Tag Archives: Purity

By-Products

By-Products (CaD Mk 11) Wayfarer

The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.
Mark 11:12-14 (NIV)

As a young follower of Jesus, I remember being taught that it was my responsibility to “win souls” for the Lord. Over the years, I was prescribed a handful of sure-fire methods by which to quickly share with people how they could “get saved.”

During this same early stretch of both my spiritual journey, and my life journey, I was taught that it was also of primary importance to be “pure.” The formula of “purity” was basically abstinence from the major impurities: sex, drinking, drugs, smoking, listening to “worldly” music, and swearing.

Looking back, there is nothing wrong with either of these things in-and-of themselves. As a follower of Jesus, both being able to effectively share with someone “the reason for the hope that is in me” and being pure are things I am asked to do. Nevertheless, the further I’ve progressed in both my spiritual journey, and my life journey, I’ve come to understand that they may very well be by-products of Love’s fruit, but they aren’t the fruit itself.

With today’s chapter, Mark’s biography of Jesus enters the final week of Jesus’ earthly life. Mark shares an obscure episode in which Jesus goes to a fig tree hoping to find a snack. Finding none, he curses the tree. The next day, they pass by the tree and find it withered.

I’ve always been intrigued and a little confused by this story. Jesus was always one for using living word pictures as teaching tools, and I have to believe that later that same week He would share with his followers: “I am the Vine and you are the branches. Every branch that doesn’t bear fruit will be cut-off and used for compost.” Of course they have a mental picture in their heads of the withered fig tree.

In the quiet this morning, I took the teaching and the word picture one step further:

What was Jesus looking for when He approached the Fig tree?

Figs, quite obviously.

What is the Gardener looking for when He approaches the branches on the Vine?

The fruit of love which one knows by it’s identifying characteristics:
joy
peace
patience
kindness
goodness
faithfulness
gentleness
self-control

Now, sharing this love with others may lead to opportunities for telling someone how they can enter into a relationship with Jesus themselves. In the same way, any Grade A, organic fruit of Jesus’ love will be pure in all of its goodness and self-control.

Once again: These are by-products of the fruit, not the fruit itself, and it’s the fruit that produces the by-products never the other way around.

To riff on Paul’s treatise on Love:

If I memorize the Four Spiritual Laws and knock on every door in the neighborhood in an effort to win souls, but I don’t have Love, then I might very well be winning souls while losing my own.

If I live my life a tea-totaling eunuch disciplined in my vow of strict silence, but I don’t have Love, then I might very well look like the beautifully pure fruit but be void of flavor or any kind of nutritional value.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself continuing to meditate on the question I asked myself as I read the chapter:

If Jesus walks up to my life on this day of the journey like He walked up to that fig tree, what is it He wants to find on this branch?

The pure fruit of Love in all its fullness and goodness, or just a few of its ancillary by-products?

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Holy Moments in the Dark

Holy Moments in Dark Places (CaD Ps 106) Wayfarer

Save us, Lord our God,
    and gather us from the nations,
that we may give thanks to your holy name
    and glory in your praise.

Psalm 106:47 (NIV)

Yesterday, Wendy and I found ourselves discussing the concept of holiness as we enjoyed our weekly date at the local pub for pizza and a pint. It kind of picked up on what I discussed in my blog post a few weeks ago. In my experience, the concept of being “holy” has largely been reduced by the institutional church to mean “morally pure.” In my spiritual journey, I’ve come to understand that it means so much more than that.

Our conversation sprung out a friend sharing with us about a loved one who finds themselves in one of life’s dark valleys. Wendy and I both identified with the story because both of our journeys include stretches in dark places of our own choices and consequences. Much like our friend’s loved one, the respective dark valleys on life’s road were not characterized by any kind of moral purity.

Go to any twelve-step meeting and you’ll hear people tell their own stories about dark valleys on life’s road. You’ll also hear them share that sometimes one must hit rock-bottom before they spiritually wake up to the consequences of their actions and their need to change.

