

On Tuesday night and Wednesday we were blessed by a visit from Madison, who came home from Colorado to see the family for Christmas (she’ll be on-call at work next week). Sitting around the dining room table late into Tuesday evening and again in the afternoon on Wednesday, Wendy and I waded once more into deep weeds with our daughter. We had honest conversation about old scars, misperceptions, and miscommunication. We acknowledged the ways we have hurt one another over the years, whom we love deeply.

So, here’s the problem I have with Job. I get that he feels his suffering is unjust. I understand feeling that the scales of justice are out of whack when you do your darnedest to be an alright guy and life takes a dump on you. I’m a good, midwestern protestant boy of hardworking Dutch heritage. I’ve tried hard to serve God and walk the straight and narrow since the days of my youth. Reading today’s chapter, however, leaves me scratching my head at Job’s claims of piety:

  • I haven’t looked lustfully at a woman 
  • I haven’t walked with falsehood
  • I haven’t been enticed by a woman or committed adultery
  • I haven’t been unjust to my servants
  • I haven’t denied the poor or refused to share with the needy
  • I haven’t been greedy
  • I haven’t rejoiced at my enemies misfortune
  • I have no hidden sins

I get that Job is a good guy, but no one is that good. When I go down this list I realize that I (or my wife, daughters, family, friends, neighbors, employees, and etc.) could provide you with specific examples of  ways of committed each of these wrongdoings somewhere along my journey. I’m not proud of this fact. Maybe I’m just a rotten person, but that’s the point. No matter how good we try to be, we all have tragic flaws. We all make mistakes. Each one of us repeatedly finds ourselves choosing to do the things we don’t want to do and refusing to do the things we know we should. Each one of us causes hurt to the ones we love the most.

The ultimate theme of the epic poem of Job are the questions which arise when good people who lead good lives experience tragic and inexplicable suffering. I get from a literary perspective that Job’s lofty claims of righteousness serve to heighten his climactic argument in this cosmic debate just before God breaks His silence. Still, I read the claims and think to myself, “I think you left something off the list, Job: Humility.”

And, I think that’s exactly where God will enter the debate.

The Eternal Question on this Temporal Earth

source: h-k-d via Flickr
source: h-k-d via Flickr

Yet when I hoped for good, evil came;
when I looked for light, then came darkness.
Job 30:26 (NIV)

Why is it that bad things happen to good people?

Why did my friend and his wife get hit by a drunk driver? He was a great husband and father. Why did he languish in a vegetative state for years? Why did those six sweet kids have to endure that loss?

Why does my friend have to endure such deep mental illness? He’s such a great guy. So full of life and so much to offer the world. Why did he end up getting stuck with crazy?

Why was it that marriage was such a struggle from the start? How did I end up the victim of this piece of false advertising? Two young people who love God and have nothing but the best of intentions, desires, and love for one another find that there is a deep fissure in the bedrock of relationship that drains life rather than filling it.

How is it that he ended up with a rare brain tumor? Why did his whole family have to endure the fallout of his messed up brain and behaviors?

Why did their baby die?

Why did she have to die? How on earth can someone so young and so full of life and potential end up with terminal cancer? There are so many who deserve death more than she does, and so much life that she has to offer the world. Why her?

Why would he lose his job? He’s the most genuine man of faith and has more integrity than any other three friends combined. He works harder than most anyone I know. Why did he lose his job and have his entire life put at financial risk while those other materialistic, lying, cheating sloths continue to rake in the big bucks?

Why is it that her womb remains empty? Why didn’t our babies ever make it? How is it that a homeless teen crack addict gets pregnant, repeatedly, and it just won’t happen for us?

Why do bad things happen to good people? Each one of these examples stems from experiences on my own journey. The further I traverse the path the more examples I add to the pile of experiences that lead me back to Job. That’s why Job’s story has resonated with humanity through the millennia. His question is our question. We all seek to understand the answer to this simple, unfathomable query.

 

“Wait Until Your Father Gets Home”

father-gets-homeI saw in heaven another great and marvelous sign: seven angels with the seven last plagues—last, because with them God’s wrath is completed. Revelation 15:1 (NIV)

“Wait until your father gets home.”

Perhaps this phrase has lost some of its meaning over the years, but when I was a kid things were relatively simple and traditional. Dad got up early and left for work. You wouldn’t see him until just before supper. Mom was at home with us kids while we were growing up. She got us off to school and she was there when we got home.

Make no mistake, mom could mete out parental authority and necessary punishment with the best of them. She did, however, always carry a trump card which she reserved for those special occasions when a child’s offense crossed this vague, emotional maternal threshold:

“Wait until your father gets home.”

As a child, this was the worst thing you could hear. Sure, it was a stay of execution, but you knew in your gut that there would be no last minute pardon from the Governor. Dad, when he just got home from work, could be tired and grouchy. The last thing he wanted to deal with was unruly kids. His wrath would be swift and sure. A kid soon learned a harsh fact of life: If mom played the “Wait until your father gets home” card, you were screwed.

I have come to realize that there are threads of spiritual truth the permeate our every day lives and experiences in the most subtle of ways. Creation cannot help but echo the Creator. We carry in our hearts the capacity for both grace and wrath. I have come to find that most people consider love, grace and forgiveness as ideas we should fully embrace and celebrate until someone victimizes us or violates some threshold in our personal psyche. When that happens we want the trump card of judgment and wrath in our hip pocket. We want it to be swift and sure.

We often perceive God through the lens of where we find ourselves on the grace/wrath continuum. The further a person’s personal scale tips towards grace the more uncomfortable they tend to be with the concept of God punishing anyone for anything. Those whose personal scale tips towards wrath tend to see God as willing executioner to their own personal judgment and convictions. Folly is found in increasing measure the further we move towards either extreme.

I know that not everyone had the same experience I did, and our human fathers often affect our perceptions of God in negative ways. If that’s true of you, I beg your forgiveness. Please bear with me as I make this analogy. You see, as a child I experienced in my father both grace and wrath. I’ve come to realize that, motivated ultimately by love, both were proper and necessary in their context. There is an echo of eternity here. There is a time for grace, and a time for wrath. This morning I’m struck by the idea that Revelation is the spiritual form of “wait until your father gets home.” It’s not the end in this moment, but you better get yourself prepared. Dad will definitely be here at the end of the day. For disobedient children and their deeds, there’s going to be hell to pay.

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