When I was a child, I went through all of the religious rituals associated with the church to which my family were members. My parents had me baptized as an infant. I attended Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. I sang in the children’s choir. I participated in, and volunteered to help with, social activities hosted by the church (including the annual “Christmas bazaar” which I remember being a really big deal in my little kid perception). When I was thirteen, I attended confirmation classes and learned what the church believed. I took the test, agreed to accept the terms of membership, and then received my certificate and my own personal box of offering envelopes.
What I came to realize a year or two later was that all of the ritual, participation, knowledge and cognitive assent to a belief statement had relatively little effect on my motives, my thoughts, my words, or my actions. Knowing about Jesus was not the same as knowing Jesus and being in relationship.
That contrast came to heart and mind in the quiet this morning as I meditated on the text of today’s chapter, Psalm 141. There is little doubt that the editors who compiled the anthology of ancient Hebrew song lyrics, that we know as the book of Psalms, were deliberate in putting Psalms 140 and 141 next to each other. They bookend each other well. Both are ascribed to David and both of them feature a lot of physiological metaphors. The biggest contrast is that Psalm 140 uses the physiological metaphors to describe an unrighteous person:
stir up war in their hearts
sharpen their tongues
poison on their lips
hands of the wicked
Psalm 141, uses physiological metaphors to describe a righteous person:
a heart that refuses evil
hands lifted in worship
a guard on one’s mouth
a door on the lips
a head that receives accountability
eyes fixed on God
As I mulled over the contrasting descriptions, it reminded me of being a young man and realizing that having a membership certificate to my local church, knowledge of basic beliefs, and dutifully participating in ritual had not translated into making a difference in my self-centeredness, my selfish behavior, my relationships with others, my actions, or my words. I was a egotistical, selfish little prick much of the time. I knew that I could play a good game, but I was also really self-aware enough to know that there were ugly things at the core which needed to change. I knew about the things Psalm 141 describes, but an honest self-examination and moral inventory revealed a person more like what Psalm 140 describes.
So, about that time I stopped just knowing about Jesus, and I decided to seek to know and follow Jesus in a very different way. It’s definitely been a forty-year process and spiritual journey. In the quiet this morning I find myself mulling over the person I would be today had I not made that decision. I can only imagine a grown-up version of the young man with ugly things at the core. An arrogant, egocentric big prick with a sharp tongue, and a heart in turmoil.
I’m not perfect by any means, and I could point you to a person or two who I suspect might tell you I’m still an arrogant, egocentric prick. I have my ugly moments. But oh, how worse it would be had I not discovered the contrast between knowing about Jesus and knowing Him.
Remember the wonders he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced… Psalm 105:5 (NIV)
I have a couple of short stories in my possession that were written by my great-aunt. They tell the stories of her father and her paternal grandmother, which would make them my great-grandfather and my great-great-grandmother. They are pretty amazing stories that would be lost to history were it not for them having been researched, written, and handed down.
In yesterday’s post, I mentioned that Wendy and I are asking questions about the distraction of having more information at our fingertips at any moment of our day than was available in all the libraries in all the world when we were children.
As I read through the ancient Hebrew song lyrics, that we know as the Psalms, one thing it’s easy to lose sight of was the fact that the very act of having a written record of the lyrics was an arduous task. Very few people could read or write, and very few people had the means with which to have the materials necessary to write things down and archive them. In that world, information was shared in stories around the fire at night which had been passed down through story-telling for generations. In that culture, songs became an important medium for sharing important stories of family and history.
The historic ballad is a well-established genre within music. When I was a kid, Gordon Lightfoot’s moody ballad The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald became an oddly popular song. I haven’t heard that song for years, but I remember the tune, a bunch of the lyrics, and the story it tells of a doomed freighter sinking in Lake Superior. I’ll link to it for those who’ve never heard it. Warning: It’s an earworm.
