Tag Archives: Religion

Mysterious Ways

But Balaam answered them, “Even if Balak gave me all the silver and gold in his palace, I could not do anything great or small to go beyond the command of the Lord my God.
Numbers 22:18 (NIV)

Wendy and I went to see The Color Purple in Des Moines a few weeks ago. It is one of our favorite musicals. The story of a young African American woman on a journey of discovering just how beautiful and strong she is has been a source of fascination and conversation for us since we first saw it years ago.

The musical begins with a raucous gospel song in which we are told that the Lord works in Mysterious Ways. What proceeds is a story of a young woman who finds herself on an unconventional path out of unspeakable circumstances to discover what a beautiful and beloved child of God she truly is. The Color Purple is not a neat and tidy morality play residing inside the safety of religion’s comfortable box. True to the message of its opening song, the musical reminds us that God, the Creator of this universe, often works outside the boxes we create to put Him in for our our comfort.

Mysterious Ways flitted through my head this morning as I descended the stairs to pour my first cup of coffee after reading this morning’s chapter. Numbers 22 is one of the strangest, most mysterious chapters in the entirety of the Great Story. It is the story of Balaam, an ancient seer. Balaam is not a Hebrew. He is not Jew. He is a non-Jew living Mesopotamia. The Moabites, fearful of this massive wandering nation of Hebrews heading their way, reach out to Balaam to divine some help from the Almighty.

We quickly learn that Balaam takes a night to seek the LORD’s guidance. Balaam says he will report what the LORD tell him. When he reports to the Moabites that the LORD won’t let him curse the Hebrews, they offer him a huge wad of cash. Balaam reports that no matter how much cash he’s offered he can’t go against what the LORD has told him to do.

Time-out. Back the truck up.

This Great Story we’re journeying through is about God working through the Hebrews. They are “God’s people.” So who is this bit player named Balaam who suddenly appears from the wings for this important cameo moment? Where did he come from? How on earth did he forge a relationship with God, which it is clear he has, outside the box of the Great Story?

And we aren’t even to the strangest part of the story yet; The part where Balaam’s donkey speaks to him.

The further I get in my journey the more appreciation I have for the fact that God is, and does, “exceeding, abundantly above all that I could ask or think.” Whenever I think I’ve got God figured out inside the neat and tidy box of my religious doctrine I, like Job, am confronted on the cosmic witness stand as God stands me up and asks,

“Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades?
    Can you loosen Orion’s belt?
Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons
    or lead out the Bear with its cubs?
Do you know the laws of the heavens?
    Can you set up God’s dominion over the earth?”

No, sir.

This morning I am both fascinated and humbled by the sudden appearance of the perplexing character of Balaam and his miraculously anthropomorphic ass. I am reminded that God is not, and can not, be confined. Balaam, much like The Color Purple, reminds me that the Good Lord works in mysterious ways.

Touch and Cleansing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corporate Changes; Eternal Brand

The Lord said to Aaron, “You will have no inheritance in their land, nor will you have any share among them; I am your share and your inheritance among the Israelites.”
Numbers 18:20 (NIV)

I’ve recently taken on new responsibilities in our company that began with leading a strategic planning effort this past month. As part of that process, I’m evaluating the way our business does things and considering changes, enhancements, and improvements. I don’t want our team to simply make changes for the sake of change. There’s got to be good reason for the things we do that accurately reflects who we are and contributes to what we are called to do as a business.

As I think to the future and the road ahead for our group, I also find myself being mindful of the legacy of our founder’s mission. I don’t want to lose sight of what the company was created to be. There are some things that don’t change with regard to our brand. If anything, some things need to become enhanced. It’s simply who we are.

In many ways, the book of Numbers that we’re journeying through a chapter-a-day was God’s spiritual business plan for the ancient Hebrews. It’s an organizational manual for how God was establishing a system of worship. Things were not structured haphazardly. There are reasons that God, the founder and CEO, is structuring things a particular way.

