Tag Archives: Religion

“Return”

“For the Lord your God is gracious and merciful, and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him.”
2 Chronicles 30:9b (NRSVCE)

A few years ago I wrote a play and the entire play was created out of one simple truth: At some point, you have to return home. From there I reached out and plucked a leaf off the tree of tales about a young boy who ran away from his true love and stayed away for many years. When tragedy strikes just over a decade later he has no choice but to return home, and with it he must face the thing he’s been running from for so long.

The theme of “returning” is a big one across the Great Story. There are so many stories in which people find themselves off in some kind of wilderness. Sometimes they place themselves there and sometimes they are there against their will, but somehow they eventually return in some fashion whether they are led, they are invited, they are forced by circumstance, or they simply choose to do so.

In today’s chapter we pick up the story of King Hezekiah who is trying to help his nation heal after years in which they’ve willfully wandered from the God of their ancestors and many find themselves in the wilderness of captivity. In yesterday’s chapter, Hezekiah had the Levites clean out the temple and prepare it to be used as it had been intended for the worship God. In today’s chapter he sends out a proclamation throughout the land, even to neighboring countries where people were living in exile and captivity. The proclamation simply asked people to do one thing:  return.  Hezekiah wanted all of the Hebrew people to come to Jerusalem for the biggest annual festival on the Hebrew calendar. The Passover feast celebrated God delivering their nation from slavery in Egypt.

Along my journey I’ve seen the theme of return play out in the lives of many people in many different ways. I’ve observed that we often abandon faith in God early in life. Sometimes it’s a willful choice out of disagreement with the faith institution of our childhood. Sometimes it’s prompted by pain or a tragic victimization of some kind. Sometimes it’s as simple as choosing to go our own way. So we wander, and often our spirits are stuck back in childhood. Then later in our life journey I observe people returning, not necessarily to an institution, but to God whom they find altogether different than those childhood memories of pain, anger, doubt, and frustration. Not because God has changed, but they have changed and with it their understanding and perceptions.

In today’s chapter the people of Judah returned for the Passover. Just as Joseph returned to his family. Just as David returned after years as mercenary in exile. Just as the remnant returned from Babylon in Nehemiah’s day. Just as the prodigal son returned in Jesus’ parable. Just as Peter returned after denying Jesus. Just as Jesus returned to the Father after His resurrection.

Just as….

No matter how far we may wander, no matter where we may roam, I’ve found that God’s Spirit is always whispering to our spirits:

“Return.”

 

Matters of Heart

He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, yet not with a true heart.
2 Chronicles 25:2 (NRSVCE)

In all my years as a follower of Jesus, I’ve observed that we as humans are far more comfortable with flesh than with Spirit. From our earliest years we’re taught to trust what our senses are telling us:

The stove coil is red and it’s radiating heat. Don’t touch it.

The meat smells funny. Don’t eat it.

Something in my knee just popped. Stop running.

I’m feeling light headed and nauseous. Better lie down.

Following Jesus, however, is a faith journey. God’s Message says that faith is “the assurance of what we hope for, evidence of that which we cannot see.” There’s no sight, smell, touch, taste, or hearing involved. Quite the opposite. Faith is beyond our physical senses. God continues to say over and over and over again that He judges not on what can be seen, but what is unseen; God looks at the heart.

When God was directing Samuel who he should anoint as king, He told the prophet: “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Yet I’ve observed continually that most followers of Jesus, and the institutions we create to organize ourselves, repeatedly revert back to our inherent human instinct to trust our base physical senses. We judge others on what we see in their appearance, what we observe in their behaviors, or we we hear about them from others. Our institutions create rules, both written and unwritten, about a person’s worth and standing before God based on how they look and/or behave. I’ve come to believe that we do this because it comes naturally, it is easy, and it gives us (both individually and as a group) comfort when others conform to the social, religious, and behavioral standards we stipulate and expect.

But that’s not how God operates. He says it quite plainly. “My thoughts are not your thoughts. Neither are your ways my ways.” (Isaiah 55:8) And, as the Bard so beautifully put it: “There’s the rub.”

Dealing with the unseen motives and intents of the heart, as God does, is messy. It requires discernment, wisdom, grace, and risk.