Today’s chapter, Psalm 105, is the same genre of song. It was written as a retelling of the story of the Hebrew people from a nomadic tribe, to slaves in Egypt, and their miraculous exodus out of slavery to become a nation. Songs can be sung and pondered while one works, by families and communities in social gatherings, by parents and children at bedtimes. It was a critical way of telling and re-telling the important stories of a person, a family, events, tribes and nations. To know and remember the song is to have the story always on the tip of your tongue waiting to be shared and passed along to others.
If you’ve been following along on this chapter-a-day journey, you know that Wendy and I have spent much of the past month in quarantine with our children and grandson. As most families do, we regularly find ourselves wandering down memory lane, sharing stories, and reliving events of our familial journey together. I’ve watched Milo and thought about the fact that he’ll be one (among others, I hope!) who will one day be sharing the stories of our tribe.
As I’ve been meditating on how technology is forming us, I’ve thought about the difference between information and knowledge, between data and understanding. In a world in which all the information of our lives can be digitally stored and accessed, I wonder if we’re at risk for losing out on the intimacy of generational storytelling, the experience of a tribe singing their shared story in song, and the understanding that comes from the weaving of both the data and relationship with the deliverer.
My mind wanders back to those short stories written by my great-aunt. I hear her voice as I read those words. While I never met my great-grandfather or my great-great-grandmother, I knew Aunt Nita. She was a living, breathing, loving conduit connecting me to the stories of my tribe, and that layers the stories with added emotion and understanding. I hope that those stories get passed along, not just through bytes of information consumed conveniently on a screen at will, but through love and relationship.
I guess if that’s my desire, then it’s also my responsibility.
A ruler who oppresses the poor is like a driving rain that leaves no crops. Proverbs 28:3 (NIV)
One of the great, untaught lessons in the entirety of the Great Story is a sad one. In fact, I don’t believe that I’ve heard it mentioned even once in any lecture or message in my entire lifetime. It is the story of wise King Solomon’s foolishness.
As a little boy growing up in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School I learned a lot about the Bible through simple stories taught in simple ways. I remember learning them with cheesy paper cut-out images of characters placed on a “flannelgraph.” In fact, if you look up “flannelgraph” on Wikipedia, the image they use is of a Bible Story. Today we do the same thing with colorful, bright cartoons that offer children’s versions of ancient stories.
As a young man, I became a genuine follower of Jesus and began reading the Bible for myself. I studied it in college and seminary classes. I’ve been perpetually reading and studying it for forty-years. Along my journey, I’ve worshiped, served, and taught in many different churches from diverse doctrinal backgrounds. I’ve made a couple of observations along the way.
First, I have observed individuals who never moved beyond the stories of the Bible being broad and simple morality tales for children taught in bright colors and cartoonish characters. Then, as young adults, they became easily dismissed along with the rest of the cartoon characters they grew up with. Second, I have known and observed sincerely faithful, adult believers who made a conscious, cognitive decision to accept the doctrinal beliefs of their childhood church or denomination. Still, they have little or no experiential knowledge of the faith they profess to follow, and their faith is based on a combination of Bible tales told to them as a child and a life-long habit of traditions and rituals.
So, now we come back to King Solomon, the son of King David who has been known for almost 3,000 years as the “wise” and extravagantly rich king. The simple Bible story goes like this: as a child, God offered Solomon either wisdom or great riches. Solomon chose wisdom and God blessed him with both wisdom and great riches. It’s a tale with a simple moral to teach our children. Solomon then went on to have three books of “wisdom literature” traditionally attributed to his authorship: Proverbs, Song of Songs, and the book of Ecclesiastes. And, I have observed that this is about all most people remember.
The extended, adult version of Solomon’s story is (much like my own story, btw) much messier and far more complicated than the simple, story-book version. Solomon was the offspring of David’s adulterous marriage to Bathsheba, the woman whose husband David had murdered. Being the last of David’s children, Solomon should have been last in the line of male children (from multiple women) to ascend the throne. Bathsheba maneuvered events to make sure David named Solomon king. Solomon conscripted labor to build all of his great visionary projects (Solomon’s Temple being chief among them), and even his fellow Hebrew tribes complained of being treated like slaves. Solomon also appears not to have passed his wisdom along to his own son, Rehoboam, who succeeded him. Rehoboam followed his father’s example, not his wise words, in ignoring the wisdom of the proverb pasted at the top of this post. Rather than easing the oppression Solomon had placed on his own people, Rehoboam promised more oppression and irreparably fractured the kingdom into bloody and contentious civil war.
