Tag Archives: Religion

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.

Spiritual Misperceptions from Growing Up in Church

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
Hebrews 4:15-16 (NIV)

I grew up in a relatively small neighborhood church. It was a Methodist church that maintained a fairly traditional, liturgical approach to faith and worship. There was an altar at the front of the sanctuary that was respected as a special, holy place. There was a huge, loud pipe organ. The minister always wore long black robes on Sundays. The choirs also wore long robes and marched down the aisle behind the minister to their hallowed place in the choir loft. As a child watching and participating in this pageantry each week, there were some things that I quickly came to assume about spiritual matters:

First, our minister was different. He (and growing up it was always a he) dressed differently both in the church service and during the week. I was expected to behave differently (as in, better than normal) whenever I was around him. I even noticed that adults behaved differently when they were around him. I came to the conclusion that he was spiritually better than me. He was certainly closer to God than me and had a particular spiritual authority no one else seemed to have. He certainly had a pipeline to God the rest of us didn’t have. You don’t mess up or behave badly around him.

Having observed this social and behavioral distinction between the Rev and the rest of us, I came to believe that there is a certain spiritual caste system in life. There was religious nobility (ministers) and everyday commoners (like me and my family). The social system within our church fed this notion fairly rigidly. Even when I joined the youth choir I had to dress myself up in fine robes each week to approach the altar (always behind the minister, our proper place), sit in the choir loft, and participate in singing of the anthem. If I was to participate in the divine then I needed to dress differently (better and more religious) and be on my best behavior (goofing off on the choir loft during the service was a damnable offense). To participate in the ritual of communion I had to be 13, take a year’s worth of classes, and pass the confirmation class test which got me to a higher spiritual level in the system.

Over time, this distinction between the spiritual pageantry of Sunday and the every day life in my neighborhood with my family led me to believe that there was a certain compartmentalization in life between the sacred and the secular. Sure my family said our rote prayers before meals and before bed, but every day life was where you gave a passing nod to the divine and prayed for the Vikings to win the Super Bowl. [The Vikings always lost the big game, of course, teaching me that our minister had, indeed, a better standing with God…he was a Steelers and Cowboys fan.] The real spiritual stuff was always on Sunday morning, for which we cleaned ourselves up and made ourselves presentable.

In today’s chapter the author of this letter to Hebrew believers begins a discussion of Jesus as “High Priest.” Having been raised in the Protestant tradition, I find myself a few steps removed from an experiential concept of “priest.” The priesthood became a theological line of separation between Protestants and Roman Catholics in the Reformation. Nevertheless, as I’ve progressed in my faith journey I’ve found it an important concept to contemplate and unpack because it goes right to the heart of some of the gross, spiritual misconceptions that even the Protestant church gave me growing up.

Even in the opening of the discussion in which we are introduced to Jesus as High Priest, He is not introduced to us on a higher spiritual plane confined to the holy altar of some Tabernacle on Sunday morning. Jesus is introduced as one who empathizes and has experienced our every day struggles and temptations. Jesus the High Priest is God with us, in our working and playing and eating and drinking. Instead of cleaning ourselves up and approaching God with fearful respect and awkward religiosity, Jesus calls us to approach with confidence, just as we are. Rather than approaching to earn some kind of merit badge in the religious pecking order, we are approaching to receive a generous gift of unmerited  mercy and grace.

This morning as I enjoy my coffee looking out over the lake, I am reflecting on the core misperceptions the church gave me about God as a child. It strikes me that these natural surroundings at the lake are a holier and more spiritual place than the altar of my old neighborhood church. In this “thin place” this morning I’m confidently approaching Jesus and asking for some increased clarity regarding my childhood misperceptions and how they might still be affecting me in unhealthy ways. I am asking God to reveal to me in the days ahead, in the following chapters, the important distinctions between the very human concepts of Jesus as High Priest that I am tied to by my human experience and religious traditions, and the true High Priest revealed in these chapters.

People of the Lie and the Religious Con

For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ.
2 Corinthians 11:13 (NIV)

“What about the evils of the crusades?”
“What about the Church’s silence during the Holocaust?”
“What about the Spanish Inquisition?”
“What about the Salem witch trials?”

