Tag Archives: Law

Masking Tape Mess

For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.
Romans 7:18-19 (NIV)

For most of my childhood there was a line of masking tape on the floor in the doorway to my brothers’ bedroom. My bedroom was across the hall. The masking tape was the visual border my brothers placed at the entrance of their bedroom sanctuary. I was told, and reminded regularly, that I was never to cross that masking tape without their permission and presence. Their room was sacred space and it was off limits to me.

So, naturally, I snuck into their room every chance I got.

It’s silly isn’t it? The rules telling us what not to do stirs inside of us the desire to do (and get away with) the very thing the rule is made to prohibit us from doing. The small town where Wendy and I live has a long tradition of being a religious community. The kids in our community are raised feeling pressure of the community to be “good” kids and “Christian” kids. Parents have told me that what their “good Christian” kids now do is to have one social media account to broadcast their “good” kid image to the world, but then they have a secret social media account on the same platform to get away with all the “bad” things they want to say, show, share and sext with their friends.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. That’s a perfect word picture of the human nature problem that Paul is getting at in today’s chapter.

A few weeks ago my friend Katie presented a word picture that I love. The law, she said, is an x-ray. It shows us what’s broken, but it’s not going to heal us. The doctor is not going to wrap the x-ray around your arm in order to heal the break.

For a long time institutional Christianity and its adherents (myself included, I confess) have given the world the perception that being a follower of Jesus is just another religion with another set of rules. Yet when I read Jesus’ teaching and study His example, He is always about freeing me from the silly, broken system of rule-keeping that only seems to feed this insidious, secret desire to do the very things I’m not supposed to do. Jesus calls me to something higher; Something that C.S. Lewis described as “further up and further in.” Self-sacrificing Love, permeating grace, and radical forgiveness that is led by Spirit, built on Truth, and fueled by resurrection Life.

The further I leave behind legalism and religious rule keeping, the more I embrace and experience where Jesus is calling me to follow, the less I feel of that pesky desire to step across the masking tape.

Legalism’s Tragic Imitation of Faith

What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
Romans 4:3 (NIV)

Legalism /ˈlēɡəˌlizəm/ noun  1. Excessive adherence to law or formula. 2. Dependence on moral law rather than personal faith.

I was a young man when I had the opportunity to pastor a relatively small, rural congregation. Taylor was just a newborn. I’ll never forget meeting informally with one of the church elders to get acquainted over a cup of coffee.

Where are you going to send your children?” he asked me early in the conversation. “Public school or Christian school?

What I didn’t know in that moment was that the question was a litmus test. The elder was raised in a denomination that practiced a form of legalism, and the education of children was part of the “moral law” for this particular denomination. You sent your children to Christian school, and there was no other acceptable option. If parents couldn’t afford it, then grandparents and other family members were expected to pitch in and foot the bill. If you failed this test then there would definitely be social repercussions.

By the way, I failed the test, but that is a different post for another day.

Along my faith journey I have encountered legalism in a number of different populations. I think it important to note that every brand of  denomination I’ve encountered, from Roman Catholic to Lutheran to Baptist to Reformed to Quaker has its own legalistic groups within. Both of the definitions pasted above fit hand-in-glove to what I’ve observed and experienced. What’s been fascinating to observe is how religious legalism seeps into every system with which it comes in contact. While living a among a group of legalistic Christians I found that the legalism was not confined to how the church operated, but it became how the connected family systems, social systems, educational systems, and business systems functioned. I certainly found individuals within these legalistic systems to be sincere and motivated by what they truly believed was “right.” So were many of the Pharisees for whom Jesus had such harsh words of rebuke.

In a legalistic group, observable public and social behavior becomes the standard by which a person’s spiritual standing is judged. Pressure is applied by the group as a whole to conform. Social acceptance or rejection is often the passive-aggressive form of reward or punishment. I’ve personally heard many tragic stories from individuals raised in these legalistic social groups. They’ve shared with me stories of being forced to stand publicly before the congregation in order to be shamed, and stories of church elders making weekly home visits to keep families toeing the line and under the church’s brand of social control.

Within the group I encountered as a young pastor the critical legalistic criteria of the denomination’s moral law not only included sending your kids to Christian school (controlled by the denomination, no doubt), but also strictly observing the sabbath (no work on Sunday), and attendance at two-a-day church services each Sunday (the “no work” law helped with this). Then there were all sorts of other unwritten, behavioral rules about the clothes you wore, the music you listened to, the businesses you supported, the people you dated and married, the acceptable colleges you sent your children to, and on and on and on.

