Tag Archives: Justice

Human Systems

Human Systems (CaD Ps 122) Wayfarer

There stand the thrones for judgment,
    the thrones of the house of David.

Psalm 122:5 (NIV)

I am happy to say that I have had very little experience with the judicial system along my life journey. Only once have I been sworn in to testify before a judge. I’ll be happy for it to never happen again.

That said, a system of justice has always been a cornerstone of human civilizations. In the ancient Near East, justice typically began and ended with the king who sat on the throne, though there were often larger systems set up in order to disperse the workload so that it didn’t fall solely on the monarch to hear every little dispute.

This is exactly what Moses was dealing with when his father-in-law, Jethro, visited him in Exodus 18. Moses was hearing every dispute from early morning until late at night. Jethro told him to create a judicial system and appoint judges to hear all of the cases, and only the hard cases would work their way up to Moses.

For the ancient Hebrew tribes making pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the seasonal religious festivals, one of the side-benefits to the visit was to bring judicial issues to be decided. It was common for there to be a judgement seat or throne at the gate of the city where these judicial matters were heard and settled.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 122, is another ancient Hebrew pilgrimage song. In the lyrics of this song, the pilgrim is standing at the gates and he sees the thrones of judgment where the pilgrim can find justice. The lyrics then pray a blessing over the city so that the entire nation, including the pilgrims and their families, may live in peace and security.

In the quiet this morning, my heart and mind are meditating on two things that I’ve observed along this life journey, three things I’ve concluded. First, there will never be a perfect system of government or justice if human beings are involved. There is corruption in every human system of government and justice. Based on my experiences and observations, I believe it unreasonable and foolish for me to expect otherwise. This leads to my second observation. The best human systems of government and justice provide checks and balances to help protect the system from corruption and address corruption when it occurs. And, when the system fails to address and correct corruption it is my responsibility to do what I can within my power, citizenship, and rights to address it myself via the voting booth, free speech, and free assembly. Some systemic corruption gets addressed and corrected. Other systemic corruption continues unabated and is even accepted and praised by those who benefit from it. When I see that, I refer myself back to my first observation.

Interestingly, Jesus’ teaching had very little to say with regard to human systems of government and justice. His mission was not to change the kingdoms of this world but to instill the Kingdom of God into the hearts of individuals, into my heart, that I might bring that Kingdom into the human systems in which I interact every day. Jesus addressed individuals with the expectation that I should conduct myself in such a way as to deal honestly, honorably, and justly in my own interpersonal relationships and dealings. To serve others, and consider others more important than myself.

I’m not perfect, but I’m endeavoring to, once again, get better at it today.

More Than Words

More Than Words (CaD Ps 101) Wayfarer

I will conduct the affairs of my house with a blameless heart.
I will not look with approval on anything that is vile.
Psalm 101: 2b-3a (NIV)

The liner notes of today’s chapter, Psalm 101, attribute the lyrics to King David. The song is the king’s personal, public pledge to carry out his office and his reign in a blameless and upright manner. In the Hebrew, the song is structured in seven couplets. Since the Hebrews identified seven as the number of completeness, it is a concise pledge to the people that the king will be completely honorable and just.

To the ancient Hebrews, the heart and the eyes were of primary importance in determining one’s ultimate actions. The condition of the heart was important because the motivation of your heart fuels one’s actions. If my heart is greedy, then I’m going to act to get as much as I can for myself. If my heart is generous, then I’m going to be content with my lot and give freely to those in need.

The eyes were also important because what I spend my time looking at, taking in, and feeding to my brain, will influence the focus of my thoughts which will then affect my actions and relationships.

This combination of heart and eyes is mentioned twice in the lyrics, first in the King’s pledge which I spotlighted at the top of the post. The second time it is mentioned in contrast to the wicked person in the second half of verse five:

“Whoever has haughty eyes and a proud heart,
I will not tolerate.”

As I meditated on this in the quiet this morning, I couldn’t help but think about one of the most fateful moments of David’s story:

In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab out with the king’s men and the whole Israelite army. They destroyed the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem. One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful….
2 Samuel 11:1-2 (NIV)

David, the warrior king, chooses not to march out and lead his army on their spring campaign. This is a stark contrast to the strong military leader David had been his whole life. David was always leading on the battlefield, fighting next to his men, and getting his boots dirty in the field. Why did he choose to stay in his palace that spring? It suggests to me that there had been a shift in David’s heart.

The very next verse David looks at the beautiful Bathsheba, bathing. What would follow David’s wayward eyes was a chain-reaction of choices and circumstances that would threaten his reign and would forever stain his reputation.