As a follower of Jesus, one of the more frustrating experiences is being placed by others in the position of being called upon to answer for the awful things that have been said or done in the name of Jesus whether it be in this generation or throughout history. The reality is that I cannot excuse nor be an apologist for those who are determined to twist the teachings of Christ for evil, selfish or self-righteous purposes. I can, however, stand up and speak out if I see such things happening around me. Which is exactly what Paul was doing in today’s chapter.

Paul’s letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth is a testament to the fact that even the first generation of believers were not immune to people using religion for selfish ends. Paul calls these religious con men out and urges the believers in Corinth to see the difference between the slick talking charlatans who were trying to line their own pockets and Paul who didn’t have con-man charisma but had always acted out of sincere love for the Corinthians.

This morning I’m reminded of the reality that wherever you find God you will find evil marring, twisting and thwarting the things of God. Even Jesus was betrayed by one of His inner circle. It is true that we can, throughout history, find those who did terrible things in the name of Jesus (including the institutional church). It is equally true that we can find incredible stories of followers of Jesus in those same periods of history who were living examples of Jesus’ teachings. During the bloodbath of the crusades Francis of Assisi was actively working toward peace and understanding with Islam. While the institutional Church remained silent about Nazi Germany, there were many like the Ten Boom family who gave their lives to protect Jewish people from the Holocaust.

Like Paul, I can only call out evil when I see it. “People of the Lie” will always be with us, as they always have been. I must confront their falseness when I am aware of it. I am responsible for my own thoughts, words, relationships and actions. And so I begin a new day as one simple wayfarer walking my own path and doing my best to obey Jesus’ command to love.

Afscheiden

Therefore,
“Come out from them

    and be separate,
says the Lord.

Touch no unclean thing,
    and I will receive you.”
2 Corinthians 6:17 (NIV)

I have lived much of my life  in and around communities with strong Dutch heritage. The Dutch communities in Iowa were settled, for the most part, by tight-knit groups of Dutch believers who came to America for religious freedom. Over 150 years later most of these communities maintain a strong connection to their heritage. It’s fascinating to experience life here and, over time, observe how we function and interact.

On one hand I have an insider’s understanding, receiving my paternal DNA from a father with Dutch genes who came from this heritage. On the other hand, mine is an outsider’s perspective as I grew up in a city away from these Dutch communities and only experienced them when visiting my grandparents. It is as an adult have I found myself living within them.

There is a Dutch word, afscheiden, which you still hear on occasion in conversation. It means “to separate.” I have come to observe that it is a thread in the fabric of our community in multiple ways. Our ancestors were those who separated from their home to come to America. Within the community there are strong religious subgroups who have historically separated themselves within the community based on adherence to certain church doctrines and religious practices. Visitors to our communities often comment on the large number of churches. It is, in part, due to our habit of separating whenever there is disagreement.

Afscheiden in our communities typically has strong religious connotation to it. One group of Christians claims to have a better (usually more strictly conservative) hold on God’s truth, so they separate and disassociate themselves from their wayward, liberal brethren. The scriptural defense they use comes from today’s chapter in which Paul quotes the prophet Isaiah (pasted at the top of this post).

I always think a little historical context is in order.

Competing religions in the prophet Isaiah’s day were often centered around fertility and nature. There was a wide variety of communal sexual activity cloaked as religious practice and even the human sacrifice of babies and children to please the gods. It was nasty stuff. In Paul’s day, the Greek and Roman temples in cities like Corinth continued to be religious prostitution rackets that propagated a lot of typically unhealthy practices. For both Isaiah and Paul, the call to separate was less about religious dogma and more about foundational moral code.

Along life’s journey I’ve observed that legalistic religion loves afscheiden. Black and white appears on the surface to be much simpler than struggling with gray. For certain groups life must be strictly categorized in terms of clean and unclean, acceptable and unacceptable, good and bad, godly and evil so that I always know what to do, think, say, and who I can associate with. After a while, however, you have all these small, insular groups who have afscheidened themselves to death.