One of the curious decisions God made was to make sure the priests and Levites, who were in charge of the temple, the offerings, and the sacrifices, could not own land or have an inheritance. “I am your share and your inheritance,” God said.

There is a very important purpose in setting up the team this way. Those who were part of the priesthood, the ones who were the spiritual conduit between God and humanity, were to understand and constantly maintain an eternal perspective. To quote the old bluegrass classic, “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ though.” The priests and Levites didn’t own land and didn’t have inheritance passed between generations because they understood that ultimately this whole earthly journey has an eternal destination. The world and all the stuff get left behind. The priest and Levites were invested in that which is beyond this world, those things which are eternal, the things that the Founder and CEO are really all about.

Times changed over the course of history. The system changed. The spiritual marketplace went through a great depression. Legacy ways of doing spiritual business in this world changed. Jesus came to be the ultimate sacrifice once for all. Holy Spirit was poured out into all believers. It was a new economy for spiritual business, and God’s spiritual business plan was getting a face lift. Old religious practices passed away like the telegraph, the ticker tape, and the IBM Selectric. New sacraments and paradigms were put into place.

But some things don’t change.

The legacy concept of the priests not having an earthly inheritance did not go away as part of the updated business plan. In fact, Jesus made it clear that God being the “share” and “inheritance” was a foundational, core part of God’s brand. It was a corporate value that was no longer limited to one team in the organization, but shared by all. It was part of every team members job description. In speaking to all the shareholders on the mountainside, Jesus said:

“Don’t hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or—worse!—stolen by burglars. Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it’s safe from moth and rust and burglars. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.” Matthew 6:19-21 (MSG)

The CEO was updating the business plan, and the old business silo of the “priesthood” was being functionally expanded to include everyone in the organization (1 Peter 2:9-10). Along with it, everyone in the organization was to understand that this world, and the things of this world, have zero eternal value. The world, and the things of this world, in no way contribute to the mission and goals of the organization. They will not help the organization be successful in implementing the strategic plan. Therefore, this world and the things of this world are not where members of the organization are to invest our resources, our energies, or our corporate concerns.

This is the legacy from the Founder. This is the brand.

It’s simply who we are, and who we are to be.

Old Ways Die Hard

“Take the Levites from among all the Israelites and make them ceremonially clean.”
Numbers 8:6 (NIV)

When I was a kid, I remember the feeling that the Reverend of our family’s church was different. There was something special about him. He dressed differently, he was treated differently, and we children were told to be on our best behavior around him. If he came to visit our house it was a special occasion and we were give instructions that didn’t accompany any other visitor.

The idea of priests, pastors, imams and rabbis being afforded special status runs deep in us. In the Judeo-Christian tradition is goes all the way back to the days of Moses and the ancient religious prescriptions we’re reading about here in the book of Numbers. The priesthood was reserved for the descendants of Aaron. Assistance to the priests was reserved only for those men in the tribe of Levi. There were special rituals of consecration for both. The priests were made “holy” and, according to today’s chapter, the Levites were made “clean.” The priests took on special priestly garments, the Levites washed theirs. Blood was applied to the priests but just waved over the Levites. It is a spiritual caste system in the making.

God’s Message clearly points to a radically new paradigm after Jesus’ ascension and the outpouring of Holy Spirit. There is now no distinctions between Jews and non-Jews, men and women, rich and poor, slave and free. Salvation is offered to all without distinction. Each and every one is an essential part of the same body. Every member is part of a royal priesthood. Spiritual gifts are given to all without regard to age, education, status, maturity, or purity. Old paradigms have passed away, a new paradigm has come. The religious caste system is over.

Or not.

