Tag Archives: Political

Spiritual Bankruptcy

If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.

If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing.

If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.
1 Corinthians 13:1-7 (MSG)

It is possible to be religious, but not loving.
It is possible to be righteous, but not loving.
It is possible to be generous, but not loving.
It is possible to be doctrinally sound, but not loving.
It is possible to be right, but not loving.
It is possible to be politically correct, but not loving.
It is possible to be a defender of truth, but not love your enemy.
It is possible to know all scripture, but not love those who mock you.
It is possible to have spotless church attendance, but not love.
It is possible to have spiritual discipline, but not love.
It is possible to have success, but not love.
It is possible to have a million followers, but not love.
It is possible to have good intentions, but not love.

Jesus said there were two basic laws:
1) Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
2) Love your neighbor as you love yourself.

When pressed to define who He meant by “neighbor,” Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan. In the story, the person who had love was a foreigner and an immigrant. The person who had love carried scars from being the victim of racial prejudice, injustice and systemic social, political, and economic ostracization. The person who had love held heretical doctrinal beliefs. The person who had love stood condemned by the prevailing  institutional religion of which Jesus was a part. But, the hated, heretical, outcast foreigner had love, and Jesus’ story made clear that love was the one thing that mattered to God.

On this life journey I’ve taken a good  hard look at myself, and the prevailing institutional religion of which I am a part.

We still haven’t learned the simple and most basic lesson Jesus ever taught. All of my spirituality, righteousness, and religion is bankrupt without love.

Lord, help me love.

featured image is a detail from the St. John’s Bible

“Yes, And”

I told them, “If you think it best, give me my pay; but if not, keep it.” So they paid me thirty pieces of silver.

And the Lord said to me, “Throw it to the potter”—the handsome price at which they valued me! So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them to the potter at the house of the Lord.
Zechariah 11:12-13 (NIV)

Reading scholarly commentary on today’s chapter, one is confronted with two contrasting interpretations of Zechariah’s prophecy. One sees the text as a conclusion of the previous chapter and a judgement on the neighboring nations who pose an obstacle to the reestablishment of Jerusalem. Others see it as prescient judgement on the rejection of God’s Messiah Shepherd.

What struck me as I read the presentation of contrasting interpretations is that I felt as though I must make up my mind as to which one is right; Which I agreed with and which I would reject. I have been programmed by my culture and tradition to approach interpretation in a dualistic, either-or manner. When I was younger my teachers regularly presented various arguments on different interpretations of a text then argued passionately for the interpretation that the teacher was convinced was the right one. Over time I felt the subtle but pervasive expectation to align myself to groups with whom I agreed on all the right interpretations.

I felt the expectation in the arena of institutional Christianity in which I was to align loyally with the particular denomination with whom I was convinced was right (and of course all other denominations were wrong and not to be trusted). Once aligned with a denomination I found myself pressured to associate with sub-groups of thought within the denomination on hot-button issues of doctrine or scriptural interpretation; Camps who would separate at denominational meetings like the parting of the Red Sea.

This was also true of politics, especially true here in the States where everything is divided into primarily two camps at ever and increasingly estranged viewpoints moving further and further apart.

This is also true socially where one social group separates themselves from another social groups and holds the other at an arm’s length of ignorant suspicion: Blacks and whites, academics and business, science and religion, jocks and artists, preppies and burn-outs, nerds and popular kids.

Along this life journey I have found myself consistently moving toward the gray spaces between the separate camps of dualistic thought, which sometimes raises suspicions of both. I have served and worshipped among many different denominations. I have found myself socializing in starkly contrasting social groups. I find myself increasingly rejecting the polarizing extremes of both of my country’s red and blue camps.

This morning I find myself mulling over the dualistic interpretations of Zechariah’s prophecy and whispering to myself, “yes, and.” So it is with the prophetic which can be layered with meaning and revealed by a God who is consistently beyond confinement of human thought or understanding. Even Jesus, whom I believe was the incarnate Immanuel (“God with us”) was consistently found at the tension between dualistic extremes. So much so, in fact, that those of Jesus’ own religion considered Him so threatening to their entrenched, right religious interpretations that they were willing to pay to get rid of Him.