In the quiet this morning I am reminded of two things. First, even the greatest of leaders have their blind spots. I write this looking back on the stains of my own story. This is both a sobering reminder to keep guarding my own heart as well as a challenge to be gracious with the shortcomings of others.

Second, I can’t help but wonder if the lyrics of Psalm 101 were a new king’s inauguration pledge that was slowly forgotten just like Charles Foster Kane’s journalistic principles in Citizen Kane. This is a reminder to me that this faith journey is a long trek. To make a pledge is easy. To live it out faithfully requires more than words.

Questions of Justice

Questions of Justice (CaD Ps 82) Wayfarer

Defend the weak and the fatherless;
    uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.

Psalm 82:3 (NIV)

Earlier this year, as the world grappled with the inescapable footage of George Floyd dying under the knee of a police officer, Wendy called a family Zoom meeting. Each person shared their thoughts and emotions. Each person discussed what he/she felt personally led to do in the wake of the event. During that same time, Wendy and I had similar conversations among different circles of our close friends.

I haven’t forgotten those conversations. I’m not sure I ever will. As I approach the end of this tumultuous year and reflect on all that I’ve experienced, I’m mindful of those conversations about my responsibility, both as a follower of Jesus and as a responsible human being, for acting on my faith to make a difference in the lives of the poor, defenseless, and oppressed.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 82, is another liturgical song that was written to be sung when all of the Hebrew people gathered for worship. It’s fascinating for the fact that Asaph draws on a common religious metaphor found in the cultures of the Near East at that time; It’s the image of a divine assembly in a heavenly hall of justice. God is sitting in judgment of the assembled “gods.” In those days, rulers of both religion and society could be considered “gods” or “sons of god” because they were considered divine agents of their society and religion.

The voice of Asaph’s lyrics is that of a temple prophet. It’s the ancient Hebrew version of a protest song. He calls society’s leaders out for caring about the poor, needy, and oppressed. He reminds them that God, the ultimate, righteous judge, will render verdict on these societal “gods” for what they did for lowest members of society. He ends his short song of protest asking God to rise up and mete out justice.

Asaph’s lyrics make me think about Jesus. I think about Jesus’ teaching and example as He spent most of the time bringing love, healing, and grace to the fringes of society living on the outskirts of His country far away from the halls of societal power and justice. The civic and religious “gods” of Jesus’ day would eventually kill Him for it.

The words of Asaph’s song leave me sitting in the quiet this morning thinking about those conversations with family and friends from earlier this year. I’m pondering some of the things that I have consciously done as a result, as well as those things that I have left undone. My thoughts shift to the road ahead as the New Year approaches. I ask myself, “Do my actions make me more like Jesus, or do they make me more like the “gods” of Asaph’s metaphorical trial?”

I’m uncomfortable with the answer.

Devastation, Dinosaurs, and Spiritual Development

Devastation, Dinosaurs, and Spiritual Development (CaD Ps 79) Wayfarer

Pay back into the laps of our neighbors seven times
    the contempt they have hurled at you, Lord.

Psalm 79:13 (NIV)

It’s Christmas season! Yesterday, Wendy and I had the blessing of hugging our children and our grandson for the first time since last December. Milo got to put the ornaments that celebrate each of the four Christmases he’s been with us on the tree. Around the base of the tree is my father’s Lionel train set, and Milo became the fourth generation to experience the joy that train chugging around the tracks.

As I experience Christmas anew this year through the eyes of a three-year-old, I’m reminded of my own childhood. Each year I would get out the Sears Christmas Wish Book catalog and make my bucket list of all the toys that I wanted. It was usually a big list and included a host of big-ticket items my parents could never afford and probably wouldn’t buy for me even if they could because there’s know way that the giant chemistry set was going to accomplish anything but make a mess, require a lot of parental assistance, and probably blow up the house. I couldn’t manage such mature cognitive reasoning in my little brain. All I knew was it was really cool, it looked really fun, and all my friends at school would be really jealous.

Along this life journey, I’ve come to understand that my finite and circumstantial emotions and desires are often incongruent with the larger picture realities of both reason and Spirit.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 79, is an angry blues rant that was written after Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonians. It is a raw description of the scene of devastation after the Babylonians destroyed the city and razed Solomon’s Temple to the ground in 586 B.C. Blood and death are everywhere. Vultures and wild dogs are feasting on dead bodies because there aren’t enough people alive and well to bury the bodies. The strong, educated, and young have been taken as prisoners to Babylon. The ruins of God’s Temple have been desecrated with profane images and graffiti. The songwriter pours out heartbreak, shock, sorrow, rage, and desperate pleas for God to rise up and unleash holy vengeance in what the ancients described as “an eye-for-an-eye and a tooth-for-a-tooth.”