In the quiet this morning I find myself reading Solomon’s wise words knowing that he, himself, foolishly failed to follow them. And, that is the lesson for me today. As I contemplate this fact, my thinking goes to two places. One, that it’s too easy for me to be critical of Solomon for his hypocrisy of famously saying one thing while doing another. The truth is that there are plenty of examples of the same types of hypocrisy in my own life and story. Second, I’m mindful of the fact that Solomon’s human failings don’t alter the wisdom of his proverbs in the same way my own human failings don’t alter Jesus’ message. Come to think of it, it only makes His message more relevant to me. After 40 years, I’m still just an imperfect human in need of both grace and mercy as I try to follow Jesus each day. I’ve left behind a lot of foolishness, but I have by no means attained all that Lady Wisdom is still trying to teach me.
When I am studying a particular passage I will, on occasion, go back and read these chapter-a-day posts to see what I wrote about the different times I posted something about that chapter. Inevitably, I can hardly stand to read some of my earliest posts. I’ve progressed through the years in life, in spirit, in thought, and in my writing. Going back an reading an early post can be like looking at pictures of myself in Middle School. Ugh.
At the same time, I realize that this is the point. Immediate perfection was never the expectation, no matter what a parent, pastor, or teacher may have seemed to communicate. “Pressing on,” “pursuing,” and “continuing” are the types of words used again and again in God’s Message. By the end of Jesus’ three years on Earth, His closest and best followers were still blowing it on a regular basis and they still didn’t get all that He was trying to say or accomplish. Eventually, after pressing on and continuing to progress in their understanding of what they’d been taught, they would “turn the world upside down.”
In this morning’s chapter, there is an interesting contrast that Paul gives to Timothy. He first speaks critically of those who are “always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth.” They are running in place, going through the motions, repeating the rituals, but there is never any progress, growth, or maturity. Later in the chapter, Paul urges Timothy to “continue in what you have learned.” Timothy, in contrast to his earlier example, had been growing and maturing and Paul urged him to never stop.
In the quiet this morning I am thinking about my teenage self, my young adult self, and the person I was when I started writing these posts thirteen years ago. I’m glad I’m not in those places of life’s road anymore. I’m grateful for where I’ve come in life, and I’m determined to keep going. As Paul once wrote, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”
There is something mystical that can happen on stage for an actor. It’s a rare thing, and I can only claim to have, perhaps, touched it maybe once or twice. I’ve read others’ accounts of the rare occurrence and have corresponded with those who’ve experienced it. It happens when one gets so lost in the reality of the characters and the scene in the world of the play you’ve created that you lose your rational knowledge that you are an actor, pretending to be a character on a stage with other actors. It’s like slipping into a different reality and briefly letting go of the one you’re actually in. I know it sounds weird, but it happens and it is both wild and disconcerting when it does.
This past weekend I was introduced in my quiet time to the writings of an anonymous medieval mystic entitled The Cloud of Unknowing. It’s a bit of a slog to wade through given the vocabulary and middle english language of the 14th century. Nevertheless, I found myself in the quiet of the wee hours inspired by the author’s message.
Mystics also call themselves “contemplatives.” The concept is that we can learn, and even experience, much in disciplined contemplation. Kind of like the mystery of losing one’s sense of rational presence on stage, The Cloud of Unknowing is a state of being that the author describes as a place where one knows nothing but the feeling of a “naked intent unto God“:
“Let not, therefore, but travail therein till thou feel list. For at the first time when thou dost it, thou findest but a darkness; and as it were a cloud of unknowing, thou knowest not what, saving that thou feelest in thy will a naked intent unto God. This darkness and this cloud is, howsoever thou dost, betwixt thee and thy God, and letteth thee that thou mayest neither see Him clearly by light of understanding in thy reason, nor feel Him in sweetness of love in thine affection.”