And so they paid one of Jesus’ own followers thirty pieces of silver. When Judas felt the shamed of what he had done to Jesus he threw the silver back at the priests who used the money to buy a Potter’s field to be used to bury poor dead blokes who couldn’t afford a grave.

That’s one prophecy that scholars in either interpretive camp of today’s chapter can agree is eerily present in the text that Zac wrote nearly 500 years before the events occurred.

 

Still a Small Cog in a Broken Machine

O my people, your leaders mislead you,
    and confuse the course of your paths.
Isaiah 3:12b (NRSV)

As I write this post, the United States is amidst the most strange political season in my lifetime. In fact, data indicate it may be the most unusual presidential election in our relatively short history as the two major candidates are the more unpopular than any since we gained the ability to track such things.

In my life journey I’ve observed that all human governments are given to corruption. Even the Vatican, a relatively small independent state presumably dedicated to Christ, is constantly fighting corruption (especially at the Vatican Bank). All human organizations are run by spiritually broken human beings. In the case of national governments you will find leaders who are given to indulging their self-centric appetites. Rules are rigged to favor the incumbent, to hold on to power, to profit from power, and to maintain the status quo. Every human government from socialist to monarchy to representative republic shows evidence of this fact.

This should not come as a surprise to any follower of Jesus.

Jesus said that He came to proclaim to us the Kingdom of God. But, He made it clear that the Kingdom of God is not like the Kingdoms and governments of this world:

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

This morning I am, once again, reminded of my dual citizenship. I am a citizen of the United States and a citizen of God’s Kingdom. One is temporal, the other eternal. One is of this world, the other is not. Citizenship in the latter does not excuse me from my responsibilities in the former. In fact, it only makes me more responsible. God’s kingdom compels me to exercise my civic rights and responsibilities in this world as a representative of God’s kingdom.

Like many other Americans, I am not excited about any of the choices our political system has given us this election cycle. Like all human governments, our is ultimately broken. Nevertheless, I have a responsibility as a citizen of this system to be considerate, to be part of the process, and to vote as I am led. Leaders may confuse and mislead, as the prophet Isaiah reminds us this morning, but it does not exempt me from my own personal responsibilities as a small cog in the imperfect machine.

chapter a day banner 2015

The Place I Need Spiritual Heart Surgery

"Crossing Cultures of Masks" source: Novica
“Crossing Cultures of Masks” source: Novica

Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Colossians 3:11 (NIV)

One of the things that is largely forgotten today is just how socially radical the followers of Jesus were in the socio-economic Roman world of the first century. The lines of culture and society, of “haves” and “have nots” in their day and age were clearly drawn. Ethnicities, genders, and nationalities were deeply divided. As deeply divided as we see our own current culture, I have a hard time believing that it wasn’t exponentially worse in the first century Roman world.

Then Jesus came. And His followers saw in Jesus a different example:

Jesus spoke with women, and honored them as they supported His work. He spoke with a Samaritan woman with whom it was socially taboo to speak. He spoke with a woman condemned by her adultery, he touched her, covered her nakedness and forgave her.

Jesus was willing to go to the house of a Roman, whom it was socially and politically unacceptable by many in His culture to do.

Jesus accepted dinner invitations from those who were of the right wing, conservative political party that wanted Him dead.

Jesus dined with left wing, liberal Roman sympathizers considered traitors among His people. These hated turncoats and Bernie Madoff type con-men had worked the Roman system to get personally rich by extorting money from their good neighbors. 

Jesus touched and healed people who were poor, who were social outcasts, and those whom His society deemed wholly unacceptable.

Among Jesus’ circle of 12 disciples were educated and uneducated, a right wing extremist and a left wing extremist, rich and poor, blue collar and white collar. 

After Jesus ascension, His followers continued His example. When Jesus’ followers gathered together they welcomed everyone to the table. Slaves were welcome at the table with their own slave owners (imagine how uncomfortable that must have been). Men and women were both welcomed. People of all colors and nations were welcomed at the same table whether a respected Greek academic or a brutal Scythian barbarian. In Christ everyone who followed Jesus was welcome at the table. This simple, radical, counter cultural act would slowly rock the Roman Empire.