It is written that the “fruit” of God’s Spirit in one’s life includes:

  • love
  • joy
  • peace
  • patience
  • kindness
  • gentleness
  • self-control

I’ve observed that the “fruit” of legalism in groups like the one I’ve described are:

  • obedience
  • guilt
  • fear
  • judgement
  • threats
  • shaming punishment
  • authoritative control

In his letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome, Paul is addressing a different form of legalism. In his case, it was the Jewish believers who’d been raised under the legalistic moral Law of Moses. Their adherence to these laws, along with others that had been made up, and the physical sign of being circumcised were the critical criteria. These followers of Jesus who came out of this form of legalism now wanted to apply their legalistic code to all followers of Jesus.

In today’s chapter, Paul tackles the issue head on by asking these legalistic Jewish believers two questions from their own scriptural tradition. Abraham was the spiritual “father” of Judaism (btw, Abraham was the “father” of Islam as well), and their scriptures said “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Not only this, but this simple “believe and you’ll be credited with righteousness” paradigm came before circumcision was a thing and before the Law of Moses existed. So, Paul argues, when Jesus says “Whoever believes in me will not perish but have eternal life, ”  he is simply going back to the original paradigm given to “Father Abraham” at the very beginning.

In the quiet this morning I’m seeing the faces of those who’ve shared with me their stories about being raised in legalism. Some are absurd to the point of laughter, and others are heart-breaking to the point of tears. I get why legalism develops as a human system. There is a social order produced, and we humans love our social order. The problem I’ve found, and that Paul is arguing, goes back to the definition I pasted at the top of this post: “adherence to moral law rather than personal faith.” Legalism actually chokes Spirit and Life and replaces it with a cheap imitation which actually destroys faith and, insidiously, feeds the flesh.

More about that in the chapters ahead.

The Inclusive Exclusivity Problem

“…there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.”
Romans 3: 30 (NIV)

A few years ago on this chapter-a-day journey I wrote that the first century conflict between Jewish followers of Jesus and Gentile (non-Jewish) followers of Jesus was actually a foreshadowing of the great Dr. Seuss’ story The Sneetches:

Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches had bellies with stars.
The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars. 

But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches
Would brag, “We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the Beaches.”
With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they’d snort
“We’ll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort!” 

In the case of the Jewish and Gentile believers, it was circumcision and the Law of Moses (a.k.a. Leviticus) that became the metaphorical star on their bellies.

As a 21st century follower of Jesus journeying through this letter of Paul to the Romans, it is critical that I understand this underlying tension and conflict. It is the driver and motivation for Paul’s letter. For centuries the Hebrew people had leveraged their gracious appointment as “God’s people” into creating and maintaining a theology of exclusion. They were the star-bellied Sneetches maintaining their private section of the beach and no one without a star on their belly was allowed. The Jewish followers of Jesus had spent their entire lives inside a cultural tradition that was thousands of years old telling themselves that they were exclusive.

The Gentile believers, on the other hand, had spent their entire lives knowing that the Jewish people lived, by-and-large, in their private culture and excluded anyone who wasn’t one of them.

As the Jesus movement rapidly expands across the known world, attracting followers of both the Jewish and Gentile camps, you’ve suddenly got star-bellied Sneetches and the Sneetches with “no stars upon thars” thrust together and co-habitating a “no-man’s land” section of Spiritual Beach.

Paul in his letter, is addressing this divide by explaining to the Jewish believers that God’s Message all along has never really been a theology of “exclusion” but one of “inclusion.” He’s walking a theological tight-rope, hearing the voices of his fellow Jews arguing with him about the law (i.e. “So you’re saying the Law is nothing?“), and hearing the voices of the Gentiles making counter arguments on the other side (i.e. “Well if more sin means there’s more of God’s grace to forgive me, then why don’t I just sin more so that there will be more grace?!“), and through it all he’s trying to bring them all together by laying out an inclusive understanding of what God has been doing all along in the Great Story so as to realize the end of Dr. Seuss’ yarn:

[That] day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches
And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.
That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars
And whether they had one, or not, upon thars. 

This morning in the quiet I find myself admitting that we human beings have a penchant for systemically creating social  and personal exclusivity. We’ve been doing it since the beginning of time in our tribes, our religions, our country clubs, our street gangs, our political parties, our families, our races, our racial ghettos, our denominations, our social systems, our church groups, our middle/high school cliques, our small town and big city attitudes, and et cetera, and et cetera, and et cetera.

Jesus came to change all that.

And, we’ve messed that up, too.

Which means that this morning I have to confess and admit the ways I’ve gone all “star-bellied Sneetch” in my own ways (and there are multiple ways I have done so) along this life journey. Paul reminds me in today’s chapter: We’ve all (that would be inclusive) fallen short of God’s design and desire.