In Jesus’ famous story of the Prodigal Son, the younger brother finds himself far from home, broke, alone, and literally wading in pig shit. In that rock-bottom moment Jesus shared:

“That brought him to his senses. He said, ‘All those farmhands working for my father sit down to three meals a day, and here I am starving to death. I’m going back to my father. I’ll say to him, Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son. Take me on as a hired hand.’ He got right up and went home to his father.

Wendy and I discussed that this very moment, in the midst of the dark valley, at rock-bottom, and knee-deep in pig shit, was a holy moment. That’s the way the spiritual journey often works. Holiness is not confined to the definition of moral purity found at the mountain-top of righteousness. Holiness can also be found in the spiritual awakening that often happens not at the summit of morality but in the muck of a shattered life.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 106, is the final song in Book IV of the anthology of Hebrew song lyrics we know as the Psalms. It is another summary review of the history of the Hebrews. As the song comes to its conclusion, the songwriter pens:

Save us, Lord our God,
    and gather us from the nations

This would indicate that this song was likely written from a place of exile when the Hebrew tribes had been scattered across the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. What’s different in this re-telling of the history compared to the one I just read last week is the heart of repentance. The songwriter finds himself far from home, broken, living amidst his enemies and he recognizes that this dark valley was part of the consequence of his peoples own poor choices. Like the Prodigal, like Wendy and me, the songwriter is having his own holy moment of spiritual awakening. He’s owning his part (and the part of his people) in landing himself in this dark valley. He’s making the spiritual turn.

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking about my own journey which includes holy moments that occurred both on spiritual mountain tops and sinful, dark valleys. King David wrote in another song (we haven’t gotten to it yet) that there’s nowhere that he could flee from God’s presence. Even in my lowest, darkest moments, God was not absent. It was there He helped awaken my spirit to my need to change the spiritual trajectory of my life.

It was a holy moment.

Inside Out Transformation

[Jesus] went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”
Mark 7:20-23 (NIV)

I was a young man when I began my spiritual journey following Jesus. The community of believers I often associated with were very concerned about religious appearance and moral purity. My hair was expected to be short and my dress was expected to be coat and tie. My ears were to be kept pure from rock music, my eyes kept pure from looking lustfully at women, and my body to be kept pure from the usual vices of drugs, alcohol, and smoking.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with these things. I’ll be the first to confess that I wasn’t perfect, but I’m also quite sure that adhering to the religious rigor kept me from getting into various kinds of trouble. As I progressed in my spiritual journey, however, I began to observe a few things.

First, my peers who were born and bred into the religious rigor as part of their strict family and faith systems were often big on obedience to the rules and traditions but really short on any real spiritual or personal maturity. They adhered (at least publicly) to the letter of the religious rules to keep the family and community appeased, but I never saw any real inner desire to pursue the things that Jesus was really getting at.

Second, the adults in these communities and religious systems were really focused on all of the easily recognized and visibly apparent illicit behaviors. People, especially young people, were publicly shamed for all the usual social vices. No one, however, seemed to care when it came to gluttony at church potlucks, gossip between the youth group member’s mothers, the man in the church with anger issues who used the Bible to justify the secret physical abuse of his family, deacon John who was not shy about his racism, elder Bob who was a dishonest businessman who’d filed for bankruptcy three times, or that the women of the church treating Ms. Jones like a social leper because her husband left her, filed for divorce, and so she must not have been the dutiful wife he needed.

Finally, I eventually found myself really dissatisfied. When I made the decision to be a follower of Jesus, it was about me being less pessimistic, impatient, immature, shallow, dishonest, inauthentic, and self-centered. It was about me wanting to grow into more self-less-ness and more love, life, joy, and peace. Checking off a bunch of religious and moral rules wasn’t addressing my desire to become more like Jesus. In fact, I don’t think Jesus would want to be with these people. I realized that Jesus would probably want to be with all the people that got shamed and kicked out of that church for their public mistakes.