Today I’m asking myself, “How far has the pendulum sung back among those of us who claim to be Jesus’ followers today? Who would I honestly not want to welcome at the table with me? Who would make me really uncomfortable if they walked into my Sunday’s worship service and sat down?”

Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.

I’ve just identified the very place I need spiritual heart surgery. STAT.

Breaking Social Boundaries

source: krayker via Flickr
source: krayker via Flickr

…and [Peter] said to them, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” Acts 10:28 (NSRV)

In high school, people were separated by social sub-cultures: jocks, nerds, burnouts, toughs, bookworms, and etc. There was also separation by ethnicity in my high school which, at the time, was the most racially and ethnically diverse school in the district with whites, blacks, asians, and hispanics. Then there were separation by world-views. Christian kids hung tight, as did partiers, smokers, drugees, and so on. You get the picture.

I’ve observed along my life journey that adults are typically children who learn to mask, obfuscate, deny, normalize, and justify our childishness.

The cultural realities faced by the early followers of Jesus was like an extremely bad case of high school. Romans, Greeks, Africans, and Judeans all had their separate and unequal cultures. Pagans and Jews had their separate groups. Within sub-cultures like the Jews you had sub-groups dedicated to religious, political, and ethnic bents. The region around Jerusalem was a melting pot turned powder keg. You belonged to your sub-culture, you hung with your homeys, and you kept to yourselves.

And, Jesus was about to radically change all of that. The seeds had been sown. Jesus had led the way. In a misogynistic, self-righteous, ethnic Jewish culture Jesus broke social norms by speaking with a Samaritan woman at a well and extended gracious kindness and forgiveness to prostitutes. In a culture of political silos, Jesus was publicly seen with both Jews and Romans, the religious and the secular, the rich and the poor. Jesus called twelve men from a diverse panacea of political views including liberal Roman sympathizers, Jewish zealots, Jewish conservatives. They came from diverse socio-economic strata of the day.

Jesus is now gone, and His followers are falling back into their high school sub-cultures. In today’s chapter, God intervenes by making an introduction between the conservative, religiously self-righteous Peter and the “unclean” Roman foreigner, Cornelius. God makes a radical, paradigm shifting demand of Peter, the appointed leader of Jesus’ followers: stop considering any person unclean (e.g. less than, lower than, other) or profane (e.g. meaningless, not worth my time).

This morning I’m having a serious heart-to-heart with God. Who is my Cornelius? Have I slipped back into high school mode hanging with my homeys and steering clear of those who look differently, were raised different, believe differently, have different political views, come from different social strata? Lord, have mercy on me. Forgive me for my mindless, thoughtless, unintentional way I treat others as unclean and/or profane.

Yesterday is gone, but I have today before me. Help me cross and erase social boundaries in my thoughts, words, and actions.

Dramatic, Peaceful Reason

Gamaliel“So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” Acts 5:38-39 (NRSV)

Being a playwright, I love a good dramatic moment, and I have always loved the moment described in today’s chapter. Going back to Jesus’ triumphant entry, there there had been so much emotional reaction to everything:

  • The crowds are stirred up in passionate support of Jesus, proclaiming Him their next king
  • Religious leaders reacted to Jesus’ teaching and popularity by plotting to kill Him
  • The crowds are stirred up in violent opposition to Jesus, calling for His death
  • Jesus’ followers first react in fear and run for their lives
  • Jesus’ followers then react in wonder as they encounter the risen Christ
  • Jesus’ followers return to Jerusalem in confidence, proclaim the resurrection, and lead a massive revival in which thousands choose to follow
  • The public reacts by thronging from all over the region to Jesus’ followers seeking healing
  • The high priest and religious leaders react by throwing the disciples in prison

I can only imagine what complete chaos it must have felt like to have been swept up in the events of that time and place. I have experienced a few moments when events stirred massive reactions in the public socially and politically. 9/11 is perhaps the most intense, but I even think about the extreme reactions on all sides of the events in Ferguson and Baltimore in recent months. There are times when everything and everyone seem out of control.