People are people. Deeply held beliefs and traditions are hard to break. Along my spiritual journey I’ve witnessed that we continually rebuild systems with which we’re comfortable. We make special schools for “ministry” and then pick and choose who may attend (by gender, by socio-economic status, by social standing, by educational merit, by perceived moral purity). We develop special rituals and hoops for individuals to jump through, and then we treat them special and “different” once they’ve successfully jumped through them.

Having spent time as both pastor in the pulpit and as (seemingly) peon in the cheap seats, I’ve witnessed our penchant for treating pastors and priests differently from both sides. Having a systematic process of education for leadership is not a bad thing, but when the institutional system begins affording special social rank and privilege (by design or default), then it begins to tear at the heart of what Jesus was all about.

This morning I’m thinking about how given we are as humans to accepting certain thoughts, beliefs, and social mores without question. I’ve noticed along the way that some people get less likely to question them the further they get in life. I’m finding myself becoming more inclined to question, to prod, to push. “Old things pass away, new things come,” it is said. But we only have room for new things if we are willing to let go of the old. The tighter we cling to that which is dead, the more impossible it is to truly experience new life.

Personal Faith & Systemic Conscription

The king stood by the pillar and renewed the covenant in the presence of the Lord—to follow the Lord and keep his commands, statutes and decrees with all his heart and all his soul, thus confirming the words of the covenant written in this book. Then all the people pledged themselves to the covenant.
2 Kings 23:3 (NIV)

I was a young man when I made a decision that I would be a follower of Jesus. I was a normal teenager who did the normal things that teenagers do when testing the boundaries of parents and other systems of authority. Looking back at that boy from 40 years down life’s road, he seems rather innocent and naive. But I still remember that with my decision to follow Jesus came a responsibility to make some changes.

In today’s chapter we read the story of King Josiah’s great reform of Judah. After the scroll with the law of Moses is discovered during renovations to Solomon’s Temple, Josiah calls for a national gathering. The Law of Moses (e.g. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) is read to all the people. Josiah makes a decision and a commitment to follow God and keep the Law. He makes an ancient form of binding contract, called a covenant, to do so. The people follow suit.

The rest of today’s chapter is a blow-by-blow description of Josiah wiping out all of the competing local and regional deities. Reading the chapter we begin to understand how prevalent the worship of these gods had become. There were male prostitutes (which were quite common in idol worship in ancient times) who were operating out of Solomon’s Temple. There was child sacrifice to Molech and the worship of the golden calves that Jeroboam had set up when he led the northern tribes to secession hundreds of years earlier. Josiah purged the land of all of it, and pledged that the nation would follow the God of Moses alone.

As I read the chapter over my first cup of java this morning, there were two prevailing thoughts that struck me.

First, we read that Josiah called the nation together, made a covenant to follow God, and the people followed suit. Did they choose to follow Josiah’s lead of their own free will? Did the people even have a choice? A study of history would lead me to conclude that they did not. It was quite common for ancient nations and empires to follow whatever religion the king chose. That’s why Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 313 A.D. When Caesar Constantine became a Christian, then all the people of the Empire became Christians as well. I would argue that the results were not good.

I find this an important point. At the end of today’s chapter we read that Josiah’s son led the people right back to the worship of the local and regional gods. In our journey through 2 Kings we’ve read what seems to be a  game of religious ping-pong. One king follows the God of Moses and the people follow. The next king follows Baal and the people follow. Back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth.

National religion and forced adherence to faith is not really faith at all. It’s conscription. When I chose to become a follower of Jesus it was my choice and my decision. To this day I find that human systems (i.e. families, denominations, communities) use subtle forms of conscription and social pressure to ensure that the members of the system (i.e. children, grandchildren, neighbors, community members) adhere to the system’s sanctioned form of religion. That’s when personal faith is diluted down to blind religion. Jesus spent his entire earthly ministry fighting against that dilution. Blind religion nailed Him to the cross.

The second point that struck me this morning was Josiah’s reform. When I became a follower of Jesus there were some things that I was doing in my life that needed to change, as silly and innocent as some of them seem in retrospect. There were some unhealthy teenaged behaviors that needed to cease, and some healthy mature habits that needed to be developed. When faith is personal, it transforms the person.