In today’s chapter, the Chronicler describes Judah’s King Amaziah as a person who did the right things, but not from a true heart. His actions were admirable, his behavior conformed to expectation, but his motivations were all in the wrong place. It brings to mind the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, of whom Jesus said:

“You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You keep meticulous account books, tithing on every nickel and dime you get, but on the meat of God’s Law, things like fairness and compassion and commitment—the absolute basics!—you carelessly take it or leave it. Careful bookkeeping is commendable, but the basics are required. Do you have any idea how silly you look, writing a life story that’s wrong from start to finish, nitpicking over commas and semicolons?

“You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You burnish the surface of your cups and bowls so they sparkle in the sun, while the insides are maggoty with your greed and gluttony. Stupid Pharisee! Scour the insides, and then the gleaming surface will mean something.

“You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You’re like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds.

“Snakes! Reptilian sneaks! Do you think you can worm your way out of this? Never have to pay the piper? It’s on account of people like you that I send prophets and wise guides and scholars generation after generation—and generation after generation you treat them like dirt, greeting them with lynch mobs, hounding them with abuse.”

The religious people of Jesus day were doing the same things I have observed in religious people of my day. Posturing, appearance, and propriety intended to prove righteousness from what can be physically seen and and audibly heard.

Jesus took a different approach. He gathered a motley crew of followers that included rough, uneducated fishermen, a pair of brothers with anger management issues, a sleazy tax collector, a thief, and a right wing terrorist. He taught them about faith. He exemplified the love he expected of them. He instilled in them compassion. They didn’t come close to measuring up to any kind of acceptable religious standard of their day. But that didn’t matter to God. “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” 

God’s standard is as simple as a Broadway tune: “You gotta have heart!”

This morning I find myself wanting desperately not to be an Amaziah or a Pharisee. Screw religious trappings and the litmus tests of the institutional church.

I want more heart. And I want to find the heart of others, not their conformity to the standards with which I’m personally comfortable.

“Sea”

He made the Sea of cast metal, circular in shape, measuring ten cubits from rim to rim and five cubits high. It took a line of thirty cubits to measure around it.
2 Chronicles 4:2 (NIV)

Earlier this year Wendy and I went on our second cruise in a handful of years. I love being on a cruise. I could sit on deck and look out over the ocean for hours and be perfectly content. I don’t know how this land-locked Iowa boy gained a love for the sea. I’ve had it since I was a kid and the ocean was just a picture in a book and figment of my imagination.

In today’s chapter, the Chronicler continues to describe Solomon’s temple and all of the furnishings that were crafted by an artisan named Huram. I couldn’t help notice that it describes Huram making a “Sea.” It was really a giant water reservoir or pool. The water was used for ritual washing and cleansing. But the Hebrew word used by the Chronicler translates “Sea.” Interesting choice.

In the Hebrew rituals, washing and cleansing were an important part of worship. You know, the whole “cleanliness is next to godliness” motif. Jesus and his disciples, however, were criticized by the religious leaders for not ceremonially washing before they ate (That’s right. Jesus was a religious rule breaker!). Jesus’ response was classic. He made it clear to his critics that washing their hands religiously while ignoring their filthy souls was completely hypocritical. Jesus would elsewhere claim to be “Living Water”: An internal, eternal, spiritual spring within to quench, refresh, sustain, wash, and cleanse.

In the quiet this morning I’ve been meditating on the “Sea” described by the Chronicler. A ritual pool intended to be a word picture of the internal, spiritual washing we all need. By Jesus day, the word picture had been lost to empty religious regulation. Jesus sought to redeem the metaphor. He would be the “sea” and “spring.” He would be the Living Water not for the washing of dirty hands, but the cleansing of our stained souls.

Paul wrote to his friend, Titus:

“[Jesus] saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” [emphasis added]

As I sit on deck of a ship and look out over the seemingly endless ocean, there’s something that it does for my soul. I think my spirit connects the sea to something deeper in Spirit. I look out over the sea and my spirit touches the word picture intended by the “Sea” made by Huram. My spirit connects to the “Sea” of Living Water endlessly springing up within, filling, quenching, sustaining, washing, and cleansing.

Back home in Iowa, a photo and a memory will have to suffice as a reminder (until our next cruise!).