This morning I’m looking back on my own journey and the ways that the concept of “come out and be separate” have affected my life, my choices, my relationships, and my actions. I made the observation to Wendy the other day that Christians like to be prescriptive with our religion, prescribing the things you must do to be a follower of Jesus (and if you don’t toe the line we afscheiden ourselves from you!). Jesus, however, was more descriptive about the Kingdom of God. He always said, “the kingdom of God is like…” and then would describe it.

I’m realizing that I prefer a description to reach for rather than a prescription to swallow.

 

 

Indulgent Thought Both Then and Now

These are the people who divide you, who follow mere natural instincts and do not have the Spirit.
Jude 1:19 (NIV)

The letter Jude wrote to Jesus’ followers in that day was prompted by one specific reason. There were individuals coming to various local gatherings of Jesus’ followers and spreading the belief that if all their sins are forgiven then they have carte blanche to do whatever they want. In the minds of these individuals they had a spiritual “get out of jail free” card and they were going to use it wherever their unbridled appetites took them. This was, of course, a tempting message for those longing to unbridle their appetites with a neighborhood shrine prostitute. The result was trouble in River (of Life) City.

“There is nothing new under the sun,” we are told in the book of Ecclesiastes. Get any group of humans together and you’ll find a few (or more) individuals working the angles, looking for the loopholes, and seeking ways to twist things to their own advantage. This is human nature. The skewed thinking Jude addresses was not an isolated issue. Paul addressed similar troubles and similar lines of thought in his letters to Jesus’ followers in Rome and in the city of Corinth.

Fast forward 1500 years and we see the Roman Catholic church turning such thought into a lucrative racketeering opportunity. In those days the church sold “Indulgences.” These indulgences were basically guaranteed forgiveness, an actual “get out of hell free” card which could be used on demand with any future sin you might commit.

“Headed to your brother’s bachelor party at Brunhilda’s Bawdy Bordello? Stop by the church and stock up on indulgences, then have a great time!”

“Your friend’s spouse has been overly flirtatious lately and you’re tempted to see just how far things might go? Don’t go there until you buy yourself an indulgence from Brother Maynard over at the monastery! Come to think of it, buy two: one for you and one for your lover. You don’t want the threat of their soul being in mortal danger to cool off your mutually hot passions!”

Back in the day this lucrative money-maker for the Roman Catholic church and it was predicated on the same twisted thinking as what Jude was addressing in his day. In fact, it was this very religious racketeering that led Marty Luther to publish his medieval blog post on the local church door in Wittenberg (see featured photo) 500 years ago this October. His “95 Theses” post went viral and led to the Protestant Reformation.

Of course, along my life journey I’ve come to understand that human appetites come in all forms. There are “pretty sins” which we commonly overlook because they are covered in the religious veneer of self-righteousness. “Pretty sins” are simply appetites of human pride and ego-centric power which lead me to diminish and judge others in order to exalt myself and my ego. It was these same appetites which Jesus condemned in His rant toward the religious people of His day. Those “pretty sin” appetites are every bit as powerful and tempting as the “ugly sins” we routinely march out in order to shame people (and make ourselves feel better). In fact, I believe the pretty sins and their underlying appetites may be even more insidious and more dangerous.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. People are people. There is nothing new under the sun. The same human foibles Jude warned against in his letter were present in Martin Luther’s day, and they are present today. This morning is a heart-check for me. I don’t want Jude’s warning to stimulate my “pretty sin” appetites and send me off on a personal witch hunt looking for heinous local heretics who think such things today. I find myself more inwardly focused and asking:

“Are there any places in my life that I am glossing over destructive thoughts and behavior under the indulgent defense of ‘Oh well, I’m forgiven!‘?”

Playing the Line vs. Playing the Want

This is what the Lord says to Israel: “Seek me and live;”
Amos 5:4a (NIV)

One of the core activities in the acting process is discovering what is motivating your character; Understanding what it is your character wants in each action and conversation. Whenever I get a script for a new part, whether the part is large or small, I first go through and break scenes down into “beats” which are small sections in which my character is focused on a particular action or dialogue.  I then go back and determine my character’s “want” for each beat.

I want to know if my uncle killed my father.
want to be with Juliet so bad I can hardly contain it.
want to be King of Scotland.