In Paul’s letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, he touches on this concept of knowing and unknowing as part of the spiritual mystery of being a follower of Jesus. He tells the believers that he resolved “to know nothing” while he was with them “except Christ and Him crucified.” It sounds a lot like he intended to exist in a cloud of unknowing. He goes on to speak of the reality of a relationship with Christ in terms of a mysterious wisdom that is hidden from those who are wise in the rational realities of this world.
Jesus also touched on this mysterious wisdom:
At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Matthew 11:25 (NIV)
As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over itand said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side.They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” Luke 19:41-44 (NIV)
This morning in the quiet I find myself mulling over both the rational and the mystery. I find myself a player on Life’s stage, as Shakespeare aptly put it, making my routine daily entrances and exits. The further I proceed in my journey the more called I feel toward a wisdom that lies, not in the nailing of my lines and hitting my cues, but in finding that rare place that can only be found somewhere in the mystery of unknowing.
The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another.Most of the people did not even know why they were there. Acts 19:32 (NIV)
While I was in high school there was a large education bill making its way through the state legislature. The teachers in my school began wearing “Save Our Schools” buttons. Some teachers spoke to us over a series of weeks about how important this bill was and predicted doom, gloom, and the end of education as we knew it were the law not to pass. Extra-curriclar programs would go away, athletics programs wouldn’t have the funding they needed, and students would suffer, we were told.
A short while later it was announced that on a certain afternoon any student who desired could take the afternoon off of school, ride a bus to the state capitol, and participate in a rally of teachers and students to march on the statehouse.
Afternoon off of school? Are you kidding me?! I’d go on a tour of a sewage treatment facility if it meant getting to skip English, Algebra II and American History.
And so it was I found myself in a mob of students and teachers from all over the area chanting “Save our schools!” as we marched up Capitol hill. We filed into the Statehouse and up into the gallery of the legislature where debate was taking place on the floor regarding the school bill. There I listened to the debate between legislators regarding the bill and found out that the bill was put forth by the teachers’ union and was primarily about teacher compensation. Now, I’m all for teachers being paid well and funding public education, but the more I listened to the debate and the particulars of the bill were revealed, the more I realized that the legislation itself wasn’t really about the things I had been told.
I will never forget sitting in that gallery and the sudden realization that I’d allowed myself to be a pawn in a political rally simply to get out of school for an afternoon. I even remembering watching the evening news and how the rally and the issues were described. The truth is, I hadn’t truly known what the issues really were, or why I was there. I vowed that day never to participate in anything like that again without being fully versed in the issues at stake and fully believing in the cause for which I marched.
In today’s chapter a riot breaks out in the city of Ephesus because Paul and the Jesus movement became a threat to the local trade union who made idols. Suddenly the Jews and the Tradesman, who would normally be antagonists (for what good Jew would support idolatry?) had a common political foe in Paul and the Jesus movement. A mob breaks out and everyone in Ephesus runs to the local amphitheater to find out what’s going on.
Then Luke makes an astute observation: Most of the people did not even know why they were there.
Along my life journey I’ve observed just what lemmings human beings can be. My experience at the school rally and my studies of mass media have made me discerning regarding what I’m told and shown in the news as it relates to political rallies. Even as I worship among my local gathering of believers, I sometimes wonder how many truly come because they believe and how many are there because it’s what they were taught they should do by the family or societal systems that raised them.
Of course, I can’t control or even really know the motives of others, but I know and am responsible for myself. This morning in the quiet I find myself thinking about the things I do each day, each week, and the events to which I give my time.
I quietly reached a milestone in my journey as a blogger yesterday. With my post Time, Distance, and Perspective I have blogged my way through the entire Bible twice. Along with posts that are basically diary entries about me and my family’s life journey, I have been posting my personal thoughts about one chapter of the Bible roughly every weekday for over twelve years.