As I read the songwriters rant this morning, there are three things that give me layers of added perspective:

First, when God first called Abraham (the patriarch of the Hebrew tribes and nations), He made it clear that the intent of making a nation of Abraham’s descendants was so that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through them, not destroyed.

Second, God had spoken to the Hebrews through the prophet Jeremiah warning them that the natural consequences of their sin and unfaithfulness would be Babylonian captivity through the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, to whom God referred through Jeremiah as “my servant.” It appears that the songwriter may have missed that.

Third, I couldn’t help but read the songwriter’s plea for God to pay back their enemies “seven times” the contempt that their enemies had shown them, and think of the time Peter asked Jesus if he should forgive an enemy who wronged him “seven times.” Peter was trying to show Jesus that he was beginning to understand Jesus’ teaching. To the Hebrews, the number seven spiritually represented “completeness.” When the songwriter asked for “seven times” the vengeance it was a spiritual notion of “eye-for-an-eye” justice would be complete. Peter’s question assumed that forgiving an enemy seven times would be spiritually “complete” forgiveness. Jesus responds to Peter that a more correct equation for forgiveness in the economy of God’s Kingdom would be “seventy-times-seven.”

I come back to the songwriter of Psalm 79 with these three things in mind. The first time I read it, like most 21st century readers, I was taken back by the blood, gore, raw anger, and cries for holy vengeance. Now I see the song with a different perspective. I see a songwriter who is devastated and confused. I hear the crying out of a soul who has witnessed unspeakable things, and whose emotions can’t reasonably see any kind of larger perspective in the moment.

This morning I am reminded of what I discussed in my Wayfarer Weekend podcast, Time (Part 1). Humanity at the time of the ancient Hebrews was still very much in the early childhood stage of development. The songwriter is expressing his thoughts, emotions, and desires like a child desperately asking Santa for a real dinosaur for Christmas. Not just any dinosaur, a real T-Rex to put in the backyard.

Today’s psalm is another example of God honoring the need that we have as human beings of expressing our hearts and emotions in the moment, as we have them, no matter where we find ourselves in our spiritual development. As my spiritual journey has progressed, I’ve gotten better at processing my emotions and having very different conversations with God about circumstances than I did when I was a teenager, a young adult, a young husband, and a young father. It doesn’t invalidate the feelings and conversations I had back then. They were necessary for me to grow, learn, and mature in spirit.

In the quiet this morning, I’m identifying with the songwriter of Psalm 79, not affirming blood vengeance and “eye-for-an-eye-justice,” but affirming that it was where the songwriter was in that moment, just like I have had some rants and prayers along the journey that I’m kind of embarrassed think about now. This is a journey. I’m not who I was, And, I’m not yet who I will ultimately become in eternity. I’m just a wayfarer on the road of life, taking it one-step-at-a-time into a new work week.

For the record, Milo. No, you can’t have a real dinosaur. Sorry, buddy.

The Impotence to Respond

But God will break you down forever;
    he will snatch and tear you from your tent;
    he will uproot you from the land of the living.

Psalm 52:5 (NRSVCE)

David was hiding in a cave in the middle of a desolate wilderness with a rag-tag group of outcasts and mercenary warriors. He may have been God’s anointed king, but the throne was still tightly under the control of his father-in-law, Saul, and Saul had made David public enemy number one. That left David scratching out a meager existence in the middle-of-nowhere as he hid from the powerful mad-king who wanted David dead.

In an act of desperation, David sneaks in to visit God’s priest, Ahimelech. Like an enemy soldier seeking sanctuary in the protection of a church, David went to the place where the traveling tent sanctuary from the days of Moses was set up and serving as the center of worship. David sought God’s divine guidance through the priest. David begged for help and was provided food as well as the sword of Goliath that was still housed there like a trophy.

It just so happened that a servant of Saul name Doeg was there and witnessed David’s visit. Doeg goes to King Saul and tells him of David’s visit and the assistance Ahimelech provided David. Saul confronts Ahimelech who attempts to argue that, as the king’s son-in-law, the priest felt an obligation to assist David as an act of faithfulness to Saul. Saul rewards Ahimelech by telling Doeg to kill him, and all of God’s priests living in the town, along with all of their wives and children. Saul has Doeg massacre an entire village of his own people and his own priests because one priest showed kindness to David.