In today’s chapter, Jesus is hitting this stuff head on. He gets in trouble with the religious rule-keepers because they didn’t ceremonially wash their hands before supper. He looks at the good religious people from His own religious system and explains that they are doing the same thing I witnessed among my own religious community. They were keeping all of the religious rules about washing your hands and eating only the prescribed dietary foods, but they weren’t doing anything about the anger, malice, judgment, critical spirit, discord, gossip, dishonesty, selfishness, racism, hatred, and condemnation that was polluting their souls.

This morning, I find myself contemplating the Jesus that I’m reading about in Mark’s account. I love that He was not about me keeping external rules and regulations, but about me getting my heart and life transformed from the inside out. I love that Jesus heals the daughter of a “sinful” outsider who His religious community would never have even acknowledged. I love that Jesus continues to compassionately pour out love, kindness, and healing even when He was tired and wanted to be left alone for a while. I love that He keeps telling people not to talk about the miracles because they weren’t the point; The miraculous physical healings of eyes, ears, and limbs merely pointed to the real miracle He came to perform: His love transforming me from the inside out as His life emerges from my dead, self-centered spirit.

That’s the Jesus I want to be more like, and keeping rules won’t get me there.

“What’s My Motivation?”

We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Thessalonians 1:3 (NIV)

In the art of acting there’s a lot of talk about motivation. It’s sometimes called “the want.” Let me give you an example.

An unlearned actor named John goes up on stage. He walks from point A to point B and says the line highlighted in his script. You ask John why he just did that and he tells you: “The Director told me to. It was at our last rehearsal. I have it written right here in pencil in my script. It says walk right then say the line.” As an audience member you’ll probably see John mechanically waiting for his cue, dutifully walking to a prescribed position on stage, and then saying his line out to the audience.

Now an accomplished actor named Tony takes over the role. Tony has internalized that he’s embodying a character named Ricky who is head-over-heels in love with a girl named Jill. In the previous scene Jill has sent a message to Ricky revealing that she mistakenly believes he’s cheated on her. Now, Ricky sees her for the first time since receiving the note. Actor Tony internalizes what Ricky is thinking and feeling at that moment. He is Ricky, seeing the woman he loves. He makes a b-line to her, looks her right in the eye and says his line with a sense of emotional desperation. You ask Tony why he just did that, and he tells you without hesitation: “I want to convince Jill that it’s not true I cheated on her! I want her to know I love her! I want to spend the rest of my life with her!

As an audience member I can tell you, without a doubt, that you’ll have a much different experience, and a much better one, watching Tony play the role than you will with John.

Motivation is at the heart of great acting because motivation is at the heart of who we are as human beings. There’s a reason we do the things we do and say the things we say. There’s always something motivating and driving our behavior, though many people live their entire lives without ever thinking about it. When we begin to examine our motivations, we begin to understand ourselves on a whole new level. And while most Christians I know think that God only cares about the purity of their words and the morality of their actions, Jesus made it quite clear that He was most concerned about our motives. He knew that if the latter in order, the former will naturally fall into place.

Paul begins his letter to the believers in Thessalonica by complimenting their accomplishments, their ongoing toil, and their perseverance in the face of adversity. What’s fascinating is that Paul examines and calls out their motivations for each:

Faith has motivated the works they’ve accomplished.

Love has motivated their ongoing, laborious toil.

Hope has motivated their endurance amidst persecution.

Along my spiritual journey I’ve come to learn that motivation is just as crucial to things of the Spirit as it is to the actor on a stage. Religious people often do and say religious things because they are motivated by any number of things:

  • to keep up appearances in a community that values being religious
  • to earn admittance to heaven
  • to have an insurance policy keeping me out of hell
  • to build my business network with all those potential customers who go to that church

Motivation matters. Jesus called out the crowds following Him one day. He said, “You’re following me because I fed you fish sandwiches. You want to follow me? Eat my flesh and drink my blood.” Jesus didn’t care about the number followers He had, He cared about what motivated their following Him. The resurrected Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” and then followed Peter’s affirmative answer with a command to “Feed my sheep.” What was important to Jesus was not Peter’s accomplishment of the task, but the love that motivated it.