Along the way I’ve learned some important lessons about blogging. I’d like to share five of them for any aspiring bloggers out there for whom it might be helpful. First, a little background is in order.
In March 2006 I began my blog and called it Wayfarer. A wayfarer is one who is on a journey, and my blogging journey began with only a sketchy sense of where I was headed. You’ve probably never heard of me because twelve years later the number of subscribers and followers to my blog is less than a thousand and the vast majority of those followers are simply other bloggers and businesses following me in hopes that I will follow them back. The actual number of faithful readers I have might be enough for a decent summer picnic and a pick-up game of whiffle ball, but that’s okay. My blog is called Wayfarer because it’s about the journey and there’s much to be learned when you keep trekking for twelve years.
The primary motivation for me starting my blog was simply to have an on-line journal for family and friends to keep tabs on me and the fam. If they want to know what we’re up to, they can simply check out the blog. While Facebook might accomplish the same thing, I control my blog and its content, not the algorithms and social media gatekeepers. I like owning my own little acre of the internet.
It’s also important to know that while I’ve blogged my way through the Bible twice, I don’t consider my blog a religious blog. I don’t represent any church. I’m not out there trying to convince anyone of anything. My “chapter-a-day” posts have their roots in my relationship with my good friend, Kevin. Kevin and I are both followers of Jesus and years before I started my blog we came to an agreement to help each other be better followers. We decided to read one chapter of the Bible every weekday. Because we both had jobs that required a certain amount of windshield time we simply called each other and shared with one another whatever we got out of that day’s chapter.
As I began my blog I thought it might be cool to simply transfer the chapter-a-day journey Kevin and I had already been on for years from the phone to the internet. “Wouldn’t it be cool,” I thought to myself, “If we had a record of the chapter we read each day and what it made us think about?” That’s where it all started, and I’m still going.
So what have I learned along the journey? Here are my top five lessons:
Your Motive Matters
There are literally millions of blogs on the internet. My blog is on the WordPress platform, and WordPress reports that there are over 500 new sites started on their platform daily with a total of over 76 million sites and 15 billion pages of content.
If your motive for blogging is to get discovered for the talented writer you know you are and to become a famous celebrity blogger then you need to know that you are playing the Powerball of on-line popularity. Your blog is a very small needle in a ginormous global haystack. It’s been said that as many as 95% of bloggers who start a blog abandon it after a short period of time. So, why do it?
There are all sorts of legitimate motives for blogs and sites. Some are built simply to drive traffic and sell ads. Some are businesses trying to make a profit. Some are people trying to build a brand. There’s nothing wrong with any of those motives, but I found that it is important to know what your motive is for starting a blog. You should define “This is why I’m doing this. This is what I’m trying to accomplish.” It helps define what you need to do and how you invest your time and resources.
I’ve also found that a clearly defined motive can keep me going when I occasionally spy the meager handful of views that my brilliant post received and I ask myself, “Why am I doing this?!”
Have Something to Say
I think most people start a blog thinking they have something to say, but sitting down at the keyboard on a regular basis and getting it out can be a daunting experience. Once you get out those three or four posts that you’ve had mulling over in your head for years you find yourself asking, “What now?”
A couple of reasons I’ve been able to keep going for over 12 years goes back to the two motives I outlined when I started. I wanted to create an on-line journal of life, and life doesn’t stop happening. I can blog about our kids and grandson living with us this week as they prepare to live in Scotland. I can blog about the role in the play I’m working on or our latest trip to the lake. I also wanted to record my “chapter-a-day” thoughts. That alone has been a built-in content engine. I read the chapter each week day, and then I write my thoughts.
If you’re thinking about blogging, ask yourself: “What is the engine that’s going to keep giving me fresh content to write about?”