One of Ahimelech’s son’s survives and seeks David in his hide-away cave He tells David of Doeg’s visit to Saul and subsequent massacre. David, realizing that his visit to Ahimelech started the chain of events leading to the massacre, feels the weight of responsibility for his actions.

David, as he always did with his intense emotions, channels his feelings into a song which is known to us as Psalm 52. It’s today’s chapter.

David’s song is fascinating in its structure. The first verse is David addressing Doeg and calling out his wickedness, arrogance, treachery, and deceit. The third and final verse is the contrast, with David claiming his standing in the right, trusting in God, and proclaiming that trust directly. In between the two verses is the central theme in which David hands Doeg over to God for God’s judgment. He relinquishes vengeance and retribution to God.

In the quiet this morning, I couldn’t help but put myself in David’s shoes. David was in a position of impotence. He’s hiding in a cave in the wilderness. He has no status. He has no standing. At this moment there is nothing that he can do in his own power to right the wrong that resulted from his actions. His only option is to cry out his emotions and ask God to right the wrong he is powerless to address himself.

What a powerful word picture. In this life journey I have found myself impotent to address and correct wrongs. Thankfully, the wrongs are trivial in comparison to the massacre of innocents David was dealing with. Nevertheless, I find in David an example to follow. Pouring out and expressing my rage, frustration, accusation and consciously handing over that which I am powerless to do to God.

As I contemplate David’s story, and his lyrics, this morning I find myself with two connected thoughts into the day ahead:

First, Paul writing to the followers of Jesus in Rome, who were impotent agains a Roman Empire that would throw them to the lions in the Roman Circus and watch them being devoured for entertainment:

Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.”
Romans 12:17-29 (MSG)

Second, the simple prayer of serenity:

God,
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Amen.

Just Appeal

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From you let my vindication come….
Psalm 17:2a (NRSVCE)

Years ago, I found myself the object of unfair criticism by an individual who I thought was my friend. He was unhappy with me, though instead of confronting me and discussing his concerns, he decided to take his grievances to the court of public opinion. I confess that I was both sad and angered by his actions. My friend proved to be my enemy.

As luck would have it I found myself, sometime later, in possession of information regarding improprieties this person had committed. I had the opportunity to act with vengeance against the person who had injured me. I had a smoking gun that would pay back my enemy’s injuries with compounding interest. He would be out of a job and would be publicly humiliated.

I ignored the evidence. I let it go. I made a conscious choice to continue treating the person with kindness and deference whenever I run into him. Which, I still do on occasion.

Today’s chapter is yet another song penned by King David. The fascinating thing for me was not something I found in a particular line or verse, but the song itself as a whole. David structured this song like a legal appeal one would make to a King. As king, David would have heard a million legal appeals brought to him, and to King Saul while he served as a court musician, by people wanting their case decided. King David, however, is making his appeal to God, whom he places in authority above his own royal position.

It starts with a formal appeal to God to listen to his plea. He then establishes his position of innocence. He reiterates his request to be heard and praises God for his goodness and mercy. He then lays out his case against his enemies and asks God to vindicate him by judging and righteously punishing his enemies. He ends with a statement of confident trust that God will do right by him.

Sometimes in this life we find ourselves wronged with little or no position with which to get justice. Sometimes, we find that the only justice at our disposal is the justice we take into our own hands.

As a follower of Jesus, I am called to choose against my human desire for vengeance and vindication. Jesus tells me to consciously turn the other cheek, itself a conscious act of response that he exemplified time and time again as he suffered through the kangaroo court of the high priest, then the religious elders, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Pilate again, the crowds who days earlier had hailed Him as king but now shouted for His execution, and finally His enemies who stood at the foot of His cross and hurled insults at Him.

David’s psalm is a testament to Jesus’ teaching, and to David’s own example when he had multiple chances to take personal vengeance against his enemy, King Saul, while personally ensuring his ascension to the throne. With each opportunity David chose to ignore the opportunity, to let it go, and treat his enemy with deference.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking about individuals who, along my life journey, I’ve considered enemies. There’s a whole bunch from childhood who I now consider friends. There are some that the road of life led in a completely different direction, and any hard feelings I may have once felt are as distant as they are. There are others, like the person I described at the top of this post, who remain in my circles of community. Their actions would indicate that they consider me some kind of enemy, but I’ve made a choice to keep treating them as friends.

