Tag Archives: Paul

New Discoveries in Familiar Places

And Isaiah boldly says,
“I was found by those who did not seek me;
    I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.”
But concerning Israel he says,
“All day long I have held out my hands
   to a disobedient and obstinate people.”
Romans 10:20-21 (NIV)

Among the early believers and followers of Jesus there were two main populations. There were believers who were part of Judaism, and there were those believers who were not. Those of us reading Paul’s letters in the 21st century are largely ignorant and of the tremendous conflict that existed between these two factions. The believers who came out of Judaism wanted those who were followers of Jesus to essentially be a Jewish sect within the larger religion of Judaism. This meant that anyone who wanted to be a follower of Jesus would have to 1) become a proselyte of Judaism 2) become circumcised [if you’re a male] and 3) follow all of the Jewish laws and customs.

This was no small debate of crossing theological “t”s and dotting theological “i”s. This was a major difference that went to the very heart of who Jesus was and what it meant to be a follower. Those on both sides of the issue were impassioned. There were even some from the pro-Judaism faction who followed behind Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journey telling new believers that they’d been sent by James and the Apostles in Jerusalem to tell them not to believe everything Paul told them (“He’s not a real Apostle, anyway,” they explained) and to straighten them out on this “Jewish” question. They then proceeded to tell the non-Jewish (aka Gentile) believers of Jesus: 1. You must become Jews, 2. You must be circumcised, 3. You must follow all Jewish laws and customs.

Paul was furious.

This disagreement became so acute within the growing and rapidly expanding population of believers that a major meeting was called in Jerusalem. “The Jerusalem Council” as it became known, was to decide, once-and-for-all, the “circumcision” question. It was decided that non-Jews who became believers were not required to become Jews and to be circumcised in order to be a follower of Jesus. The Jesus movement was going its own way.

The debate, of course, did not end. In his letter to the Romans, Paul is still explaining, debating, and attempting to heal this rift. While the  believers in Rome were both Jews and Gentiles, Paul’s letter is addressed primarily to those who were Jewish, and he’s arguing from the Law of Moses and the Jewish Prophets that the coming of Jesus and the inclusion of Gentiles into “faith” was part of the plan all along.

Some people have asked me why I keep up my wayfarer’s journey through God’s Message over and over and over again. The answer is very simple. Every time I go back through a passage I’ve traversed before I’m doing so at a different place in my own spiritual journey. Each time I return to one of Paul’s letters I’m a little older, hopefully a little wiser, and I have a deeper experience of Life and Spirit. Sometimes things aren’t terrible different, but other times I peel back another spiritual layer and gain a whole new understanding I never had before.

That’s exactly what Paul was going in today’s chapter. When he quotes Isaiah he is holding up poetic prophecies that Jewish believers would have known and heard repeatedly in their own spiritual journeys. Paul, however was shedding new light on the same verses from the other side of Jesus’ ministry, His cross, and His empty tomb. “It’s been staring you right in the face the whole time,” Paul is saying, “but you’ve never seen it.”

Which, again, is why I keep pressing on and staying the course. I’ve discovered along the way that being a follower of Jesus is not for simple consumers, despite the many who treat it so. I’ve not found it to be a one-and-done transaction for fire and eternal life insurance. It’s so much more. It’s a progression in which old things pass away and new things come. It’s a never ending path of discovery. It’s never gotten old and is always challenging in new and unexpected ways. But, it’s something everyone has to lace up their own spiritual hiking boots to discover.

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.”?

Not an Application, an Invitation

I do not think I am in the least inferior to those “super-apostles.” I may indeed be untrained as a speaker, but I do have knowledge.
2 Corinthians 11:5-6 (NIV)

In the pantheon of faith, I find that Paul is revered as much as any other person in the history of Christianity. As I’ve journeyed repeatedly through that Great Story I find it fascinating how people selectively diminish the humanity of the “pillars of the faith” and selectively choose to focus on perceived strengths that might even be overstated through the lens of history and religiosity.

Paul was not universally loved and respected in his own day. While I have no doubt that Paul’s personality and mind were a force to be reckoned with, evidence reveals that the physical package was not in the least bit impressive. Some historical evidence suggests a homely looking man who was bow-legged and had a large nose. After repeated scourging, beatings, and stoning attempts his body probably had been unalterably scarred and he likely moved and carried himself as one permanently injured from suffering those repeated traumas. He famously had poor eye-sight in a day before eyeglasses had been invented, so he was probably ceaselessly squinting. And Paul he freely admits that he wasn’t a great public speaker.

