Tag Archives: Paul

Letters, Numbers, Part and Whole

“On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.”

“Awake, sword, against my shepherd,
    against the man who is close to me!”
    declares the Lord Almighty.
“Strike the shepherd,
    and the sheep will be scattered,
    and I will turn my hand against the little ones.”
Zechariah 13:1, 7 (NIV)

I am currently leading a team of teachers among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers as we share messages from Paul’s first letter to the believers in Corinth. [My kick-off message in the series on YouTube if you’re interested]

One of the first things that I did was to take the text of 1 Corinthians, strip it of all headings, footnotes, text notes, cross references, along with chapter and verse numbers. Then I put the text in a hand written font and handed it out to my team. “Here is Paul’s letter to the believers in Corinth,” I told them. “Put yourself in the shoes of a member of the Corinthian believers and read it as if you just got it out of your mailbox.” The process has been transformational.

It’s amazing how the simple act of separating original, ancient texts into chapters and verses can alter our reading and understanding. I’m sure there are some readers who don’t even stop and consider that the Bible wasn’t originally written with all those numbers. They were added by scribes centuries later, and in doing so they sometimes detract from the writers’ original works.

Take today’s chapter for example. In yesterday’s chapter I mentioned Zechariah’s word from God  in which God speaks of the people looking upon Him, “the one they have pierced“, and mourn as mourning for the firstborn son. It’s a prophetic foreshadowing of Jesus on the cross, pierced by the Roman soldier’s spear, as they sky darkens, the earth shakes, and His followers look on in disbelief. Then I got to the end of chapter 12 on this chapter-a-day journey and stopped reading.

Today I picked up with chapter 13 as if it’s a completely new section or thought and read the first verse:

“On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.”

This verse is a continuation of yesterday’s vision that foreshadows Jesus’ death, but in my one chapter a day habit it’s easy to think of this verse in my daily time capsule existence independent of yesterday’s chapter. But it was all one vision, one thought, one piece of writing. The death and piercing and mourning were all about God cleansing the people of sin and impurity. If I don’t connect the two chapters as one text I miss a crucial understanding of the whole thing in the same way that reading a hand-written letter as a bunch of independent verses and chapters loses its original intent as a personal letter from Paul to his friends in Greece.

Zac’s amazing prophetic roll continues today, describing the “shepherd” who is “struck” and the flock is scattered. Two-thirds are decimated and one-third survives but is “refined” by the process. Once again I find an uncanny description of the events of Jesus and  His followers in the first century. After Jesus’ death His followers scatter in fear for their lives, but instead of snuffing out the movement Jesus started it actually gains momentum. This momentum eventually sparks terrible persecution from the religious and Roman establishment. Jesus’ followers are hunted down, fed to lions in the Roman circus, stoned to death, impaled on pikes and burned alive to light Caesar’s garden. Many of them were wiped out just as Zechariah’s vision describes but it did not destroy the faith of those who survived. It refined their faith and made it stronger. Eventually, a few hundred years later, even Caesar becomes a believer.

This morning I find myself once again mulling over parts and whole. The first verse of today’s chapter doesn’t make sense apart from the previous chapter. Jesus’ death and the events of believers in the first century are made more meaningful and poignant when seen in light of Zechariah’s prophetic words penned 500 years earlier. In the same way people across the centuries have taken individual verses from the text of the Bible both to make inspirational Pinterest graphics and to justify all sorts of horrific acts of judgement, prejudice, violence, hatred, and persecution.

Some verses have incredible meaning in and of themselves, but I’ve come to understand that meaning should never be separated from the context of the author’s work and the Great Story that God is revealing across time, space, history and creation.

Encouragement Needed

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Now hear these words, ‘Let your hands be strong so that the temple may be built.’
Zechariah 8:9a (NIV)

In just a month or so, Wendy and I will be celebrating three years that we’ve lived in the house we built here in Pella. This morning I was thinking back to those months between August 2014, when we broke ground, and the end of February when we moved in. It seemed like an eternity. I was not prepared for all of the decisions that had to be made and the endless fussing and fretting over the most seemingly insignificant decisions.

