Tag Archives: Religion

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.

Missing the Point

“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

“‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
Matthew 21:28-31 (NIV)

Yesterday began the celebration of what’s known as “Holy Week” for those who follow Jesus. It’s the annual celebration of the last week of Jesus’ earthly life. The events themselves are dramatic. The week begins with he crowds welcoming Jesus to Jerusalem and shouting His praises. It will end with the same crowds screaming for His execution.

Upon arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus goes to the temple. The temple was the center of Jewish worship. It was where all Jews made pilgrimages to make sacrifices to atone for their sins as prescribed in the ancient laws of Moses. The temple was where the institutional religious leaders held sway in a racket that made them powerful and wealthy.

The temple had its own currency and it had an official line of sacrificial animals. Pilgrims who came to make their sacrifice first had to exchange their Roman currency for Temple currency, and the money changers made exorbitant profits in the exchange that lined the pockets of the powerful religious leaders. Poor pilgrims who brought their own animals for sacrifice would learn that their animals were unacceptable to the priests, and the priests would demand that they buy the temple’s own brand of official sacrifices. The priests and leaders had turned religion into a money-making machine that bilked the poor and the weak.

So, Jesus begins His climactic week by overturning the money changer’s tables and setting the official sacrificial doves free in a provocative act of challenge to the powerful racketeering priests. It makes Jesus even more popular in the eyes of the marginalized and directly threatens the powers-that-be. The rest of today’s chapter is an account of the showdown between Jesus and the religious leaders who sent envoys with trick questions. Their plan is to trip Jesus up and give them reason to discredit or arrest Him.

In this showdown, Jesus gives another simple but powerful parable. Two sons are given a task. One initially refuses but eventually obeys. The other agrees but ends up not doing the task.

The message of the parable is clear. The priests were given the task of shepherding God’s people, but they ignored the task of love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness. Instead, they pursued judgment, greed, power, and self-aggrandizement. Jesus’ followers, on the other hand, were marginalized outsiders in the context of the religious hierarchy, yet they were actively pursuing Jesus’ teaching.

I am reminded this morning of our daughter emailing me from a missions trip in Africa some years ago. She was in a challenging situation with a highly dysfunctional team. Her team “leader” seemed interested only in sitting around the foreign resort area doing nothing all day. Taylor said the person on the team who acted the most like Jesus was the one member saying they didn’t even believe in God. It was Jesus’ parable come to life. Given the parallel to today’s chapter, I believe it quite possible that the atheist on Taylor’s team was closer to God than those who were the most religious.

Holy Week is chalk full of opportunity for religious services, religious acts, and religious observations. This morning I’m reminded that we easily turn our churches into a 21st century example of the temple in Jesus’ day.  We can dutifully attend services, take communion on Maundy Thursday, weep on Good Friday, and shout “Hallelujah!” on Easter morning in our best Easter dress. And, the whole time we can be ignoring the most important things Jesus’ asked of us.

Getting to the Heart of the Matter

“Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”
Matthew 15:16-20 (NIV)

Religion has always been good at making a lot of rules. This was certainly true in Jesus’ day and we read about it in today’s chapter. Jesus’ followers didn’t ceremonially wash their hands before they ate. The religious leaders were appalled that Jesus’ followers didn’t follow their rules. Jesus rolled His eyes. This was one of many religious rules that Jesus and His followers broke from not picking grain on the Sabbath day of rest, to healing on the Sabbath, to fraternizing with sinners, and on and on and on.

Rules aren’t necessarily a bad thing. God gave the initial set of rules through Moses, and they were a guide for life lived decently and in order. Of course, over time the religious people took the basic rules and made even more rules to clarify the original rules. Then they added more rules labeled “traditions.” Rules, upon, rules, upon rules that moved things away from the heart of the matter until rule keeping became a religious, behavioral litmus test. But, at the core the original rules meant to guide life still hold true. Jesus said, “I didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.”

In today’s chapter, Jesus makes it very clear where He is coming from on the subject of rules. He tells us that it all comes down to the spiritual condition of our hearts. If my spirit is diseased with pride, anger, hatred, grudges, greed, lust, prejudice, bitterness, envy, malice, jealousy, impurity, et al than it doesn’t matter how well I follow the religious rules about propriety and what to eat, what to wear, or what not to do. And, simply following a labyrinth of religious rules is not going to change the spiritual condition of my heart.

Jesus came to do heart surgery for humanity. He came to change our hearts, knowing that a heart that is spiritually healthy and connected to God’s Spirit will continually beat with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control. It will be motivated to naturally fulfill the only important rules. Out of that healthy, Spirit-connected heart will flow thoughts, words, and actions marked by that same love, joy, peace, kindness, gentleness, consideration, faithfulness, and self-discipline.

This morning I’m reminded that rules of behavior are impotent to change the condition of my heart, but my heart, transformed by Jesus, will powerfully and perpetually change my behaviors and relationships for the betterment of myself and others.