In the quiet this morning I once again find myself examining my own motivations. Why do I do the things I do? What is driving me? What do the things I do and the conversations I have reveal about what it is that I really want in life? Spiritually speaking, if I don’t have the motivation right, all the saying and doing won’t matter.

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Note to my regular readers:
Our local gathering of Jesus’ followers is  spending most of an entire year (Sep ’18 through Jul ’19) studying the book of Acts. In conjunction with this study, I’ve decided to blog our way through all of Paul’s letters in chronological order. The exact chronology is a matter of scholarly debate. We began with Paul’s letter to the believers in the Asia Minor region of Galatia. Today we’re moving on to his letters to Jesus’ followers in the Greek city of Thessalonica. Many scholars think these two letters preceded his letter to the Galatians.

At this writing it has been roughly 20 years since Jesus’ resurrection and 16 years since Paul’s conversion. Paul had spent just a few months in the provincial capital of Thessalonica. He was forced to leave town quickly because his life was threatened. He didn’t get to spend as much time with the believers there as he had wished. It’s now a year or so down the road and he writes to encourage his friends whom he’d quickly left behind.
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Puritans, Relationships and Moral By-Products

See, the stone I have set in front of Joshua! There are seven eyes on that one stone, and I will engrave an inscription on it,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will remove the sin of this land in a single day.

“‘In that day each of you will invite your neighbor to sit under your vine and fig tree,’ declares the Lord Almighty.”
Zechariah 3:9-10 (NIV)

The further I get in my life journey the more I’ve come to understand and appreciate just how much of American culture has been framed by our Puritan roots. For the most part, I don’t think this is a bad thing. From our Puritan forerunners we inherited a great number of basic virtues such as honesty, integrity, charity and a strong work ethic. These virtues have served us remarkably well as a society.

From our Puritan forerunners we also inherited a very strong sense of morality that comes packaged in black and white. The “Puritans” were so-called because they believed the Church of England was not reformed enough from Catholic doctrine and practices. They were willing to start a bloody civil war and behead a king to “purify” England of her perceived sins. When the purification didn’t go as planned, a good many fled to America to carve out life in the “new world.”

Growing up in an evangelical protestant tradition, I was taught that purity and a conservative set of moral behaviors were the pinnacle goals for me as a follower of Jesus. As I have progressed in my spiritual journey and in my study of God’s Message, I find God to be more concerned with relationship than anything else. If you get relationships right as a priority, with God and with others, then doing the right things becomes a natural consequence. Intent on maintaining a strong, healthy relationship I naturally choose to do things that will enhance relationships and cease to do things that will disturb shalom.

I see this in today’s chapter. Zechariah has a vision of the high priest standing before the Angel of the Lord, with Satan standing beside as prosecutor and accuser. God prophetically declares that He will send his “Branch” who will “remove the sin of this land in a single day.” He then describes what the outcome of this carte blanche grace and forgiveness will be: “you will invite your neighbor to sit under your vine and fig tree.”

Isn’t that fascinating?! God says nothing about morality, purity, righteousness, or remaining untainted by the world. The outcome of sin being washed away is right relationship with others: reaching out, being hospitable, sharing the shade, and loving one another.

This morning I’m thinking about my relationships with God and with others. As a follower of Jesus I want to truly follow His example. I’m reminded in the quiet this morning that when encountering those whom the orthodox establishment had branded and rejected as immoral, Jesus chose to join them for a meal and share some stories. Funny thing: When these “immoral” people (e.g. Matthew, Zaccheus, Mary Magdalene, and etc.) entered into relationship with Jesus, their lives were subsequently marked by radical life changes. These changes weren’t about adhering to some legalistic moral code Jesus maintained to judge who “made the cut.” The live changes were motivated by being in relationship with Jesus, and a desire for that relationship to grow; They chose, quite naturally, to eliminate behaviors that might hinder their relationship with Jesus.