This morning I’m thinking about my own children, and my grandson whom I can’t wait to meet in a few months. I don’t want my legacy to be religion instilled by force, conscription and systemic pressure. I want our daughters and our grandchildren to follow Jesus because it’s their own decision, their own choice, their own personal faith. The best thing that I can do to ensure that is not to instill rules, regulations, and mandatory religious observance. The best thing I can do is to model exactly what Jesus did and calls me to follow: love.

Still Using the Same Bloody Playbook

So Jehu destroyed Baal worship in Israel. However, he did not turn away from the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit—the worship of the golden calves at Bethel and Dan.
2 Kings 10:28-29 (NIV)

As I read the chapter this morning, I couldn’t help but think about the news reports coming out of the cities held by ISIS. Our own media have been slow to report the brutal daily realities there. People forced into religious submission and immediate death sentences for any who do not proclaim religious allegiance. Immediate death for anyone caught in the most minor moral infraction such as smoking a cigarette or not wearing the right garb. Those of other faiths beheaded or crucified. Dead bodies hung out for public display as a warning to all.

Life in ancient times was bloody and brutal. Today’s chapter is not a light, devotional read. It’s a veritable blood bath. Last week I used the Godfather saga as a modern parallel to Jehu’s take over of Ahab and Jezebel’s regime. The word picture continues to parallel in the today’s chapter. Having “capped” Ahab and Jezebel, the new Godfather Jehu consolidates his power by killing all of Ahab and Jezebel’s sons, all of their inner circle, their loyal followers, and then all of the members of the religious cult of Baal to whom Ahab and Jezebel zealously ascribed.

For ancient political upstarts like Jehu this type of bloody takeover was nothing new or groundbreaking. There was a well-worn playbook for taking over and consolidating power, and Jehu’s actions were strictly takeover “by the book.” Even in The Godfather II they reference the ancient Roman Empire as blueprint for how they organized and carried out “business.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I thought the most important thing mentioned in today’s chapter was when it is reported that Jehu had wiped out the corruption and idolatry of Ahab and Jezebel, but then he continued to commit his own personal idolatry by worshipping the idols of golden calves. One idolatrous regime gives way to another. Jehu was happy to violently wipe-out his enemies and set up his own personal empire, but in the end he wasn’t that much different from his predecessors.

Which brings me back to today’s headlines, and my own thoughts in the quiet of the morning. The more things change, the more they stay the same. The reports out of cities controlled by Islamic State read like the ancient story of Jehu (and the Inquisition, as well). Even in our own “modern” and “enlightened” culture we have groups of people both left and right who have actively ascribed to violence, power, and intimidation to do away with those who disagree and subject others to their personal world views.

Maybe we’re not so civilized as we think we are.

I’m reminded this morning of Jesus’ words, “You have heard it said…, but I say….” As a follower of Jesus I am called to a different playbook that says if you want to gain power you have to let it go, if you want to lead you have to serve, if you want to ascend you must humbly bow. Jesus’ playbook begins with a change of heart that leads to a change in behavior and relationships. It grows organically by contagion.

The problem with Ahab, Jehu, Rome, the Corleones, Islamic State, the Alt-Right, and Antifa is that it’s all about external power to subject others to their will, but this only serves to sow seeds of hatred and rebellion in the hearts those subjected. Thousands of years of human history and we still haven’t learned the lesson. We’re still falling back to the old playbook. It often works, for a time.

I much prefer Jesus’ strategy. Start with changing the individual heart and then working outward using simple tactics of love, grace, forgiveness, and generosity. I’m not forcing anyone to follow this path, mind you, but I’m happy to buy you a cup of coffee or a pint and tell you about my own personal experience.

