Tag Archives: Religion

Unlikely Hero

“And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”
Esther 4:14b

In a couple of weeks, I’m scheduled to give a message among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers entitled “It’s a Secret.” In preparation for that message, I have been pouring over some of Frank Warren’s PostSecret books. For those who are unfamiliar, Warren is simply a small business person who decided to do an art project. He handed out about 3000 black postcards with his address printed on them and asked people to share their “secret” with him. Years later they keep arriving from all over the world and his blog at postsecret.com is among the most popular in the world.

As I read today’s chapter, in which Queen Esther is made aware of Haman’s plot to annihilate her people, I thought about her secret. Esther had successfully managed to become the queen of Persia by being keeping her heritage and ethnicity a secret. She had assimilated into Persian culture. She did not demand a kosher diet, which would have given her away. She did not bring up any moral objections during her year-long education in providing the king sexual pleasure. The evidence would suggest that Esther was not a “godly woman” (by the strict definition of religiously following the tenents and disciplines of Judaism) and the faith of her people does not appear to have been something she practiced or felt compelled to take seriously.

I was also reminded, once again, that God is never mentioned in the book of Esther. It’s also interesting that when Esther asked Mordecai and her people to fast for three days it does not mention prayer in conjunction with the fasting. While prayer and fasting traditionally went together, the prayer part of it is not mentioned by the Queen.

Along the journey, I’ve observed that the institutions and adherents of my own faith like to try and keep God in their own binary boxes. I confess that I have, at times, fallen prey to this notion myself. People are either “sinners” or “saints.” God’s pleasure and purpose are reserved for the latter but definitely not the former. And yet, there are so many examples of God using people who wouldn’t pass our moral or religious litmus tests in order to accomplish His purposes. I’ve come to embrace the fact that when Paul wrote of God who is “able to do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine” it includes working through and accomplishing His purposes through the most unlikely, seemingly unworthy, of individuals.

Esther is an unlikely hero who reveals herself to be, like all of us, very human. I compare her to Daniel who zealously and religiously clung to his faith, religious discipline, and heritage, and he still succeeded to carve out position and purpose throughout a lifetime in captivity. Esther, on the other hand, follows the easier path of cultural compromise. She keeps her heritage, her people, and what faith she might have had in her people’s religion a secret. She likely kept her secret in order to avoid prejudice and persecution. Some would call that cowardice. Her response to Mordecai upon learning of Haman’s genocidal plot reveals her feelings of powerlessness and fear. All of this, and still she finds herself in just the right place at just the right time to accomplish God’s purpose of saving her people.

Ever since I became a follower of Jesus, I’ve sought God’s purpose in my life journey. I’ve tried to be a person of zealous, disciplined conviction like Daniel, but any who care to look closely at my track record will find that it is dotted with the same kinds of compromises, secrets, easy choices, and fear revealed in Esther. My solace is that God did accomplish His purposes in both of them, and I believe that somehow in the mysterious tension between God’s sovereignty and my free will I continually find myself at just the right place, at just the right time, to accomplish the purposes God has for me at this very moment.

And so, I begin another day in the journey. Press on, my friend.

Living in Gray

When the king’s order and edict had been proclaimed, many young women were brought to the citadel of Susa and put under the care of Hegai. Esther also was taken to the king’s palace and entrusted to Hegai, who had charge of the harem.
Esther 2:8 (NIV)

Yesterday at the breakfast table Wendy and I were having breakfast and reading the news, as is our daily habit. Wendy happened upon a news piece that quite clearly divided the United States into two generalized racial groups. Implied in the article was the notion that in America you are either black or white. I find the distinction of choice ironic.

The simplistic divide does not account for the vast number of people of Hispanic, Asian, or Native American descent, nor does it account for the population of interracial couples and their children which, according to U.S. Census figures, has steadily grown since 1967 and continues to do so.