The process did seem long and endless at the time, but the truth of the matter is that the building of a complex, multi-level, multi-room structure in six months would be nothing short of miraculous to those Zechariah was addressing when he wrote today’s chapter sometime around 500 BC. The “remnant” of exiles who returned to rebuild Jerusalem with its crumbled walls and broken down Temple were looking at not months, but long years – even decades of painstaking, back-breaking toil.

The rebuilding of Solomon’s Temple began in 536 BC but was abandoned two years later. It was picked up again fourteen years later and went on for another five years before it was eventually rededicated. The rebuilding of Jerusalem would continue for another 70 years.

Today’s chapter reads like a message of encouragement to the people facing the arduous task of continuing the work while in the depths of frustration at the rebuilding process. Through Zechariah, God encourages the people to imagine how great it will be when the work is completed and families of all generations are filling the city streets from children playing freeze-tag to old people leaning on their canes and reminiscing about the “old days.”

The truth is that whether we’re ancient Hebrews facing years of toil to rebuild our capitol city or a modern day couple standing in Lowe’s wondering if the project will ever be completed, we all sometime need encouragement to keep pressing on. The Apostle Paul consistently told the followers of Jesus, to whom he wrote the letters making up most of the New Testament, that he was writing to encourage them. He told them to encourage one another and reminded them  that their love, prayers and gifts were a tremendous encouragement to him. Paul was carrying out the task of building the church, not a building made of wood and stone, but a much messier task of building a living, breathing organization of diverse, flesh-and-blood people into a cohesive whole.

This morning I’m reminded that we all need encouragement on this life journey. It’s an important ingredient to any project, relationship, or process. Even God knew that the people of Jerusalem needed a shot in the arm, and today’s chapter is a record of the encouragement He sent through His prophet, Zechariah.

From time-to-time we all need others to encourage us and we, in turn, need to be on the lookout for those who could use a dose themselves. Encouragement is simple gift to give: a kind word, a postcard that takes you five minutes to write, a thank you note, a prayer, or a hug and sincere “Hang in there.”

Need a little encouragement today? Consider your reading of this post a divine appointment. Hang in there, my friend. Press on. Keep going. I know it may suck right now but I believe that your faith and grit are leading to good things ahead.

A Sacrifice of Aroma

The Lord said to Moses, “Give this command to the Israelites and say to them: ‘Make sure that you present to me at the appointed time my food offerings, as an aroma pleasing to me.’”
Numbers 28:1-2 (NIV)

I remember as a young child taking a school field trip to the Wonder Bread bakery in Des Moines. I can still remember the overwhelming aroma of all those loaves baking in the industrial oven. Pardon the pun, but it was a little slice of heaven to me. At the end of the tour each of us were given a mini-loaf of freshly baked bread still warm from the oven. The simple joy of that experience is still fresh in my memory almost fifty years later.

There is, perhaps, no aroma more pleasing to my soul than that of freshly baked bread. Over the past few weeks, between baby shower and Thanksgiving celebrations, Wendy has made multiple loaves of bread at home. The aroma wafts up the stairway from our kitchen into my office. I don’t know whether it is the nostalgic memories of my mother baking in the kitchen or something more innately human that connects my spirit to the smell of something so basic to life. It fills my spirit in a way that’s almost impossible to describe or quantify.

I find it fascinating that God prescribed to the ancient Hebrews sacrifices of aroma. In my experience we rarely, if ever, connect the spiritual to our sense of smell. Yet we depend on our olfactory senses in such basic ways. When the deli meat has been in the refrigerator for a while Wendy asks me to smell it to discern whether it’s still good. I have cologne in my bathroom cupboard that I refrain from putting on when Wendy and I are going on a date because I know the smell turns her off.  Quite often one of us will stop and say, “I smell something rotten” because our sense of smell has determined there is something amiss.

