Tag Archives: Religion

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.”?

Art History; History Art; Art, History

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
Romans 1:20 (NIV)

Back in college I was required to take a visual art class as part of my major. Being a lover of history I chose to take Art History II. The fascinating thing about Professor Jeff Thompson’s class was that the text book was not an Art History textbook. It was simply a History textbook.

Professor Thompson began the class with a question: “Does art merely reflect history, or does it drive history?” If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you’ll recognize this is a binary, “either, or” question, and the answer to his question that we arrived at was “yes, and.”

What was fascinating in the course of study was the connection between all that was going on during a certain period of time of history (politics, religion, economics, and etc.) and what we were seeing in the important artworks of that period. Not only that, but also the connection between what we saw in visual art (paintings and sculptures) and the other art mediums (music, theatre, architechture, and literature). The art of each period both reflected what was happening and drove history forward.

That class planted in me a seed which has grown over time to bear much fruit of thought. Here is the root of it: In creating art, no matter the medium, artists express themselves through what they create. It cannot be otherwise. It is inherent in that act of creation itself that artists express who they really are, what they see, what they think, what they feel, and how they’ve experienced the world around them. In expressing these things, they influence the world around them and they drive the action of this Great Story.

This morning, in this chapter-a-day journey, we make our way to Paul’s letter to the followers of Jesus living in Rome, heart of the Roman Empire and epicenter of western civilization at the time. Today, art historians flock to Rome to see remnants of the ancient city with its architecture and artwork. The people Paul wrote to were surrounded by it as it was happening all around them, and to them he wrote this:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

The creator revealed themselves in what was created. The Genesis poem says that humans were created in the image of the Creator. Just as Van Gogh painted the unique way he saw light and color, just as Bach channeled his love and understanding of mathematic order and the woven details of the universe into his music, just as Shakespeare expressed the tragedy of everyday humanity in the gilded trappings of man-made royalty, so God the Creator expressed  the light, energy, life, beauty, and power of their person(s) in all creation.

In the quiet this morning I’m pondering how through much of my journey I’ve viewed faith and science as living entrenched in their “either, or” camps like the armies of World War I dug in for the long haul, reduced to hurtling grenades at one another across no man’s land. At least, that’s the perception I’ve had from what has been presented to me by media who like to simplify complex issues into simple binary groups in conflict (it sells more). As I’ve proceeded in my journey I’ve met many fellow sojourners who could be easily labeled as a members of either trench, but who have wandered out into no man’s land. They observe and study and appreciate this cosmic work of art still expanding outward, still creating, still reproducing life, and  they’ve come to a “yes, and” realization, just as we did in Professor Thompson’s Art History class.

That’s where Paul begins his letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome. He starts with the expansive canvas of the cosmos through which the Creator expresses self. From the mystery of the cosmos Paul will dive into the mystery of being human, and how he sees the Creator has interacted with creation in the Great Story.

Rediscovering the Organism

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
1 Corinthians 12:27 (NIV)

I remember getting the call. There was an emergency meeting of the church elders. I was a young man and had been serving as pastor of a rural church for over a year. As I made my way to the church office for the hastily called meeting I wondered what on earth the problem was.

As it turned out, the problem was me. Apparently, I had not officially gone through the prescribed bureaucratic hoops required to become a member of the church when I was hired. One of the elders had their undies in a bunch because I’d never become a member. I sort of figured that if the congregation hired me, I was kind of automatically grandfathered in. Oh, no. How could I be serving as Pastor of the organization if I wasn’t a member of said organization? We have an existential crisis on our hands, people!!

I did my best not to laugh. At the next congregational meeting I submitted my name for membership, the congregation approved, and that little bit of silliness was put to rest.

The sad thing is that I’ve encountered similar kinds of silliness in the institutional church wherever my journey has taken me. Looking back over my journey, I’m struck at how different the institutional paradigm of “church” that I grew up with compares to the word picture of “the body of Christ” that Paul gives to the believers in Corinth in today’s chapter.

The word picture of the “Body” is a living organism made up of all believers. The church I grew up in was an organization made up of just those who chose to go through membership class, go through interviews with the elders, and accepted the “right hand of fellowship” along with a nice certificate (perfect for framing) during a Sunday morning meeting. In Paul’s word picture, every believer has a spiritual gift and has a significant part to play in contributing to the work of the Body of Christ as a whole. The church I grew up in had a few appointed “ministers” approved by the organization to do ministry. The vast majority of us were little more than spectators and financial support. Paul’s word picture of the Body is inclusive and includes all believers regardless of age, gender, social status, or ethnic background. The church I grew up in was exclusive to those who had a certificate of membership, which is why the elder in my earlier story was horrified by the notion that I was serving as their pastor but hadn’t jumped through the bureaucratic hoops of the organization to get mine.