Our culture loves binary, either-or choices. I have observed this to be true of both institutional religion and mainstream news media who are critical one another. When dealing with a large population of people, simple binary choices are much easier to deal with. Here are some examples from both of them:

  • Black or White
  • Conservative or Liberal
  • Fox News or MSNBC
  • Capitalism or Socialism
  • Red State or Blue State
  • Progressive or Deplorable
  • Blue Collar or White Collar
  • Educated or Uneducated
  • Urban or Rural
  • Republican or Democrat
  • Protestant or Catholic
  • Sacred or Secular
  • Christian or Secular
  • Holy or Worldly
  • Evangelical or Mainline
  • Religious or Atheist

And yet, as I have traversed this earthly journey and spiritually followed in the footsteps of Jesus, I find most binary distinctions simplistic and inadequate for addressing complex circumstances and issues. The world and its people with whom I interact every day are an elaborate mosaic of DNA, thought, spirit, background, and experience. To put one complex person into one of two binary boxes for the sake of simple definition is foolishness.

One of the things that I love about the story of Esther is how God works through this young Jewish woman who appears to navigate the tremendously gray territory between binary choices of Jew or Gentile, Hebrew or Persian, and Moral or Immoral. She keeps her heritage and faith secret. Whereas Daniel refused to eat meat provided by his foreign captors, Esther has no such qualms. There is no indication that Esther balks at being part of the Persian harem system that would have instructed her how to pleasure the king sexually on demand.

The book of Esther has confounded binary thinkers for ages. One commentator wrote that Esther’s behavior would not pass any test of modern ethical theory. Her cultural compromises coupled with the pesky fact that God is never mentioned by name in the story led some editors in history to introduce prayers into the book that were never part of the original text along with commentary stating that Esther hated being married to a Gentile. I’ve observed that when the truth is too gray for our comfort zone, we like to shade it to fit our personal binary leanings.

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking about the value and importance of a story like Esther. She successfully navigates a very uncomfortable world of gray politically, culturally, religiously, and morally. From a position of powerlessness and critical compromise, she is used for God’s purposes in profound and powerful ways. In a time when our political, religious, cultural, and social systems seem perpetually intent on placing me in one of two simplistic boxes, I pray I can, like Esther, find a way to successfully navigate the territory of gray that lies in tension between simplistic, black-and-white definitions.

Freedom and Sacrifice

“But even if he does not [save us from the fire], we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
Daniel 3:18 (NIV)

Tomorrow is Independence Day here in the States. Wendy and I will be celebrating from the lake. Fireworks are legal here in the state of Missouri and it is always a night of loud and bright celebration as people light fireworks off of the end of their docks and over the cove. It’s a lot of fun right up to the time you’re ready to sleep.

I’ve lived my entire life in a nation where freedoms of speech and religion are protected and where life and liberty are held sacred. Despite this fact, I’ve observed along my life journey that there are subtle forms of social, political, religious, and cultural pressure to conform. I find it fascinating that I came of age at a time when religious conservatives wanted to dictate their particular morals and standards on the nation. Now, I find that it’s the other side who appear to want to demand wholesale adherence to a host of social, cultural, and political beliefs they hold sacred.

These examples notwithstanding, I have always found it a bit hard to fully understand or appreciate the predicament that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego find themselves in today’s chapter. They are exiles in a foreign land. They are minorities holding a very different set of beliefs than their captors. They have likely had to learn to live among society and culture that was very foreign to them while trying to maintain a  sense of their identity and faith.

King Nebuchadnezzar’s demand that all bow down to the statue he had erected was somewhat of a common practice in that ancient culture. It was a litmus test of obedience. Interestingly, as I read some commentary on today’s chapter, I found that scholars are split on whether the Hebrew trio would have been breaking the Law of Moses if they had chosen to bow down. This makes it an even more fascinating episode for me. If it wasn’t a black and white matter of religious law, but a gray area of their personal conscience before God, then their refusal to bow become even more meaningful.

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking about my own personal beliefs. Where’s the line(s) that my conscience and my faith would not allow me to cross? I even find myself silently asking “For what am I willing to sacrifice my life?” On one hand, this feels like an overly dramatic and exaggerated question given the fact that I live in a land of freedom and I don’t anticipate ever having to face such a trial. On the other hand, I am fully aware that around the world people are facing this very real question on a daily basis. There continue to be dictators, tyrants, and regimes perfectly willing to execute those unwilling to bow to their political, cultural, social, and/or religious demands.

For what am I willing to sacrifice my life?

Today, I find myself whispering a prayer of gratitude for those men and women from every culture, ethnicity, religion, and political persuasion who sacrificed their lives across the centuries that I might walk my entire life journey on this earth without seriously having to answer that question.