In his letter to the followers of Jesus in the city of Corinth, Paul makes the point that they are the “aroma of Christ.” I’ve always been attracted to that word picture. I’ve blogged about it multiple times. When I’m on site with a client today will my spirit, my attitude, my words, and my actions be a pleasing aroma to those around me? Just as my soul smiles at the smell of Wendy’s freshly baked bread, will there be some sense in which my clients will think, “I always like it when Tom shows up.”

Conversely, it is perfectly possible that I might possibly “stink up” a place. When my life, my mind, or my soul are slowly rotting from the effects of fear, anxiety, judgement, anger, hatred, envy, bitterness, pride, conceit, or the like, others can “smell” it in the air when I’m present.

In another letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome, Paul tells them to  offer themselves as “living sacrifices.” I’ve never connected the two, but this morning I’m thinking of my “living sacrifice” being a sacrifice of aroma just like God asked from the ancient Hebrews in today’s chapter. Today I want my life and actions to be like the aroma of freshly baked bread in God’s nostrils. I want my presence on-site with my client today to be a similarly pleasing spiritual fragrance for them.

In order for Wendy to produce the aroma of freshly baked bread in our home, she has to actively preheat the oven, mix the recipe in the kitchen, let the dough rise, and bring about the conditions in which the bread will bake and the aroma will be unleashed. Similarly, I’ve got to consciously put together the recipe of intention, thought, words and actions to produce a pleasing aroma for God in my day today.

Of course, in order to produce a stench I don’t have to do a thing. When a living thing sits long enough in stagnation the rot will eventually, naturally happen on its own.

Afscheiden

Therefore,
“Come out from them

    and be separate,
says the Lord.

Touch no unclean thing,
    and I will receive you.”
2 Corinthians 6:17 (NIV)

I have lived much of my life  in and around communities with strong Dutch heritage. The Dutch communities in Iowa were settled, for the most part, by tight-knit groups of Dutch believers who came to America for religious freedom. Over 150 years later most of these communities maintain a strong connection to their heritage. It’s fascinating to experience life here and, over time, observe how we function and interact.

On one hand I have an insider’s understanding, receiving my paternal DNA from a father with Dutch genes who came from this heritage. On the other hand, mine is an outsider’s perspective as I grew up in a city away from these Dutch communities and only experienced them when visiting my grandparents. It is as an adult have I found myself living within them.

There is a Dutch word, afscheiden, which you still hear on occasion in conversation. It means “to separate.” I have come to observe that it is a thread in the fabric of our community in multiple ways. Our ancestors were those who separated from their home to come to America. Within the community there are strong religious subgroups who have historically separated themselves within the community based on adherence to certain church doctrines and religious practices. Visitors to our communities often comment on the large number of churches. It is, in part, due to our habit of separating whenever there is disagreement.

Afscheiden in our communities typically has strong religious connotation to it. One group of Christians claims to have a better (usually more strictly conservative) hold on God’s truth, so they separate and disassociate themselves from their wayward, liberal brethren. The scriptural defense they use comes from today’s chapter in which Paul quotes the prophet Isaiah (pasted at the top of this post).

I always think a little historical context is in order.

Competing religions in the prophet Isaiah’s day were often centered around fertility and nature. There was a wide variety of communal sexual activity cloaked as religious practice and even the human sacrifice of babies and children to please the gods. It was nasty stuff. In Paul’s day, the Greek and Roman temples in cities like Corinth continued to be religious prostitution rackets that propagated a lot of typically unhealthy practices. For both Isaiah and Paul, the call to separate was less about religious dogma and more about foundational moral code.