The beats and “wants” may change during the rehearsal process as I make new discoveries and my character runs up against how the other characters are playing their respective wants. As the rehearsals progress, I identify my characters overarching motivation in the entire play.

Good actors play more than just the lines, they play the want.

This came to mind as I read this morning’s chapter. The prophet Amos is writing a prophetic poem focused on the ancient kingdom of northern Israel. Connecting the poem together are three direct commands:

Seek me and live.” vs 5

Seek the Lord and live. vs 6

Seek good and not evil. vs 14

The question for Israel that Amos was poking at is the same question an actor asks of his or her character: “What (or who) are you seeking?” What is motivating you? What is it you desire?

It didn’t take me long as a young actor to realize that the acting process is applicable as the living process. It’s crucial that I examine and understand my own motivations in life, in my relationships, in my words, in my actions, in my activities, and in my work.

Along my life journey I’ve observed that uptight religious people (I know because I have been one) are immature actors playing just the lines of God’s Message. Their focus is the surface of each black and white command. I have found, however, that the Great Director is always calling me deeper into life’s script. He wants me to play more than just the religious lines. He wants me to play life from the most critical, core motivations…

Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands [and motivations] are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.”

“You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”

What am I seeking?

Jesus Goes “All In”; Seals Deal

Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!
Matthew 23:32 (NIV)

There are times when focusing on one chapter each day risks losing continuity of the story that is important for the sake of context. Today is one of those days.

When we left yesterday’s chapter, Jesus had been teaching in the public courts of the Temple in Jerusalem during His final, climactic week of earthly life. The leaders of the institutional Hebrew religion had sent waves of envoys to test Jesus with hot political and religious questions of their day. They wanted to get a sound byte they could use to discredit Jesus, who was a threat to their power and religious racket. Jesus deftly answered each question then went on the offensive and stumped them with a question of their own.

This is a high stakes game being played between Jesus and the religious leadership. They want Jesus dead and out of the way so that they can carry on with their lives of localized power and greedy luxury. Jesus knows this, and having successfully played the cards in His hand He now doubles down and goes all in.

Jesus turns to His listeners and begins to publicly criticize the leaders of religion, and many of them are standing there listening. He acknowledges their systemic authority and tells His followers to honor that authority while refusing to follow their example. Jesus then turns to face the religious leaders and goes off.

Today’s chapter records the most intense and scathing rant Jesus ever offered. It is angry, pointed and provocative. What is essential to understand is that Jesus’ harshest words and most scathing criticisms were aimed at the most conservative, upstanding, strict rule-following religious people.

Jesus repeatedly called them names: hypocrites, blind guides, snakes, brood of vipers, sons of hell. He condemned them for their hypocrisy, their judgmental ways, and the selective ways they used God’s rules to make themselves look good and justify their poor treatment of the marginalized. These religious power brokers had already said they wanted Jesus dead, now with every word and every public criticism Jesus is upping the ante and forcing them to see His call and go all in against Him.

Jesus knows it.

At the end of Jesus’ rant He reminds the religious leaders that it was their predecessors who had killed God’s prophets in earlier centuries. It was the High Priests and religious keepers of the Temple who had violently silenced the ancient prophets. Now Jesus ends His tirade by saying, “Go ahead, finish what they started.” 

Jesus was not a victim. Jesus was on a mission. He was pushing buttons. He was driving the action.

This morning I’m meditating on the Jesus who forgave the woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. I’m remembering that Jesus broke all social, cultural, racial and religious barriers of His day when He conversed with a Samaritan woman while she drew water from a well. I’m recalling that Jesus healed the son  of detested Roman officer and healed the child of a despised and “heathen” Gentile. It comes to mind this morning that Jesus hung out with “sinful” Tax Collectors and their worldly, sinful friends at loud parties where who-knows-what sinful things were going on.

I often encounter the misperception that Jesus is all about condemnation of sin and sinners. The record shows, however, that Jesus showed incredible mercy, tolerance and forgiveness to those we would terms sinners. Jesus reserved anger, judgment, and condemnation for “good” religious people who used religion to condemn sinners and make themselves look good.