Keeping it to Myself; Holding it Together

For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
Romans 14:17 (NIV)

Yesterday Wendy and I were with our local gathering of Jesus’ followers and I met young ladies who were from Honduras, Nigeria, and Afghanistan. I was told that the first time my young sister from Afghanistan joined us I happened to give the message that day, and she was relatively new to living here in the States. At some point during the message I began to cry (that happens quite frequently, I’m afraid). She, however, was taken aback. Culturally, men in Afghanistan do not cry, especially in public. She laughed about it now, and the moment became an opportunity for her to learn and grow on a number of different levels. Very cool.

Along my journey I have encountered people from all manner of cultural, religious, and denominational backgrounds. People have all sorts of things that are important to them religiously, spiritually, or culturally from things you eat (or don’t), things you wear (or don’t), and certain days that are special (or not). We’re not talking here about matters of civil law or basic morality. This conversation is about preferences, practices, customs and traditions that are not the command of Christ, though they may hold some special spiritual significance to a particular individual or a particular group of individuals.

As Paul is writing to the followers of Jesus in Rome, he is aware that among all the fledgling local gatherings of believers there are very diverse cross-sections of humanity. Not just Jews and Gentiles, but people from different nations, tribes, cultural backgrounds, and socio-economic positions. This would especially have been true in Rome which was the cosmopolitan epicenter of the western world at the time. The Jesus Movement was breaking down barriers between people for the first time history and for the first time people were interacting with one another, eating together, worshipping together, and speaking to one another as equals on a regular basis. Of course this is going to create all sorts of minor clashes between people from diverse cultural, religious, social and economic backgrounds.

In today’s chapter Paul gives some very clear teaching on these various and sundry differences.

First, he points out that what a person eats and drinks (or doesn’t) and what days are of special spiritual significance (or not) are really of no concern to God but are merely concerns of personal, individual conscience. This, in and of itself, might be a huge eye-opener if my ego has convinced me that I am the universal spiritual template and standard by which all other followers of Jesus should abide by and be judged. Each individual, Paul instructs, should worry only about herself/himself and her/his own behavior in accordance with her/his own conscience before God.

Second, Paul explains that because many different believers have very different matters of conscience on these matters there is no binary “right” and “wrong” in these matters except within my own heart and mind. These things are a private matter between me and God.

That being said and established, Paul urges me to take off my Junior Holy Spirit badge and stop playing spiritual judge, jury, and executioner applying my personal conscience before God onto others who have very different consciences before the same God. “Worry about yourself,” Paul is saying, “and let God worry about others.”

Finally, Paul exhorts me to follow the example of Christ and put others and their personal consciences above my own right to exercise my very different conscience. If I know that a person holds that Sabbath is sacred, I’m not going to ask her/him to come over and help me move my couch that day. If I know that another person finds alcohol to be evil and prohibitive, I’m not going to make an appointment to meet that person at the local pub and I’m going to abstain from drinking in her/his presence.

And, if a sister finds that a man crying in public is wrong, well…I’ll try to hold it together!

Have a great week, my friend!

 

Fear: The Great Motivator

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…for I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of Godthat is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:1, 38-39 (NIV)

Just a few days ago there was a major Winter Storm Warning for our region. The local weather hyped it like no one’s business. Stock-up on provisions! (Never mind that Wendy and I could survive for years on what is in our pantry!) Cancel your plans! Stay home! Don’t travel! Schools cancelled and businesses told their people not to come to work.

Then, it didn’t happen.

Oops.

Here’s what I’ve observed along my life journey: Fear is everywhere. Fear gets our attention. Fear sucks us in. Fear motivates us to act. That’s why media, politicians, and religion all love to lead with fear. Fear works.

The left tells us to fear billionaires, Wall Street and capitalism.
The right tells us to fear socialists, unions, & academia.
Religion tells us to fear worldliness, sin, the devil, heresy, and damnation.
Media tells us to fear earthquakes, fires, tornadoes, floods, tsunamis, lightning, blizzards, asteroids, flu, greenhouse gases, melting glaciers, rising temperatures, lowering temperatures, inflation, deflation, economic stagnation, dirty water, dirty restaurant kitchens, opioids, meth, gateway drugs, terrorism, bacteria, genetic engineering, GMOs, getting vaccinated, not getting vaccinated, scams, shams, abduction, murder, pedophile rings, product recalls, anything that causes cancer (which appears to be everything), nuclear war, nuclear anything, spies, conspiracy, gangs, criminal immigrants, rogue law enforcement, and on, and on, and on.
Parents tell children to fear every conceivable bad thing that’s happened to a child ever.