[sigh]

Prophets, Poets and a Touch of Madness

“Cut off your hair and throw it away; take up a lament on the barren heights, for the Lord has rejected and abandoned this generation that is under his wrath.”
Jeremiah 7:29 (NIV)

There was a fascinating story on CBS Sunday Morning yesterday talking about the connection between creativity and mental illness. There is no doubt that there is a disproportionate number of genius artists, writers, and musicians who struggled with some form of mental condition. Observations of the connection between genius and madness date back to Aristotle, though it’s only been in recent years that the connection has been seriously studied.

As we watched the story Wendy wondered aloud if there isn’t also a disproportionate number of creatives who would be considered Type Four on the enneagram. I would bet that she is right. Creativity often springs from the inherent individuality and expression  natural to Fours.

These thoughts were swimming in my head as I read this morning’s chapter. It begins the transcription of a message God gave to Jeremiah in order that he stand at the gate of the Temple in Jerusalem and proclaim the message. The ancient prophets were often standing in the crowds shouting messages from God.

Amidst the message Jeremiah reports God telling him to shave off his hair and take up the wailing songs and prayers of lament on the “barren heights.” This was another mark of the ancient prophets: acts that today we would call “performance art” (some simple and others quite complex) that God regularly prescribed the prophets to act out in public.

I find that most modern believers approach the prophets with a certain amount of reverence that translates into a white-washed perception of them. Just as Van Gogh sold just one painting in his lifetime, so the prophets were not particularly well received in their day. Only in 20/20 hindsight have their words and reputations been scrubbed clean by institutional religion. As I said before, they were an odd lot. They were often despised and marginalized. They were the sketchy characters from whom parents likely shielded their children:

Mommy? Who’s that strange man over there walking naked and tied to an ox yoke?

Pay no attention, sweetie. Stay away from him. He’s just a crazy old man.”

The prophets were hated, especially by the political-religious class who were commonly the targets of their public, prophetic tirades. The prophets were targeted for assassination and killed by the power brokers of their day. Even Jesus testified to this truth when He confronted the political-religious leaders of His day:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!

“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you….”

This morning I’m thinking about creativity and its connection to oddity. I’m thinking about God’s use of those odd, strange, mad individuals among us who see what the mainstream doesn’t and express what the mainstream can’t, won’t, and/or doesn’t desire to hear. Prophets, artists, and poets stand as reminders what God said through the prophet Isaiah: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways.”

Spiritual Vision and Hearing Loss

Hear this, you foolish and senseless people,
    who have eyes but do not see,
    who have ears but do not hear….
Jeremiah 5:21 (NIV)

The other night Wendy and I finished watching the third season of Grantchester produced as part of BBC’s Masterpiece Mysteries. I’m four books into James Runcie’s tales from which the television series sprung (a book review to be published on this blog one of these days). It has been interesting to both read the books and to watch the series which was adapted for the screen by Daisy Coulam. The storylines are quite different between the books and the television series.

The protagonist is an Anglican priest named Sidney Chambers who solves mysteries with the crusty, unbelieving local police Inspector, Geordie Keating. As the third season winds down Sidney finds himself having a crisis of faith that is rooted in his institutional church’s inability to see beyond rigid religiosity and demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit in any real human way.

As I have been fond of saying over the years, all good stories are reflections of the Great Story. The theme of spiritual blindness and deafness is woven throughout God’s Message. In the days of Jeremiah the prophet it was the people of Judah who were afflicted with spiritual blindness and spiritual hearing loss, as we read in today’s chapter.

By the time Jesus came on the scene some 600 years later, it was the institutional religious establishment who suffered from the affliction. Jesus was constantly accused and criticized, not by the “sinners” and common people with whom He associated and ministered, but by the institutional priests, teachers, and lawyers who incessantly criticized Him and found fault with Jesus’ teaching and lifestyle:

“To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:

“‘We played the pipe for you,
    and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
    and you did not mourn.’

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’

The upstanding, committed religious people who should have been the first to recognize what God was doing were the very ones who suffered from spiritual vision and hearing loss.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, as the saying goes. Or, as the Teacher of Ecclesiastes reminds us, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Along my journey I have found that spiritual vision and hearing loss is more acutely present within the walls of the religious establishment than without.