Along my spiritual journey I’ve learned that pleading my case to the only Just Judge, and choosing to surrender my need for vengeance, frees my heart and mind from toxic emotions and actions which will only perpetuate and escalate circumstances. Turning the other cheek is not a passive response, it’s a conscious choice to make my appeal to God and leave it there.

I know. It sounds crazy. Following Jesus usually leads me to make choices that run opposite my natural inclinations. But, I can’t say I’ve ever regretted it.

The Perplexing Mystery

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The Lord is king forever and ever;
    the nations shall perish from his land.
O Lord, you will hear the desire of the meek;
    you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear
to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed,
    so that those from earth may strike terror no more.

Psalm 10:16-18 (NRSVCE)

We don’t talk much about evil anymore. It gets used as a weapon-word fired at the political “other” in the empty, name-calling wars on social media. It is referenced in conversations about acts so heinous that everyone agrees that they reached a depth of depravity so dark as to be inhuman. I observed, however, that even people of faith are dismissive of the notion that evil is set up in active conflict against good in the spiritual realm of this world.

Again, the devil took [Jesus] to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
Matthew 4:8-9

The evil one was able to offer Jesus the kingdoms of this world and their splendor because this Level 3 world is where evil holds dominion until the final chapters of the Great Story. At every level of the socio-economic ladder from the grade school playground to Wall Street and Washington D.C. are those who will exploit anyone to advance their personal power base and portfolio of wealth. Unlike Jesus, they have knelt before the evil one and taken him up on his offer. These are the ones David writes about in the lyrics of today’s psalm.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, today’s psalm is connected to yesterday’s. Like We Will Rock You and We are the Champions by Queen, or Journey’s Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezing and City of the Angels the two songs are were meant to go together. One of the common conventions of Hebrew songs and poems that is lost in translation to English is the fact that each line begins with each letter of the Hebrew alphabet in order just as if you wrote a poem and each line began with A, B, C, D, and etc., Psalm 10 picks up with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet where Psalm 9 left off. In addition, there is no header or title to Psalm 10 like there has been for every other psalm we’ve read since Psalm 1. Psalms 9 and 10 go together.

With that in mind, King David is writing both psalms from his position as King of Israel. The thing I find most fascinating is that he is writing from a position of power. He’s at the top of the food chain. He holds more power in the kingdom than anyone else, and he is lamenting the wicked highway robbers who oppress the poor in the rural villages of his own country. He’s complaining about the wealthy brokers of power in his own kingdom who “prosper all the time” and establish their legacy for their descendants.

Why doesn’t he do something about it?

Along my journey I’ve observed that there is only so much that one can do in a world where evil has dominion. Not that I shouldn’t do everything that I can to act in the circles of influence in which I operate. I should. Nevertheless, I have witnessed good people, followers of Jesus, who have ascended the ladder of earthly power and influence only to find that there is only so much that they can do.

That’s the point I believe King David is getting to in his songs that read like a leader’s lament. His position of ultimate power in his kingdom cannot stop the wickedness of every rural bully bent on taking advantage of poor villagers. Even as King he is surrounded by the wealthy and powerful who have their own personal kingdoms built to oppose him.

It’s interesting that towards the end of today’s psalm David appeals to God as “King forever and ever.” At the end of his personal, earthly power that has fallen short of bringing justice to everyone, David appeals to God as the only higher authority who can step in and do something about it.

Welcome to one of the most perplexing spiritual mysteries of the Great Story. Jesus comes to earth and refuses to operate in worldly systems of the evil one’s dominion where injustice and wickedness reign and oppress the poor and the weak.

Why didn’t he do something about it?

Instead of confronting evil on earthly terms, Jesus goes instead to the rural, the poor, and the simple. He reaches out to individuals, encourages the personal transformation of individuals from self-centered evil to a life of self-sacrificing service to others. He triumphs not over earthly kingdoms but over Death. He wages war not against flesh-and-blood but against principalities, powers, and forces of spiritual darkness behind flesh-and-blood power. It leads me to consider that ultimately, the Great Story is not about this Earth. It’s not about this world. It’s not just about this 20,000 to 40,000 days I will spend journeying through this lifetime. It’s about something greater, something deeper, something more eternal.

In the quiet this morning I find myself identifying with David’s lament. At the end of the song, David expresses his trust that God sees the acts of evil and hears the cries of the oppressed. He entrusts the King of all with ultimately making things right. I have to do the best I can as an ambassador of God’s Kingdom on this earth in the circles of influence I’ve been given. Beyond that, I can only make an appeal to the King forever, and trust He will see this Great Story to its conclusion, joyfully ever-after.

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.