Tag Archives: Religion

The Gray

The Gray (CaD Heb 7) Wayfarer

The former regulation [the Law of Moses] is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God.
Hebrews 7:18-19 (NIV)

I have a confession to make this morning, As the youngest of four children, seven years younger than my eldest twin brothers, I took full advantage of my birth position. Some of this was good. For example, I remember observing what patterns of behavior and/or argument actually escalated our parents’ anger and frustration. Not only was the conflict unpleasant but it never worked out well for my sibling. I correspondingly avoided making those same mistakes and had a relatively pleasant childhood and adolescence in the department of parental relations.

It wasn’t all good, however. Being the youngest also afforded me the opportunity of learning how and when to take advantage of skirting rules and, by and large, how to get away with it. The age gap between me and my twin brothers was key to this. When I was twelve, my brother Tim was 19. At little sibs weekend at the University, I not only got to enjoy attending a college keg party and drinking beer but also made a lasting memory with my brother. Tim had me stand around the keg with him. When cute girls came to fill their red solo cups, Tim leveraged the novelty of my presence to find out who they were as he introduced me as his genius little brother who was a Freshman at the university that year.

Long story short, I learned along the way that rules were meant to be skirted, not broken. I became quite adept at getting away with all sorts of things as I stealthily discovered a parallel dimension of gray that existed (at least in my perception) around the black-and-white rules.

In today’s chapter, the author of the letter to the early Hebrew followers of Jesus is explaining how the Jewish priesthood and Law of Moses have been completed and transformed by Jesus. The Law of Moses took sinful humans born to Aaron and Levi and made them part of a human system of rules, rituals, and sacrifices for the forgiveness of sin. The human priest first had to atone for his own sin so he could then atone for the sins of the people. Jesus was the sinless, spotless once-and-for-all sacrifice, risen from the dead, and existing eternally at the right hand of the Father, a forever high priest. He is not a priest of the Law of Moses, the author declares, but of the mysterious eternal order of Melchizedek that is older and greater than the Law of Moses.

The author boldly states that the Law of Moses was “weak” and “useless” arguing that rules can never make a person perfect. Ah, there’s the rub. Religious rule-keeping never deals with the self-centered motives and uncontrollable appetites at the core of the human heart. In my case, it was my personal motives and appetites that fueled my finding of gray areas in which I justified skirting rules for my own personal pleasures and advantages.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking back to some of the things I used to get away with skirting rules, from silly to the somewhat sinister. I may have gotten away with a lot of things, but my heart knew that it wasn’t right. I knew, even at a young age, that I needed more than just rules. I needed to deal with the core issues of a self-centered heart and appetites run amok. I discovered what the author of Hebrews is revealing, Jesus who became the ultimate sacrifice for my core heart issues, an eternal, living high-priest who understands my weaknesses and receives me with mercy and grace.

It still doesn’t make me perfect, but it does make me forgiven. I am no longer bound to rules that only prove that good, I am not. I am freed to live out the love, and good, that I ought.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

The Goal

The Goal (CaD Heb 6) Wayfarer

Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity…
Hebrews 6:1 (NIV)

Religion is relatively easy. I was raised with religion. It was simply a set of ritual tasks that was woven into. Go to Sunday School and the church service once a week. Give a few bucks. Say the Lord’s prayer before family meals along with the Dutch prayer Grandpa and Grandma Vander Well taught us. Pray when I go to bed if I think about it. Volunteer once in a while. These are the basic motions. Repeat.

When I surrendered my life to Christ and became a follower of Jesus, I remember realizing that all of my religious motions had simply that – motions. They didn’t really have any effect on the person I was. The religious rituals had no soul penetration, no life penetration. On Sunday morning in church, I’d sing the hymn Just As I Am and the rest of the week I did just that. I remained just as I had always been.

Early in my spiritual journey as a follower of Jesus, I walked among a group that appeared to be rabidly devout about their faith. What I quickly discovered is that they were simply religion on steroids. They had countless rules of appearance and behavior that were thickly layered on top of the religious rituals. I soon noticed that my peers were spiritually immature. They didn’t have to think, they just had to obey. The result was that there was no development of a person’s heart and soul. There was simply adherence to the prescribed rules so that those in authority within the system could see me toeing the line. Along my life journey, I’ve come to believe that there is a corollary relationship between religious fundamentalism and spiritual immaturity.