With God, the goal was never morality. The goal has always been relationship. When you get relationship right, then making good life choices to maintain and grow those relationships is a by-product.

Browsing Among the Lilies

okeefe lilyMy lover has gone down to his garden,
    to his spice beds,
to browse in the gardens
    and gather the lilies.
I am my lover’s, and my lover is mine.
    He browses among the lilies.
Song of Solomon 6:2-3 (NLT)

A few years ago Wendy and I were at the Des Moines Art Center browsing through the Center’s collection. We came across a painting by Georgia O’Keefe. “Oh my goodness,” Wendy softly exclaimed by side. “There’s no mistaking what that’s about!” O’Keefe is sometimes referred to as the mother of American modernism. She was particularly fond of painting enlarged flower blossoms, presenting them close up as if you are viewing just a part of the blossom through a magnifying glass. She often used lilies and sections of lilies.

O’Keefe came to prominence as a painter in the early part of the 20th century about the same time that Freud’s theories on psycho analysis rocked the world. Perhaps it was inevitable that O’Keefe’s paintings would be psychoanalyzed under the magnifying glass of Freudian thought just as she painted magnified views of her subjects. Despite the artists own denials, it has long been noted that her paintings seem to conjure up parallels to female sexual anatomy. Thus, Wendy’s soft exclamation upon viewing O’Keefe’s painting.

Lilies, in particular, have always had strong metaphorical parallels to sexuality dating back to ancient times. Roman and Greek mythology viewed the lily as a flower of purity, chastity and innocence. Even church tradition associates lilies with Mary, the mother of Jesus. Roman tradition was that Venus, the goddess of love, was so envious of the pure beauty of the lily that she gave the lily it’s large, long pistil in it’s center to make it less attractive. The pistil at the center of the lily’s flower has long been noted for its’ phallic metaphors; The center of the pure, white petals of the Calla Lilly being seemingly penetrated by the long, large pistil.

It is no wonder that Solomon’s ancient song of the budding, erotic love between the young king and the young woman of his harem would include imagery of the lilies. Solomon himself wrote, “there is nothing new under the sun.” Georgia O’Keefe did not invent the parallel between the lily and a woman’s sexual organs. If anything, her art was natural prey for metaphorical connections humans have made between the lily and sexuality for thousands of years.

Now, read the verse above once more and imagine an infatuated young woman saying these words as she fantasizes about the man whom she wants to marry and become her lover. Does Solomon’s song really intend these sexual metaphors? A hormonal young man writes a song about the sexual tension between himself and a gorgeous young woman whom he desires sexually. It doesn’t take a giant leap of reason.

God created us male and female. He created us as sexual beings with hormones and sexual desires. He created a natural order in which people grow, develop, desire one another and have sexual relations through which new life is created. He called it “good.” Too often in a pursuit of purifying the ranks from the sinful excesses with which many indulge  our natural appetites, the institutional church has thrown the baby out with the bath water. Many of us have forgotten to embrace, celebrate, and appreciate the natural God-given appetite which, when experienced as God intended, remains as pure as a lily.

Chapter-a-Day Mark 12

“And I know it is important to love him with all my heart and all my understanding and all my strength, and to love my neighbor as myself. This is more important than to offer all of the burnt offerings and sacrifices required in the law.” Mark 12:33 (NLT)

Wendy has been doing a lot of baking lately. Cheesecakes and cupcakes have been the specialty as of late. She is amazing in the kitchen. One of her cheesecakes recently sold at a charity auction for over $1100. She’s learned in her baking that the quality and purity of the ingredients makes a difference in the outcome. The same is true with life.

For example, Jesus said that the greatest commandment is love.

Not good theology and love.
Not temperance and love.
Not obedience and love.
Not goodness and love.
Not sacrifice and love.
Not purity and love.
Not giving and love.
Not ___ and love.

The greatest commandment is just love. Love God with all you’ve got.
The second commandment is just love others as you love yourself.

The simplicity and purity of the ingredient is what makes the resulting life taste so good.

If you add anything to it, you ruin the recipe.