Views and Followers Don’t Correlate to Quality of Content
I read[/caption]I read a humorous article yesterday in Wired magazine about a woman whose young son was obsessed with fans. You know, the rotary blade, move the air kind of fans. Imagine her surprise when she discovered the her son was watching another boy on YouTube doing nothing but talking about fans. His videos talking about fans had hundreds of thousands of views. As does the video of the teen girl in Boise talking about her acne. As does the video of the guy falling off his skateboard.
One of the reasons bloggers fail is that they obsess about their stats. They slip into the comparison trap and fall prey to the injustice of the on-line world. I write a brilliant post about how to better cope with life in hard times and it gets read ten times (eight if you don’t count my wife and mother). Meanwhile, Fan Boy has hundreds of thousands of people listening to him talk about the virtues of the Lasko Model 2527 pedestal fan.
Number of views and followers does not correlate to quality of content. Embrace it.
I’ve written some really good stuff over the years. Yeah, that post about the eleventh chapter of Leviticus? Killer. But, I published into the blogosphere like a sower casting his seed and it died on the vine. So did most of other posts that I wrote. Sometime I hit that “Publish” button feeling like a post is really going to resonate with people…until it doesn’t.
Back in January of 2012 I was on my way home from a week-long business trip to Texas. In the plane I was thinking about all of the great experiences I’d had with my client that week, and it struck me that being a theatre major at Judson College had uniquely prepared me for my job in ways I couldn’t have fathomed at the time. So, I got out my iPad and in twenty minutes I wrote a post: 10 Ways Being a Theatre Major Prepared Me for Success. When my plane I landed I published it quickly (I didn’t even proof it), and thought no more of it.
Two weeks later that post went viral. That one silly post I’d hastily typed on my iPad brought in over 30,000 views in one day (FYI: reaching a hundred views in one day is a stellar day on my blog). I had comments pouring in from actors and producers in Hollywood and Broadway. At one point I counted more than twenty colleges and universities who have my post linked on their department websites.
You never know what’s going to land.
I can’t count the number of times that I squeamishly hit the “Publish” button thinking that my post was the most worthless piece of schlock ever written, and then later that day I hear from a stranger saying “This was so good! You have no idea how much I needed to read this today.”
No. I didn’t have a clue. I’m just a sower scattering my seed one post at a time.
The Rewards Aren’t Necessarily What You Think
At this point, it might seem as if I’m being really discouraging about this whole blogging business. I certainly hope you discern between realistic and discouraging. There are all sorts of amazing rewards I’ve received from blogging that this Wayfarer would never have discovered had I not embarked on the journey and stuck with it.
I’m a way better writer than I’ve ever been in my entire life. You know that guy who wrote that it’s not about talent, but about doing something for 10,000 hours? Yeah, blogging thousands of posts across twelve years has improved my writing, my creative flow, and my self-discipline. All I have to do is go back to read one of my early posts (and then fire down a quick shot of Pepto Bismal), and I know how far I’ve come.
I’ve gotten to know some amazing people and have enjoyed sharing the blogging journey with them. A few I’ve even gotten to meet in real life which has been awesome.
While I may not have hundreds and thousands of views of my posts, I’m continually humbled and encouraged when that “I really needed this” comment comes through or is casually mentioned by someone I would never expect. If my motive had to become popular then I would done things way differently.
What were my motives?
I wanted to create an on-line journal and archive of life. Mission accomplished.
“What year did we go to the ballet in Kansas City? Hang on, it’s there in the blog.”
“Oh my goodness, I’d totally forgotten about that time we did the ‘host a murder’ party at the winery!”
I wanted to create an archive of my “chapter-a-day” thoughts. Mission accomplished. All the way through the Bible. Twice.
Someday my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren, and perhaps even multiple other generations will be able to read through my daily thoughts and the things I pondered. Who knows what they might find meaningful, and funny, and perhaps even helpful in their own respective life journeys. That’s a reward that can’t be quantified.
So those are just five lessons from twelve years of blogging. Another milestone has been reached, and I’m still going. The journey continues. Who knows where it will take me. One post at a time.
Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he sufferedand, once made perfect, [Jesus] became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey himand was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek. Hebrews 5:8-10 (NIV)
The further I have progressed on this life journey the more I have come to understand that I must embrace mystery if I am going to progress spiritually in certain places. This flies in the face of a system of reason in which I was raised and educated. Our culture is one that places what I have come to understand as an undue premium on knowing. Theories are stated as certainties quite frequently whether they come from the institutions of religion, education, politics, or science. I find that our culture has lost sight of the value of embracing the knowledge of knowing that we do not know or cannot know.
I have found that the desire to try to replace mystery with false certainty is a fool’s errand. I see this repeated over and over again in history. It leads down all sorts of silly and hurtful paths. Minor issues become major battlegrounds, honest exploration is sacrificed on the altar of exclusionary social litmus tests, and institutions make all sorts of embarrassing mistakes (sometimes with deadly consequences). Embracing mystery, on the other hand, has pushed my heart and mind to new avenues of possibility, exploration, discovery and faith. I love how Catholic mystic Richard Rohr puts it: “Mystery is not something we can not understand. Mystery is something we can endlessly understand.”
The letter to Hebrew believers has always been shrouded in mystery, not the least of which is the identity of the author. Two centuries after it was penned we are still not certain who wrote the letter. My fundamentalist Bible professors taught me that I must believe it was Paul who wrote it. Textual critics in education laugh at such a claim, telling me it certainly couldn’t be Paul. Arguments have been made for a host of first century figures (i.e. Luke, Apollos, Barnabas). More recently, some scholars have argued that it was most certainly a woman, Priscilla, who was among Jesus larger circle of 70 disciples and travelled with Paul. I find this possibility fascinating and stimulating. It has led me to discover more about this amazing woman through whom God did amazing things. I know, however, at least one of my fundamentalist professors would have said it most certainly wasn’t Priscilla and would certainly have marginalized and subtly punished me educationally had I steadfastly held to the possibility in his class.
I do not know who wrote the letter to the Hebrew believers, and that’s perfectly fine for me. It is a mystery that has much for me to discover in its exploration of possibility.
In today’s chapter we encounter yet another mystery in the revelation of Christ as eternal High Priest. The Hebrew believers who first received this letter would have intimate knowledge about how the Hebrew priestly system worked as prescribed by the Law of Moses. Only descendants of Aaron (Moses’ right-hand man) were to be priests, and the High Priest could only come from those genetic ranks. According to the prophets, however, the Messiah was to come from the tribe of Judah and the house of David as Jesus did. Remember Christmas? Mary gives birth to Jesus in Bethlehem, the “City of David.” Joseph and Mary had to go to Bethlehem for the census because they were both descendants of David in the tribe of Judah.
But now the mysterious author of Hebrews lays out a claim that Christ is our eternal “High Priest,” the cosmic conduit between God and man. But the Hebrew readers would know that Jesus was not from the line of Aaron, so how could He be High Priest? The author reveals Jesus as High Priest “in the order of Melchizedek.” In Genesis 14:18 Abram (who would soon be known as Abraham) meets a mysterious King of Salem named Melchizedek who was “priest of God Most High.” He serves Abram bread and wine (remind you of anything?) and blesses Abram. Abram in return presents the priest Melchizedek an offering of a tenth of everything.
That’s all we know about Melchizedek. This mysterious person was “priest of God Most High” before Abram was Abraham, before Israel was a people, before the Law of Moses was given, before the Hebrew priesthood was defined as descendants of Aaron. It’s a mystery, and the author of Hebrews attaches the mystery of Christ the cosmic High Priest to the lineage to the mysterious Melchizedek who appears within the Hebrew tradition but outside the system of Moses.
This morning I’m once again perplexed, stimulated, and inspired by the mystery of Melchizedek, of Jesus, and of Hebrews. As I humbly embrace the mystery I push deeper into that which can be endlessly understood and so take another step forward on the path of faith and Spirit.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8-9 (NIV)
When I was a young man I may not have thought I knew it all, but I was pretty certain I had a firm grasp on most of it. The further I get in my journey the more I am convinced that what I know, indeed what we know as human beings, is the visible and temporal tip of an eternal iceberg. I am increasingly captivated by the mystery of what I do not know, and what I can not fathom.