Along life’s journey I’ve observed that legalistic religion loves afscheiden. Black and white appears on the surface to be much simpler than struggling with gray. For certain groups life must be strictly categorized in terms of clean and unclean, acceptable and unacceptable, good and bad, godly and evil so that I always know what to do, think, say, and who I can associate with. After a while, however, you have all these small, insular groups who have afscheidened themselves to death.

This morning I’m looking back on my own journey and the ways that the concept of “come out and be separate” have affected my life, my choices, my relationships, and my actions. I made the observation to Wendy the other day that Christians like to be prescriptive with our religion, prescribing the things you must do to be a follower of Jesus (and if you don’t toe the line we afscheiden ourselves from you!). Jesus, however, was more descriptive about the Kingdom of God. He always said, “the kingdom of God is like…” and then would describe it.

I’m realizing that I prefer a description to reach for rather than a prescription to swallow.

 

 

Hollywood Moment in Colossae

But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary.
Philemon vs. 14

One of the things you learn in the world of theatre, film, and story is that conflict is what makes a story interesting. It’s Friday before 4th of July weekend as I write this, so we’re all being treated by Hollywood to blockbuster conflicts of good and evil in the form of comic book heroes and alien invasions. Fun epic conflicts that feed the adrenal glands while requiring very little of us emotionally. The more personal and human a story’s conflict, the more deeply it affects us.

Paul’s letter to Philemon is an overlooked personal story amidst the grand epic of the Great Story. It’s a deeply personal moment between two men: Philemon and Onesimus. It’s a moment made possible by an unexpected, divinely appointed meeting.

Philemon is a man of means. He’s a respected local businessman in the city of Colossae, where he met Paul and became a follower of Jesus. Philemon became a generous benefactor to the believers in Colossae. He opened his home for them to meet and worship. He was generous in love and deed and greatly respected by Paul.

Onesimus was a slave owned by Philemon. At some point in time, Onesimus stole from his master and ran away. Under Roman law, Onesimus was guilty of crimes punishable by death.

The exact details of the historical story are sketchy, but as a story-teller I’d dare to believe that as a runaway slave, Onesimus likely stuck to a life of petty theft to stay alive and on the run. Petty thieves, especially those who are poor runaway slaves, get caught and thrown into prison. As fate would have it, Onesimus is thrown into jail with a religious disturber of the peace named Paul. Paul recognizing the thief as a member of his friend, Philemon’s household, befriends Onesimus. The runaway slave becomes a sincere follower of Jesus.

Paul tells the slave and fledgling follower that while he has repented of his sins and his sins have been forgiven through Jesus sacrifice, he still must make things right with his master. Onesimus the runaway slave must return to his master, Philemon, as a brother in Christ. Paul pens his short letter. Onesimus, upon his release from prison, returns to his master in Colossae, letter in hand.

What a Hollywood moment. What a churning mixture of emotions as slave owner sees thief and runaway slave walking back through his door. What a moment when Philemon reads the letter from Paul and begins to fathom how God has orchestrated this story. What layers of meaning on personal, spiritual, and cultural levels as matters of slavery and human conflict gets intertwined with fate and personal faith. Runaway slave returns as a fellow follower of the faith. I can only imagine Onesimus’ fear mixed with memories of anger and hatred toward to this man who “owned” him. Philemon’s feelings of legal rights, personal betrayal, and desire for justice is now in conflict with his conscience as the word’s of Jesus’ prayer run through his head: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgiven those who sin against us.”

Today I’m reminded that the test of our faith is in our interpersonal conflicts.

 

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Silly and Sad Places

I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair. I made them take an oath in God’s name….”
Nehemiah 13:25a (NIV)

Along my journey I have, on occasion, found myself amidst those who are legalists as in their faith. In my youth there was a time when I embraced a narrow, legalistic view of faith and life. I learned a lot of valuable life lessons from the experience.