To be sure, even in Paul’s day the church was struggling to provide some kind of organizational framework for a movement that had gone from just over 100 people to tens of thousands of people in just a few years. Nevertheless, when the organism of the Body of Christ that Paul describes in today’s chapter became an organization and then a political, social, and religious institution of the Roman Empire a couple of hundred years later, I believe something was lost.

I’ve observed along my life journey that the church institutions of my childhood are dying. The old mainline denominations have fractured and faded. People are increasingly embittered by the systemic sins of a global religious institution and its leaders who refuse to deal honestly and forthrightly with the issues. When I grew up, a politician was required to be a member of an acceptable religious organization or institution in order to be considered a good candidate. I find it fascinating that a leading politician recently stated that membership in a legacy religious organization is a sign of prejudice and hate speech, disqualifying a person from serving in a government position.

Oh my. The times, they are a changin’.

And, in the quiet this morning I’m thinking that maybe it’s a good thing. History leads me to believe that the Jesus movement is always more effective when it is persecuted and less effective when it is in power. Perhaps we’ll learn how to become an organism once again. You’re welcome to join me. I won’t even ask you to show me a certificate of membership.

From Simple Ritual to Complex Regulation

So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.
1 Corinthians 11:27 (NIV)

On the night before His crucifixion, Jesus and His followers celebrated a ritual meal called the Passover. It is an annual remembrance of the events in the book of Exodus, in which God leads the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt. The ritual meal, also called a Seder, is full of metaphors and word pictures that remind participants of key events and spiritual lessons from the Exodus story. At the time of Jesus, the Passover was already an ancient ritual dating back over a thousand years.

On this night, Jesus creates a new ritual and metaphor for His followers. He simply took a loaf of unleavened bread, broke it, and passed it around for His followers to partake. “This is my body, broken for you,” he said. Then he took a cup of wine and passed it, saying, “This is my blood, shed for you.” Jesus then told His followers to share in this very simple ritual when they get together as a ritual remembrance of the sacrifice He was about to make. The fact that it was done after the Passover meal layers the metaphor with even more meaning. Just as God led the people out of slavery in Egypt, Jesus is establishing a “new covenant” in which He is going to lead humanity out of slavery to sin.

Over time, this relatively simple, ritual metaphor came to be known as Communion, the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist. As the organism of the early Jesus Movement became the Institution of the Roman church, the ritual became a much more complex religious act layered with all sorts of rules and regulations. It became the centerpiece of worship surrounded by other rituals for how it was done. Only a priest sanctioned by the church could administer it. Those who don’t belong to your particular group of believers were not welcome to participate. And so on, and so on.

As a young follower of Jesus, I was part of a relatively conservative group of believers. I can remember the verse, pasted above, from today’s chapter being used regularly among my particular tribe of believers as a word of warning to young people. It was a religious variation on the Santa Claus principle: “He’s checking his list to see if you’re naughty. You better be good or Santa won’t bring you any gifts.” When it came to communion, we were warned that we better have our hearts right and our lives free from sin or we were putting ourselves at risk of judgement.

As I’ve progressed in my spiritual journey, I’ve largely abandoned the institutional pomp, circumstance, warnings, and regulatory commands that the institutional church has laid on top of Jesus’ simple act. The warning that Paul gave in his letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth had a very specific context. Believers met and shared a meal together, and then they ended their evening by repeating Jesus’ ritual word picture. In Corinth, some followers were creating cliques, having private meals, and excluding other believers. Some followers were getting drunk on wine and were intoxicated by the time the ritual of the bread and wine was carried out. In both cases, the metaphor of the bread and wine was profaned; It was emptied of meaning by the actions of those believers who shamelessly behaved in a way that diminished the entire meaning of the ritual.

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that Jesus’ institution of the ritual of communion happened with no commands, rules, or regulations other than to repeat the word picture regularly when believers got together. Jesus didn’t make caveats about it only being administered by approved followers, being an exclusive ritual for only certain institutionally approved persons, or that those partaking had to approach with a certain level of holiness. In fact, the word picture itself is about Jesus sacrificing Himself because we can’t attain acceptable holiness on our own, so why would we suggest that purity and holiness are required to partake in the bread and cup? That profanes the meaning of the ritual as well.