Wendy and I watched the character of Sidney Chambers struggle through his crisis of faith and grapple honestly with the blind, deaf church. I felt for him. I know that struggle. Many memorable episodes from my own journey bubbled to the surface. I confess, it pissed me off.

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded to accept that dealing with those who suffer spiritual vision and hearing loss will ebb and flow along the journey, but will never really end. It is a part of the Story. My role is to continually and increasingly channel the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control to which institutional religion is so often blind and deaf.

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

Immorality and Inquisition

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world.
1 Corinthians 5:9-10 (NIV)

This spring our local Christian high school is producing Arthur Miller’s classic play, The Crucible. I would daresay that any individual who loves theatre has a personal list of shows and roles that they dream of doing one day. The Crucible is one of those shows for me.

The Crucible is not a light-weight play. It’s a retelling of the infamous witch trials which began in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. A group of teenage girls go into hysterics claiming that they have seen individuals within the community “with the devil.” The community is thrown into religiously-motivated chaos as community members are investigated, tried and eventually hanged.

Along my life journey I have met a number of people who have shared with me painful stories of how they were personally and publicly shamed by a church. These individuals who come to mind are beautiful, sincere persons who, despite their past mistakes, are following Jesus and living increasingly transformed lives marked by love, grace, mercy, honor and transformation. They were rebellious teenagers, individuals wrestling with addiction to various appetites, and hurting individuals who willfully acted out their pain. Instead of coming alongside the hurting individuals with love-motivated accountability, their local churches launched “witch hunts,” broadcast their sins, called them in front of the church to shame them. In some cases the church threw them out.

Let’s be real. When it comes to handling issues of morality and human foibles, the church has a long and sordid history of epic failures. We all know the stories from the Salem witch trials to the Spanish Inquisition. We can point to horrors of religiously motivated prejudice, persecution, violence, and genocide. Of course, I believe that there are also countless examples throughout history of religiously motivated grace, love and forgiveness which don’t get nearly enough press, but that’s a blog post for a different day.

In today’s chapter, we find Paul grappling with a sticky wicket within the community of Corinthian believers. There was a particular instance of a man who was involved in an incestuous relationship with his own mother, which is certainly not a great thing. There was, however, also a larger issue going on. One of the struggles the early believers had was the argument that many were making: “If Jesus offers me grace and forgives all my sins, then I’m free to do whatever I want and I’ll be forgiven. In fact, the more I sin the more grace is afforded me. So let’s go sin and produce more grace!”

Twice in Paul’s letter to the believers in Corinth he quotes “everything is permissible” which was obviously what some within the company of Jesus followers were arguing. “I have a right to do anything I want and act in any way I choose because Jesus’ forgiveness provides me moral carte blanche.” The implication is that the man who was having sex with his mother was among the “everything is permissible” faction, and it was having destructive spiritual effect within the community. Paul argues that those propagating this destructive teaching needed to leave the fellowship.

Paul goes on to make a clear distinction that Jesus’ followers have no right to be judgmental towards those who aren’t Jesus’ followers. Those who follow Jesus, however, must adhere to Jesus’ teaching which never condones the “everything is permissible” doctrine. The community of believers had a responsibility to deal with those within the church who were advancing this spiritually destructive teaching.

Of course, over time many religious movements and churches have taken Paul’s word to the believers in Corinth and twisted it. We have wrongfully believed we have carte blanche to investigate, weed out, and shame any persons who fail our moral benchmarks. We judge anyone who doesn’t meet our moral litmus tests (both inside and outside the walls of our churches, I might add). We have taken Paul’s directive about a destructive school of thought (which led to increasing, unchecked, immoral behavior) and used it to justify moral inquisitions of all kinds. The Salem witch trials stand as an example.

I’m reminded in the quiet this morning that I’m a follower of Jesus. I seek to follow Jesus’ example in my life, intentions, thoughts, words, and actions. Jesus was incredibly gracious to those who were struggling morally and simply trying to find their way to the Kingdom of God. He wanted people to leave the destructive behaviors that were harming themselves and others. Those persons Jesus judged most harshly were the religious people who looked down their noses on others and used religion as tool to empower themselves at others expense.

I’ve come to believe that destructive teaching needs to be called out for what it is and rejected. This includes the notion that “everything is permissible” whether that notion condones immorality or inquisition.

featured photo courtesy of bossdoss1 via Flickr