Paul had rivals. He was not universally loved. Other believers, teachers, and apostles belittled him, sought to marginalize him, and tried to lead other believers (like the believers in Corinth) to shy away and even dismiss him. Paul’s authority was questioned because he wasn’t around when Jesus was on earth, publicly doing his ministry. His claim of being an apostle was constantly disputed as people clearly questioned the validity and voracity of his Damascus Road experience while not letting him forget his record as a prosecutor of believers and the head of the conspiracy to execute the beloved Stephen. And, there were other teachers and leaders, like Apollos, who were clearly better looking, more likable, and much better preachers.

As I make my way through Paul’s second surviving letter to the believers in Corinth (there’s at least one other letter referenced and there are probably two or more that didn’t survive antiquity) it reads like a man desperately making a case for himself, for his reputation, and his authority as a teacher and leader of the Jesus Movement.

In my faith journey I’ve observed that this is the real story that modern believers don’t know, or choose not to see. The Great Story is full of very flawed, every day human beings who God used in amazing ways, but they have been dehumanized, canonized, and lionized by religion and history. The result, I’ve observed, is that we both exaggerate our own human flaws so as to believe God would never use us, and we place the “heroes of the faith” like Paul on a pedestal we believe we could never, ever reach.

One of the meta-themes I’ve found in the Great Story is God using very human, very flawed people. Moses disqualified himself as a poor public speaker (God told him to let Aaron do the talking) and had a bad temper. Jacob, later called Israel, was a terribly deceptive liar. David may have been called “a man after God’s own heart” but he was also an adulterer and guilty of conspiracy to commit murder. Solomon may be hallowed for his wisdom, but he also enslaved and conscripted the labor of tens of thousands of people (while annually celebrating Passover and God’s deliverance of his own people from slavery in Egypt) to the point that his son had to reap the political consequences of their violent rebellion.

And then there is Paul, the big nosed, bow-legged, scarred, unlikable and forceful little man who was such a boring, long-winded preacher that a boy once fell asleep during his sermon and fell out of a third-story window to his death.  And, I still don’t question his induction to the faith Hall of Fame while quickly and shamefully dismissing my own worthiness or hastily judging the worthiness of other human beings just as flawed as myself.

This morning in the quiet of my hotel room I’m reminded that in all my reading of the Great Story I have not once come across an application for being a follower of Jesus with an accompanying list of requisites for the job. Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and feel the weight of your flawed humanity drowning your soul. I’d like to give you some rest.” This brings to mind another thing I’ve observed, and have found easily forgotten. Being a follower of Jesus is not a position I apply for, it’s simply an invitation I accept (or don’t).

 

Lunch with the CEO

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does.
2 Corinthians 10:3 (NIV)

A number of years ago my company served a midwest client. We were providing them with on-going customer satisfaction research, conducting Quality Assessments in their contact center, as well as coaching their sales and customer service teams. Then we learned that the company had been sold to a much larger conglomerate with global reach.

As always happens in a corporate buy-out, there was a subsequent shift in the executive ranks as the new owners brought in their own executives to run their new asset. I know that when this happens there is a very good possibility that we will lose our contract. New executives tend to come in having already formed their own strategic partnerships and alliances along their career journey. They use their new authority and this initial season of massive change to bring in the friends and colleagues they already know and trust.

In this case, the new CEO decided to let us finish our contract year as he observed the work we were doing and allowed us to present our data and explain the continuous improvement model we’d implemented which was successfully making positive changes to the customer experience. We were fortunate. As the year progressed he not only allowed us to continue our project, but he actually gave me additional projects to work on with him. At the end of the year he agreed to keep our projects moving.

During one of my visits I had lunch with the CEO. “Do you know why I keep you around?” he asked. He was a type 8 challenger so I had to be ready for him to ask almost any kind of arcane, direct question at any moment.

I hope we’re providing you with value,” or some such generic guess was my answer.

It’s your expense reports,” he answered just as directly as he’d asked the question.

Excuse me? My expense reports?

I deal with all sorts of outside vendors and consultants,” he went on to explain. “You wouldn’t believe what people try to charge me and get away with. First Class airfare, magazines they buy to read on the plane, luxury hotel suites, and the most expensive meals. One guy tried to expense a $200 bottle of wine with his lunch. Then they even try to charge margin on top of their expenses.”