I spent one semester attending a legalistic Bible college. Everything was controlled and dictated by the administration. There were rules about how to could and couldn’t dress. There were rules about how you could and couldn’t wear your hair. There were rules about what you could and couldn’t and drink. There were rules about words, rules about relationships, rules about beliefs, rules about time, rules and there were rules about rules. Behind all there rules were ominous administrators and faculty members constantly and vigilantly on the lookout for rule breakers who would be swiftly punished and branded. As an off-campus commuting student I was immediately branded as suspect as I spent so much time out of the school’s strict control. I found it a silly and sad place.

Life for a legalist exists inside a black and white world defined by a list of religious “dos” and moral “don’ts.” It’s a maddening existence in which the things which are strictly forbidden become even more tempting. The stakes on controlling behavior continually rise. Eventually the rules become more perverse than the behaviors they’re trying to avoid.

That’s what I observe in today’s chapter. Nehemiah tackled a huge project in the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem and the restoration of the temple. Bricks and mortar are one thing. Now he’s tackling a much messier task of trying to modify and control human behavior. He’s trying to make people tow the line with regard to Judaic religious laws. When you get to the point that you’re cursing people, beating people, pulling out their hair, and forcing them to take oaths then you’ve definitely joined the legalistic elite. Nehemiah even has a perverse sense of earning some kind of spiritual merit badge for being God’s behavior police. Four times he repeats his mantra of “Remember me God.”

This morning I find myself thinking about Paul, who came out of the same legalistic Jewish tradition as Nehemiah. In fact, Paul at one time acted much like Nehemiah. When Paul encountered Jesus he had been on his way to the city of Damascus. It was there he desired to arrest, convict, imprison and (he hoped) sentence to death those rule breaking Jews who were following Jesus. He’d already successfully put one of Jesus’ rule breaking followers to death. Jesus changed all that, and within a few years Paul was leading the charge in embracing non-Jewish Gentiles and directing followers of Jesus away from strict Jewish tradition.

I am so glad that my days of legalism are behind me. I’m thankful that, somewhat like Paul,  my path led away from silly and sad places where legalism reigns and sucks the Life out of you. This morning I’m grateful to have journeyed to a place where freedom and grace give rise to Life-giving good things.

Love Trumps Freedom

No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.
1 Corinthians 10:24 (NIV)

Wendy and I have friends and family members who represent a broad spectrum of generations, backgrounds, beliefs and social customs. When we get together with people we are aware that others have very different thoughts and feelings about all sorts of human rituals and behaviors. From saying a prayer of thanks before a meal to whether it’s acceptable to consume alcohol to choice of appropriate words/topics to the appropriateness of a cigar after a great meal, there are many different considerations.

That’s the crucial word: consideration. When it comes social settings with others of very different beliefs, my behavior is determined largely by whether I consider my beliefs or others beliefs more important to me in that moment.

Paul was dealing with exactly the same situation among the followers of Jesus in the first century town of Corinth. Some of the community felt passionately that it was inappropriate to buy or consume meat that had been sacrificed to one of the many pagan temples there before it ended up in the market.  Others felt just as passionately that it was silly to worry about such things. The result was one of many conflicts that had come to full boil among the diverse community of believers.

For the past three chapters Paul has been addressing this controversy. Yes, he agreed, there is nothing wrong with eating the meat. Those who felt such freedom of conscience were not be convinced otherwise. At the same time, Paul urged those who experienced such freedom to be considerate of those who held different beliefs on the matter. In other words: relatively insignificant dietary rules or beliefs of religious/social propriety are subordinate to the great commandment Jesus gave: Love those who think differently than you do. When you are with them, Paul urged, consider their conscience more important than your freedom. Freedom of conscience is subordinate to the law of love.

As I ponder this principle, I am aware that at times I am admittedly guilty of putting my pride and freedom ahead of others whom I make uncomfortable. I am reminded this morning: Love trumps freedom. Consideration of others trumps the freedom of my conscience. A good thing for me to embrace and apply as I press on with my journey today.