Mysteries Within Mysteries

Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, [Jesus] became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek.
Hebrews 5:8-10 (NIV)

The further I have progressed on this life journey the more I have come to understand that I must embrace mystery if I am going to progress spiritually in certain places. This flies in the face of a system of reason in which I was raised and educated. Our culture is one that places what I have come to understand as an undue premium on knowing. Theories are stated as certainties quite frequently whether they come from the institutions of religion, education, politics, or science. I find that our culture has lost sight of the value of embracing the knowledge of knowing that we do not know or cannot know.

I have found that the desire to try to replace mystery with false certainty is a fool’s errand. I see this repeated over and over again in history. It leads down all sorts of silly and hurtful paths. Minor issues become major battlegrounds, honest exploration is sacrificed on the altar of exclusionary social litmus tests, and institutions make all sorts of embarrassing mistakes (sometimes with deadly consequences). Embracing mystery, on the other hand, has pushed my heart and mind to new avenues of possibility, exploration, discovery and faith. I love how Catholic mystic Richard Rohr puts it: “Mystery is not something we can not understand. Mystery is something we can endlessly understand.”

The letter to Hebrew believers has always been shrouded in mystery, not the least of which is the identity of the author. Two centuries after it was penned we are still not certain who wrote the letter. My fundamentalist Bible professors taught me that I must believe it was Paul who wrote it. Textual critics in education laugh at such a claim, telling me it certainly couldn’t be Paul. Arguments have been made for a host of first century figures (i.e. Luke, Apollos, Barnabas). More recently, some scholars have argued that it was most certainly a woman, Priscilla, who was among Jesus larger circle of 70 disciples and travelled with Paul. I find this possibility fascinating and stimulating. It has led me to discover more about this amazing woman through whom God did amazing things. I know, however, at least one of my fundamentalist professors would have said it most certainly wasn’t Priscilla and would certainly have marginalized and subtly punished me educationally had I steadfastly held to the possibility in his class.

I do not know who wrote the letter to the Hebrew believers, and that’s perfectly fine for me. It is a mystery that has much for me to discover in its exploration of possibility.

In today’s chapter we encounter yet another mystery in the revelation of Christ as eternal High Priest. The Hebrew believers who first received this letter would have intimate knowledge about how the Hebrew priestly system worked as prescribed by the Law of Moses. Only descendants of Aaron (Moses’ right-hand man) were to be priests, and the High Priest could only come from those genetic ranks. According to the prophets, however, the Messiah was to come from the tribe of Judah and the house of David as Jesus did. Remember Christmas? Mary gives birth to Jesus in Bethlehem, the “City of David.” Joseph and Mary had to go to Bethlehem for the census because they were both descendants of David in the tribe of Judah.

But now the mysterious author of Hebrews lays out a claim that Christ is our eternal “High Priest,” the cosmic conduit between God and man. But the Hebrew readers would know that Jesus was not from the line of Aaron, so how could He be High Priest? The author reveals Jesus as High Priest “in the order of Melchizedek.” In Genesis 14:18 Abram (who would soon be known as Abraham) meets a mysterious King of Salem named Melchizedek who was “priest of God Most High.” He serves Abram bread and wine (remind you of anything?) and blesses Abram. Abram in return presents the priest Melchizedek an offering of a tenth of everything.

That’s all we know about Melchizedek. This mysterious person was “priest of God Most High” before Abram was Abraham, before Israel was a people, before the Law of Moses was given, before the Hebrew priesthood was defined as descendants of Aaron. It’s a mystery, and the author of Hebrews attaches the mystery of Christ the cosmic High Priest to the lineage to the mysterious Melchizedek who appears within the Hebrew tradition but outside the system of Moses.

This morning I’m once again perplexed, stimulated, and inspired by the mystery of Melchizedek, of Jesus, and of Hebrews. As I humbly embrace the mystery I push deeper into that which can be endlessly understood and so take another step forward on the path of faith and Spirit.