Into the maelstrom of events in Jerusalem the the wise, aged Gamaliel stepped. Drama is created with conflict and/or extreme contrasts, and in this case we find Gamaliel providing a sudden and stark contrast to all of the chaos. Amidst the screaming he speaks softly. Amidst the unbridled emotions he is peaceful. Amidst the extreme editorializing he provides reason. He talks the religious leaders off the ledge. Chill. Let it go. Let this play out.

Today, I’m realizing my age. I don’t have the emotional energy to get stirred up with a young man’s passion as I once did. Like the serenity prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous, I find increasing peace in accepting the things I am powerless to change including public reactions and socio-political emotions. At the same time, I accept my responsibility to act reasonably and fulfill my civic duties. In doing so, I hope that I can model Gamaliel when necessary to bring quiet peace and reason amidst unreasonable reactions.

Mining Nuggets in a Boring Chapter

English: King Solomon in Old Age (1Kings 4:29-...
English: King Solomon in Old Age (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Adoniram son of Abda (was) in charge of forced labor.

Solomon had twelve district governors over all Israel, who supplied provisions for the king and the royal household. Each one had to provide supplies for one month in the year.
1 Kings 4: 6b-7 (NIV)

 

Many people have told me over the years that they struggle to read the Old Testament because its ‘s boring. A chapter like the one today is probably a good example. Compared to the buttery, heart-felt lyrics of David’s Psalms, today’s chapter is dry toast.  The book of Kings was written as a historical record of Solomon’s reign. As such, it records of the names of his officials. But seriously, who really cares today who served as Solomon’s cook?

 

As I’ve read through these books over the years, I’ve learned to approach chapters like today’s with a certain frame of mind. You have to look for small details, repeated patterns, and names that are familiar. Sometimes these nuggets, when you put them together, become clues to a broader understanding of the context.

 

For example, today I noticed a few nuggets:

 

  • The description of Solomon’s kingdom is notably large and lucrative, especially compared to what his father David started with, and what the first king, Saul, had before David. Conclusion: David’s conquests were paying off, and Solomon was raking it in.
  • Solomon had TWELVE officials scattered around as district governors to provide the king and his household with provisions (not just food, it’s likely they also provided slave labor, military conscriptions, concubines for the kings sizable harem, livestock, building materials, and etc.). Conclusion: As I read through this and contemplated what it must have been like for the people in this district being forced to give up their stuff for the king’s pleasure, I suddenly remembered God giving a warning to the people through Samuel just two generations earlier. The people of Israel are beginning to experience exactly what God warned them:

Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day. 1 Samuel 8:10-18

 

  • Two of the 12 governors were sons-in-law, married to Solomon’s wives. Conclusion: A little nepotism has taken hold in the monarchy. History teaches us that political nepotism usually breeds favoritism, conspiracy, racketeering, poor management, and scandal. I’m seeing a tragic flaw emerging in Solomon’s wisdom.
  • David and Solomon were both noted for building their palaces and building the Temple, but I noticed that Adoniram is providing them with forced labor or slave labor (Adoniram’s has been at it a while, his name came up in 2 Samuel 20:24). Conclusion: Eventually forced labor, especially the forced labor of your own people, leads to civil unrest.

Taxation, nepotism, and slave labor. [Scratching my head, carefully avoiding the receding hairline] If I’m standing in Solomon’s sandals things seem pretty cushy. If I’m standing in the sandals of a common citizen on the outskirts of Gilead who just watched the king’s official walk off with my children, my livestock, and a two month’s supply of olive oil, I’m not exactly feeling the love.

 

I feel a storm cloud rising on the horizon.

Today, I’m thinking about how we sometimes don’t see the forest for the trees. This happens in families. This happens in business. This happens in churches. This happens in government. I’m thinking about broader implications of words, decisions, and actions. I’m praying for discernment to see the bigger picture around me, and for courage to make tough choices based on what I see and perceive.