A long time ago I began paying attention to any entity that wants something from me. In ways both subtle and overt I find that I am being ceaselessly told to “be afraid.” I contrast this with Jesus who said “Don’t be afraid” over and over and over again. He asked His disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Don’t you have any faith?” Great question to ask myself daily.

Today’s chapter in Paul’s letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome is among the most encouraging, uplifting, and faith-building reminders ever penned. I find it an antidote to the steady stream of fear to which I am exposed each day, and which eventually starts to poison my thoughts and my outlook on the world. It’s full of hope in the moment, hope admits our current circumstances, and hope for the future. Paul gives encouragement and assurance.

In the quiet this morning I once again confess my own penchant for pessimism. People are often surprised when I tell them that, but it’s true. When faced with the least bit of fear or opposition I can quickly go into shut-down mode. Wendy and I were just talking about it yesterday over breakfast. I have found along the journey that it’s important for me to consciously let my heart, soul, and mind drink regularly from a deep well of encouragement and affirmation like today’s chapter:

The One who died for us—who was raised to life for us!—is in the presence of God at this very moment sticking up for us. Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture…None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.

Don’t be afraid, my friend. Have a great day.

The Inclusive Exclusivity Problem

“…there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.”
Romans 3: 30 (NIV)

A few years ago on this chapter-a-day journey I wrote that the first century conflict between Jewish followers of Jesus and Gentile (non-Jewish) followers of Jesus was actually a foreshadowing of the great Dr. Seuss’ story The Sneetches:

Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches had bellies with stars.
The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars. 

But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches
Would brag, “We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the Beaches.”
With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they’d snort
“We’ll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort!” 

In the case of the Jewish and Gentile believers, it was circumcision and the Law of Moses (a.k.a. Leviticus) that became the metaphorical star on their bellies.

As a 21st century follower of Jesus journeying through this letter of Paul to the Romans, it is critical that I understand this underlying tension and conflict. It is the driver and motivation for Paul’s letter. For centuries the Hebrew people had leveraged their gracious appointment as “God’s people” into creating and maintaining a theology of exclusion. They were the star-bellied Sneetches maintaining their private section of the beach and no one without a star on their belly was allowed. The Jewish followers of Jesus had spent their entire lives inside a cultural tradition that was thousands of years old telling themselves that they were exclusive.

The Gentile believers, on the other hand, had spent their entire lives knowing that the Jewish people lived, by-and-large, in their private culture and excluded anyone who wasn’t one of them.

As the Jesus movement rapidly expands across the known world, attracting followers of both the Jewish and Gentile camps, you’ve suddenly got star-bellied Sneetches and the Sneetches with “no stars upon thars” thrust together and co-habitating a “no-man’s land” section of Spiritual Beach.

Paul in his letter, is addressing this divide by explaining to the Jewish believers that God’s Message all along has never really been a theology of “exclusion” but one of “inclusion.” He’s walking a theological tight-rope, hearing the voices of his fellow Jews arguing with him about the law (i.e. “So you’re saying the Law is nothing?“), and hearing the voices of the Gentiles making counter arguments on the other side (i.e. “Well if more sin means there’s more of God’s grace to forgive me, then why don’t I just sin more so that there will be more grace?!“), and through it all he’s trying to bring them all together by laying out an inclusive understanding of what God has been doing all along in the Great Story so as to realize the end of Dr. Seuss’ yarn:

[That] day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches
And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.
That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars
And whether they had one, or not, upon thars. 

This morning in the quiet I find myself admitting that we human beings have a penchant for systemically creating social  and personal exclusivity. We’ve been doing it since the beginning of time in our tribes, our religions, our country clubs, our street gangs, our political parties, our families, our races, our racial ghettos, our denominations, our social systems, our church groups, our middle/high school cliques, our small town and big city attitudes, and et cetera, and et cetera, and et cetera.