Reading Jesus’ teachings, this was the very thing from which Jesus came to free me. The word picture He used was that of a beautiful, ornate mausoleum in the cemetery. So pretty on the outside. Full of rotting flesh and dead bones on the inside. My zealously religious friends were concerned about my purity; The purity of my doctrine, obedience, appearance, and social behavior. From what I read in the Great Story, Jesus is most concerned about my spiritual maturity. Because the deeper my spiritual roots descend, the more living water I imbibe, the more mature my growing spirit becomes, the more spiritual fruit my life produces. The goal is not lifeless obedience to a set of rules, the goal is a life that is spilling over with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control. Those aren’t fruits of religion, they are fruits of Spirit maturity.

One of the major reasons that the author of the letter to the Hebrews was writing to his fellow Jewish believers was precisely for this reason. The Hebrews were big on religion. They had an entire system of ritual tasks, rules, sacrifices, offerings, and festivals. It was so ingrained in them that it was hard for some to give it up. That’s another thing I’ve observed about religious devotion: Once a person is used to it the ritual rule-keeping feels natural and comfortable. It’s like being a spiritual couch potato.

And that’s why the author of Hebrews is urging his fellow believers toward the things Jesus taught: spiritual maturity, spiritual development, and growth of soul that leads to maturity and a life marked by increasing spiritual fruit. You know what’s funny? The more I grow spiritually, the more Life I find in some of those old religious rituals and traditions. Without the Spirit, they were just life-less motions. With the Spirit, they become a vehicle of further growth and development.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

The Context

The Context (CaD Matt 22) Wayfarer

“Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’
Matthew 22:8-9 (NIV)

Along my spiritual journey, I’ve observed that it’s easy to read with a mental microscope or magnifying glass to inspect every word, every verse, or every parable as if they exist as individual and/or exclusive works of divine wisdom. I’ve come to observe that there’s more to be gained by launching my mental drone to rise above the text and see the word, verse, and parable within the larger tapestry of the Great Story. Today’s chapter is a great example of this.

The entire chapter takes place at a very specific time and place. It’s the last week of Jesus’ earthly life. He is in Jerusalem and spending His day at Herod’s Temple, the seat and center of Hebrew religious power and worship. There is an escalating conflict emerging between Jesus and the religious leaders of His day. Public opinion is on Jesus’ side for the moment, and the religious leaders are working their fundamentalist political playbook. They keep sending different groups with questions in hope that Jesus will make a gaffe, say something stupid on the hot mic, or make a partisan comment which will offend His audience and give them political ammunition to publicly discredit Him. This is the same kind of political theater that plays out in press conferences and the media every single day.

They ask Jesus about paying taxes to Rome because it’s a hot-button issue. Most of Jesus’ audience hated the Romans, and they hated paying taxes. The religious leaders even make sure that Rome’s local political puppets, the Herodians, are there to witness the answer. They hoped Jesus’ answer would be treasonous enough to arrest Him.

A religious faction, the Sadducees, try a trick question on Jesus that was rooted in a hot-button theological debate about whether there was a resurrection or not. The motive was to trip Jesus up and make Him look like a fool. Jesus nailed the answer and discredited the questioners.

They tried another theological question, but Jesus nailed that one, too.

Then Jesus decided it was time for Him to ask the question. He asks about the popular term being used for the coming Messiah, the same one they were indignant about children applying to Jesus in yesterday’s chapter: Son of David. Jesus discredits the term (perhaps in response to their indignation the previous day?) based on David’s own lyrics.