You and your team,” he said, “are different. You only expense what is necessary and reasonable. In fact, I can tell you actually try to help me contain costs. It tells me a lot about who you are and how you operate. It tells me I can trust you.

It was a nice thing to hear, because our company has always tried to operate with integrity in all of our dealings and relationships. If you happen to have been in our gathering of Jesus’ followers a couple of days ago and heard the message, then you’ll understand when I say that I try to bring “Level 4” principles into our “Level 3” business dealings.

In today’s chapter, Paul expresses the same vein of thinking. He’s operating in the world but trying to bring a different level of operational principles in his relationships and dealings. He’s trying to bring the Kingdom into everything that he’s doing from his ministry to all of the fledgling gatherings in the Jesus Movement to the tent-making and repair business he ran wherever he went to provide for his daily needs so as not to be a financial burden on the believers he was serving.

This morning I’m preparing for a business trip. Once again I’m thinking about how I can serve well, love well, bring measurable value to my client, and be an example in all of my dealings. My memories of lunch with that CEO are a good reminder for me as I embark on my journey. I want my stated principles to be evident in my daily words and actions.

People are watching, and they notice.

 

It’s Colder than the Arctic. Oh, the Joy!

I am greatly encouraged; in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds.
2 Corinthians 7:4b

Note to subscribers: I had a technical glitch publishing this post this morning with some nasty HTML coding issues. My apologies. I trashed the original post and am reposting, so you may have gotten two emails. Sorry. Maybe it’s the cold 😉

I write this post from the depths of winter in Iowa. It’s -13 as I tap out these words, which is a bit warmer than it was yesterday. This morning I woke up to find our hot water heater isn’t working. Lovely.

Just a week or so ago I was sitting in O’Hare airport in Chicago chatting with a wonderfully gregarious transplant from New Zealand. He was complaining about the weather extremes he’s learned to live with here in the midwest of North America. It reminded me of an observation Garrison Keillor once made: Living in the midwest is like spending your summers in Death Valley and your winters in the Arctic. Indeed. Here’s the headline from the Des Moines Register on Tuesday:

 

Article Headline from Des Moines Register, January 29, 2019.

Along the journey we face all kinds of different challenges. While it’s human to grumble and complain, I often find it personally necessary to make myself put things in context. This morning’s chapter provided it for me.

In writing to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, Paul references “all our troubles.” Later in the letter he provides specifics. Let me jump ahead for the sake of today’s thought. Paul writes:

“I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received the forty lashes minus one.(Note: 39 lashes with a scourge was the ancient prescription to bring the punished to the point of death without letting them actually slip into the comfort of death). Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones (Note: Paul’s would be executioners actually believed they had successfully stoned him to death. His body was carried and dumped outside the city of Lystra and left for dead.), three times I was shipwrecked (Note: He doesn’t mention the venomous snake bite that should have killed him.), I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move (Note: Scholars say that Paul logged some 10,000 miles during his journeys. That’s roughly 21,120,000 steps without a FitBit) . I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.

As I said: Context can be a good antidote for self-centered misery. It’s cold this morning and my water heater is broken. I am, however, in a warm house, with warm clothes, and a warm wife. The water heater guy will be by in a few hours to deal with the hot water problem. Boo-hoo for me.

What I found even more fascinating as I read Paul’s words today was that while he endured torture, stoning, shipwrecks, snakebites, imprisonment and the rest, he states that his “joy knows no bounds.”

Along this journey Wendy and I have learned a lot about joy (though I will freely confess that I know far less than Paul). Joy always jumps off the page at me, because it is one of those words that holds a lot of meaning for Wendy and me. We’ve learned from our journey together that joy is something deeper than a momentary feeling such as happiness which flits in and out with the ever shifting winds of circumstance. Joy comes from a deep spring. It’s not a surface, run-off emotion. You have to drill through bedrock of suffering to experience the flow of joy. It is a spiritual by-product of the three things that remain when all else is stripped away: faith, hope, and love.

In the quiet (and a blessedly warm home office) I am thankful this morning for the flow of joy that Wendy and I have come to experience, independent of whatever momentary personal circumstances we may be experiencing.

By the way, temperatures here in picturesque Pella, Iowa are forecast to be 57 degrees (above zero) on Sunday.

Context.

Stay warm, my friend. Have a great day.