Embracing of mystery, or perhaps better said letting mystery embrace me, is not something I could really do when I was younger. I needed to feel the self assurance of having it all figured out, neatly ordered in my own intellectual box, and tied up with the ribbon of my institutional doctrines. And yet, if I am going to faithfully believe what God has said through His Message, then I must embrace the truth of Isaiah’s poetic verse in today’s chapter. God uses the inverse of my iceberg metaphor. God’s thoughts and God’s ways are light years above what I can see or seem. So, why would I want to even pretend otherwise?
I know what God has expressed through what has been made, which itself confounds the greatest of human minds in the ways with which it functions. I know what God has expressed through Jesus, which is rich in diverse metaphors and spiritual paradoxes that have kept better minds than mine debating since they were spoken. I know the Great Story as it has been told and handed down through the millennia. Chapter-by-chapter I continue my journey through it and find myself ever captivated by the depths of it that I continue to unearth. I have accepted that I will never stop finding new discoveries within it, and asking questions for which I do not know the answers. Still, it will speak to me anew each time I delve into it.
I remember hearing a respected teacher, Gordon McDonald, speak at a conference many years ago. He said he had something he wanted to share with us and then added [I paraphrase], “You may disagree with me. That’s okay. I’m too old to care whether everyone agrees with me or not.” As a young man who cared a great deal that everyone agree with my neatly packaged and wrapped box of knowledge, I was blown away by this statement. Today, I get where Gordon was coming from.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Many years ago I ran into a pastor in a coffee shop in Des Moines. He was a charismatic and persuasive teacher and had been on the staff of a large church in the area until he and a small faction of his followers led a coup against the senior pastor and elder board. The church broke asunder.
This young pastor led a small group to form their own church that was predicated on his own brand of arcane, intellectualism that split people into a spiritual version of Dr. Seuss’ Sneetches. If you agreed to his personal list of spiritual criteria then you were part of the small few who “get” the “truth.” In his eyes you then had an acceptable star on your heart and were among the chosen few. If you disagreed with him then you were pitied, ignorant, and his version of the spiritual star on your heart was woefully missing.
I make it my intention to love everyone and treat everyone with deference. So, when he recognized me and offered to sit down for a chat over coffee I invited him to join me. Over the next half hour I listened as my friend gave me the most subtle and insidious dressing down I’ve ever received in my life.
With a smile on his face and in the most gentle, patronizing tone my friend proceeded to inform me of all the ways I did not measure up to deserving his version of the Sneetches spiritual star. My education was woefully inadequate and poorly sourced. My belief system and theology did not include his requisite knowledge and acceptance of various teachings and “isms” that were necessary to elevate me to the minimum state of knowledge that he, and therefore God, clearly required.
I listened quietly as he waxed his own profundity over our cups of dark roast (at least the coffee was good). I said very little, as I’d quickly learned that any thing I said only earned me a new line of insult cloaked in arrogant, spiritual intellectualism. By the time we shook hands and he departed to his booth with his backpack of books, my soul felt coated in thick, sludgy, spiritual slime.
I thought about this experience as I read Paul’s words today. I have no idea where this gentleman is today. His own church seemed to fall apart over a short period of time and he seemed to fall off the map. For all of his own impressive knowledge, his brand of belief appeared to me not to be structured on foundation of love that builds others up, but rather on a foundation of knowledge that separated and diminished all but the few who followed him blindly and, therefore, he deemed acceptable.
This morning I’m getting ready to train and coach some wonderful people on the principles of customer service, principles rooted in the teachings of Jesus (who understood and exemplified humility and servant-heartedness better than anyone). I have a lot of knowledge built on a quarter century of experience in my industry, but my knowledge is nothing if I use it simply to prove to my clients how much I know and how little they know. I will only be successful if I build on a foundation of love and use my knowledge as a tool for building them up to be better at serving others.