Maybe when I was younger I was ignorant and didn’t understand. I can’t claim that anymore. I am a mature adult. If I am going to follow Jesus. If I’m going to really follow the heart of Christ, then I have to stop shutting people out, pushing people away, and ignoring people who are uncomfortably and inconveniently different.

In that regard, the message of Paul to the Romans is every bit as relevant today as it was then.

“Oh Yeah. That’s One of Mine.”

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.
Romans 2:14-15 (NIV)

One of the thematic threads I’ve observed throughout the Great Story is that the Spirit of God is not confined by the trappings of religion and its human penchant for systemic merit. Our human systems love things to fall into rigid rules and lawful order. Follow these rules, dress like this, talk like this, use these phrases, be seen doing these things, act like this when you’re in public, and everyone will know that you’re one of us.

Yet, as I’ve journeyed through the Great Story time-and-time-again I observe that there are those who follow the systemic rules on one hand while the whole time they are breaking the spirit of the law with the other. At the same time, there are those who don’t fit the meritorious religious system and its list of requirements, but who totally get the underlying Spirit that the system was trying to accomplish in the first place.

Then there is God accomplishing their purpose through the most unlikely character in the scene. The fool confounds the wise. The child shepherd kills the giant warrior. The least rises to rule over the greatest. The greatest enemy becomes the strongest ally.

Jesus channeled this theme over and over again. Perhaps the most challenging parable that Jesus taught was right at the climax of His teaching. He was getting down to the very core of his Message, and the leaders of the systemic religious order of merit would kill him for it. (See Matthew 25)

In the parable, Jesus divides everyone into two groups which He labels “sheep” and “goats”, but He might as well have labeled them “religious” and the “heathens.” Or, for the theme that Paul is addressing in today’s chapter, the “Jews” and the “Gentiles,” or perhaps it’s best labeled “God’s people” and “Those people.”

The first group looks like they belong to God’s flock because they look the part. They followed all the religious rules. They worked the system of merit for all it was worth. Jesus, however, says, “I never knew you” because while they followed the letter of the law on one hand, they ignored the heart of what the Law was supposed to create: love that looked out for the sick, the outcast, the foreigner, the lowly, and the weak.

Then Jesus turns to “those people” who were never part of the religious system at all. They’d not earned one single merit badge from the meritorious order. Jesus says, “Come on in to my kingdom” because even while they were outside the religious “system” and didn’t follow the legal rules, they found the heart of God. They practiced the law of love. They looked out for the sick, the outcast, the foreigner, the lowly, and the weak.

In today’s chapter Paul pushes into this theme big time. He’s writing to the followers of Jesus in Rom who fall into these two primary camps: Jews and Gentiles. From the Jews’ perspective it was the same systemic thought that Jesus had been dealing with. The Jewish believers saw it as “we God’s people” and “those people.” God’s people had been given “the Law” and had followed the religious meritorious order. The Gentiles, “those people,” were pagans, heathens, foreigners, and outsiders who had never been circumcised (merit badge #1) let alone practicing the exhaustive religious rulebook.

So, Paul picks up on Jesus’ theme and channels it as he begins his letter. The Gentile believers among Jesus’ followers, he’s basically arguing, are the goats in Jesus’ parable. They never had the rule book, the Law, yet they understood and obeyed the very heart of what the rulebook was designed to produce: love.

This morning I find myself challenged and taking a little heart inventory. Everyone knows that I’m a follower of Jesus. I’m one of the sheep and I make that abundantly clear in these posts. But, am I the sheep in Jesus’ parable? Am I looking all religious and righteous in these posts and then ignoring the very heart of what Jesus taught?

Ugh.

In the quiet I find myself asking who are the “goats” in my circles of influence? Who would my meritorious religious system tell me is one of “those people” but Jesus would look at that person’s heart and say, “Oh yeah. That’s one of mine.”?

The Gap Instinct

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Galatians 3:28 (NIV)

This week I started reading a book called Factfulness by Hans Rosling, a doctor and professor from Sweden. In his opening chapter he makes the case that we as humans have a “gap instinct.” We like to divide things into two extremes with a gap between them:

  • rich or poor
  • black or white
  • developed or developing
  • white collar or blue collar
  • liberal or conservative

Rosling goes on to state:

We love to dichotomize. Good versus bad. Heroes versus villains. My country versus the rest. Dividing the world into two distinct sides is simple and intuitive, and also dramatic because it implies conflict, and we do it without thinking, all the time.

The gap instinct makes us imagine division where there is just a smooth range, difference where there is convergence, and conflict where there is agreement.”

Along my journey I’ve noticed that the institutional church and those of us who follow Jesus often allow the gap instinct to invade our belief system and religious lives in unhealthy ways. God’s Message is quite direct in stating that “all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory” and “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” Yet, all of the time we condemn ugly sins while silently ignoring the pretty ones. We like to categorize others as sinners and ourselves as righteous. A job in the institutional church is “ministry” while all other occupations are not. Everything from music, to art, to books are divided into either “secular” or “sacred.”