Jesus came to change all that.

And, we’ve messed that up, too.

Which means that this morning I have to confess and admit the ways I’ve gone all “star-bellied Sneetch” in my own ways (and there are multiple ways I have done so) along this life journey. Paul reminds me in today’s chapter: We’ve all (that would be inclusive) fallen short of God’s design and desire.

Maybe when I was younger I was ignorant and didn’t understand. I can’t claim that anymore. I am a mature adult. If I am going to follow Jesus. If I’m going to really follow the heart of Christ, then I have to stop shutting people out, pushing people away, and ignoring people who are uncomfortably and inconveniently different.

In that regard, the message of Paul to the Romans is every bit as relevant today as it was then.

“Oh Yeah. That’s One of Mine.”

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.
Romans 2:14-15 (NIV)

One of the thematic threads I’ve observed throughout the Great Story is that the Spirit of God is not confined by the trappings of religion and its human penchant for systemic merit. Our human systems love things to fall into rigid rules and lawful order. Follow these rules, dress like this, talk like this, use these phrases, be seen doing these things, act like this when you’re in public, and everyone will know that you’re one of us.

Yet, as I’ve journeyed through the Great Story time-and-time-again I observe that there are those who follow the systemic rules on one hand while the whole time they are breaking the spirit of the law with the other. At the same time, there are those who don’t fit the meritorious religious system and its list of requirements, but who totally get the underlying Spirit that the system was trying to accomplish in the first place.

Then there is God accomplishing their purpose through the most unlikely character in the scene. The fool confounds the wise. The child shepherd kills the giant warrior. The least rises to rule over the greatest. The greatest enemy becomes the strongest ally.

Jesus channeled this theme over and over again. Perhaps the most challenging parable that Jesus taught was right at the climax of His teaching. He was getting down to the very core of his Message, and the leaders of the systemic religious order of merit would kill him for it. (See Matthew 25)

In the parable, Jesus divides everyone into two groups which He labels “sheep” and “goats”, but He might as well have labeled them “religious” and the “heathens.” Or, for the theme that Paul is addressing in today’s chapter, the “Jews” and the “Gentiles,” or perhaps it’s best labeled “God’s people” and “Those people.”

The first group looks like they belong to God’s flock because they look the part. They followed all the religious rules. They worked the system of merit for all it was worth. Jesus, however, says, “I never knew you” because while they followed the letter of the law on one hand, they ignored the heart of what the Law was supposed to create: love that looked out for the sick, the outcast, the foreigner, the lowly, and the weak.

Then Jesus turns to “those people” who were never part of the religious system at all. They’d not earned one single merit badge from the meritorious order. Jesus says, “Come on in to my kingdom” because even while they were outside the religious “system” and didn’t follow the legal rules, they found the heart of God. They practiced the law of love. They looked out for the sick, the outcast, the foreigner, the lowly, and the weak.

In today’s chapter Paul pushes into this theme big time. He’s writing to the followers of Jesus in Rom who fall into these two primary camps: Jews and Gentiles. From the Jews’ perspective it was the same systemic thought that Jesus had been dealing with. The Jewish believers saw it as “we God’s people” and “those people.” God’s people had been given “the Law” and had followed the religious meritorious order. The Gentiles, “those people,” were pagans, heathens, foreigners, and outsiders who had never been circumcised (merit badge #1) let alone practicing the exhaustive religious rulebook.

So, Paul picks up on Jesus’ theme and channels it as he begins his letter. The Gentile believers among Jesus’ followers, he’s basically arguing, are the goats in Jesus’ parable. They never had the rule book, the Law, yet they understood and obeyed the very heart of what the rulebook was designed to produce: love.

This morning I find myself challenged and taking a little heart inventory. Everyone knows that I’m a follower of Jesus. I’m one of the sheep and I make that abundantly clear in these posts. But, am I the sheep in Jesus’ parable? Am I looking all religious and righteous in these posts and then ignoring the very heart of what Jesus taught?

Ugh.

In the quiet I find myself asking who are the “goats” in my circles of influence? Who would my meritorious religious system tell me is one of “those people” but Jesus would look at that person’s heart and say, “Oh yeah. That’s one of mine.”?