In Paul’s letter to the believers in the region of ancient Galatia he finds himself struggling to keep Jesus’ followers from falling back into their gap instincts. One of the marks of Jesus’ teaching and the believers of the early Jesus Movement was that they bridged long-held gaps between people. In Jesus, there were no distinctions. Everyone was welcome at the table regardless of gender, race, background, history, or socio-economic standing.

Now, in Paul’s absence, some Jewish legalists claiming to be followers of Jesus have begun to rebuild the distinctions. Primarily, they were teaching that if a person wanted to follow Jesus they would have to follow all the old rules and regulations of the Jewish law and customs. Gentiles who wanted to follow Jesus could only do so through being a good Jew. With it, all the old gaps, distinctions, and differences would be firmly back in place.

Paul does not mince words. He tells the believers that falling back into their old gap instincts is complete foolishness. For his good Jewish readers who need convincing, he makes his case by citing both Law and prophet. He, once again, tears down the gaps:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

In the quiet this morning I’ve been examining my own heart and looking for my own person gap instincts. Where have I set up distinctions in my own mind? Who’s in and who’s out? Who’s acceptable and who’s not? Who is wrong where I am right? Who is the sinner on the opposite side of my (self-)righteousness?

Lord, have mercy on me. Tear down the distinctions routinely I make with my own gap instincts. Renew my mind. Help me see as you see, think as you think.

In my silent prayer, the Spirit whispered this passage to my spirit:

If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.

Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.
Philippians 2:1-8 (MSG)

Have a great day, my friend. If you need me today, you’ll find me over there bridging some of my gaps.

Of Vows, Legal Code, and Secret Handshakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today, I pledge myself to that simplicity.

Pinky swear.

Touch and Cleansing

“Anything that an unclean person touches becomes unclean, and anyone who touches it becomes unclean till evening.”
Numbers 19:22 (NIV)

There is an old saying that “cleanliness is next to godliness” and the saying may well be rooted in the religious rituals God gave to the ancient Hebrews in the book of Numbers. The theme of today’s chapter are the things that made one “unclean” and the rituals for making them “clean” again. While there is certainly spiritual metaphor at work here, there is also practical application for keeping a nation of nomads alive approximately 3500 years ago.

Throughout today’s chapter I got the sense of reading an ancient hygiene manual. Being around things like dead bodies (which may carry all manner of contagion) make a person “unclean.” You had to remain outside the camp for seven days (we call that quarantine), ritually wash, and then wash your clothes before you could be enter the camp once more. Through the ritual, God protects the community from that which could harm it.

By the time Jesus arrived on the scene in history 1500 years later, the “clean” and “unclean” designations of Moses’ law had morphed into systemic religious and social prejudice. Rules had been made to define the rules. Religious Hebrews weren’t using the “unclean” designation to protect the community, but to separate themselves from lower class individuals and those with whom they didn’t want to mix socially.

Read Jesus’ story and you’ll find that time and time again He was breaking the rules. He broke the rules for working on the Sabbath. He touched that which the Hebrew religious leaders said was “unclean” (e.g. a leper, a woman bleeding, a woman caught in adultery).

One of the most powerful stories is when a leper falls before Jesus and says, “If you want to, you can make me clean.”

He didn’t say “you can heal me” or “you can take my leprosy away” or “you can make me whole.” He said you can make me “clean.”

The leper was an outcast, and he was required to shout “Unclean!” wherever he went so that everyone else could avoid him. No one was to touch him. Every day the social system ensured that he repeatedly confirm his unworthiness, dishonor, and shame. All day, every day he would repeat “Unclean! Unclean! Unclean!” and watch people’s faces contort with disgust. He would watch mothers hurrying their children away from him. He watch people cross the street to walk on the other side of the road. This is why you still hear the phrase “social leper” in context of a person who has become an outcast of society.

Matthew is careful to record (Matthew 8:3) that Jesus reached out and touched the leper. This was not a casual touch. This was breaking the rules. This was supposed to mean that Jesus would be unclean, too. But Jesus’ touch healed the man’s leprosy. The touch made him clean.

This morning I’m reminded of the many times and circumstances along my life journey when I’ve felt unclean. Despite the common misperception of those who’ve never really read the story, Jesus didn’t come to perpetuate systemic uncleanliness. He didn’t come to double down on societal rules, stigmas, and shame. He didn’t come to tell me how terrible, unworthy, and unclean I am. I’m well aware of my uncleanliness without having to be reminded.

Jesus came to reach out with grace and love and compassion and power. Jesus came to touch the unclean person and make them clean. Present company included.