This is a political tennis match with Jesus volleying back and forth with the religious leaders. And it’s in the context of this rising conflict that I must understand Jesus’ parable of the Wedding Banquet. The guests invited to the feast who ignored the invitation are Jesus’ religious enemies. They’ve ignored the heart of God’s commandments to cling to their power, greed, and fundamentalism. The servants who get beat up and killed are the prophets. The King sending His army to destroy the murderers and raze the city is prophetic, as this is exactly what happened in AD 70 when the Romans razed Jerusalem and the Temple. The King’s decision to go to every corner and invite “anyone you can find” is equally prophetic. It is what happens in the book of Acts when the Jesus Movement breaks out of the shackles of Hebrew fundamentalism and embraces anyone, Jewish or not, who chooses to repent, believe, and follow.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself asking what this means for me today. My heart’s desire is to always follow Jesus, but I can look back on my journey and see ways in which I’ve been more like the religious leaders. I’ve been religious, but I confess that there’s hard evidence that my religion has at times been more about being right, condemning others, and holding appropriate political and doctrinal views instead of being about love, grace, and mercy. That makes me more like Jesus’ enemies.

Mea culpa.

Whenever personal faith intertwines with human institutions and systems, it’s hard for it not to get sucked into the same trap that the Hebrews fell into. And that’s as true for me as it is for anyone else.

So, for me, that’s the take-away. I want to be diligent in living out my “religion” in Jesus’ terms:

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. James 1:27 (NIV)

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Jesus vs. the System

Jesus vs. the System (CaD Matt 21) Wayfarer

The blind and the lame came to [Jesus] at the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant.
Matthew 21:14-15 (NIV)

I remember once, as a young believer, my friends and I decided that we wanted to organize a weekend event in our church. We wanted to bring in a guest teacher we knew, have evening services each weekend night with some music and we’d invite anyone who wanted to come. We agreed to plan the whole thing, host the event, line up volunteers, and raise the funds necessary. We were so excited to do this thing.

Our plan came to a screeching halt when we were told that our plan had been swiftly and summarily rejected by our pastor and the Director of Christian Education. They would not give their stamp of approval because our guest speaker was not in our denominational silo. We were heartbroken, but it was a good lesson for me in learning how the world works, even in religious institutions.

A few weeks ago I gave a message among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. In the message, I contrasted the major tenets of fundamentalism which are clearly seen in the words and actions of the religious leaders, teachers of the law, and Pharisees who oppose Jesus, with what Jesus was teaching and exemplifying in His ministry. Fundamentalism is not just about religion. You can find the basic tenets of fundamentalism in almost any human system including families, businesses, schools, and political groups.

In today’s chapter, Jesus enters Jerusalem and the Temple to celebrate Passover. Thousands and thousands of pilgrims were there from all over. In yesterday’s chapter, Jesus clearly stated what would happen to Him in this week:

We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!”

Jesus has never been popular with the religious leaders, but He’s spent almost all of His ministry traveling around rural, backwater regions. Now Jesus is at the center of religious, political, and commercial power. The religious leaders Jesus has encountered up to this point were local minions and middle-management. The Temple in Jerusalem was the religious C-Suite. Jesus is walking into the seat of religious power, and the first thing He does is to piss them off by causing a riot in the Temple’s lucrative money-changing operation. If you want to make racketeers angry, threaten their cash flow.

Jesus is dealing with a fundamentalist religious system. Like all fundamentalist systems, these religious leaders have an unwavering attachment to the irreducible belief that they are God’s appointed rulers of God’s chosen people, and they have absolute, unquestionable authority over everyone and everything in their religion. So, on the heels of this act of “domestic terrorism” Jesus perpetrated against the Temple, the religious power brokers go to find Jesus who has giant crowds surrounding Him as He teaches in the Temple courts. They watch Jesus healing people. Blind people can see. Lame people walk. Deaf people hear. The crowd is going nuts.

Then the religious power brokers hear children shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” This was the chant the people were shouting when Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a donkey. At this, the religious power brokers “were indignant.”

As good religious fundamentalists, these dudes applied strict literalism to their religious dogmas and beliefs. They were more important than anything else, and the cheer “Hosanna (a form of the word “save”) to the Son of David (a moniker for the coming Messiah)” was strictly and systemically inappropriate. Only they had the power and authority to say who the Messiah was. The Messiah could only be the Messiah with their authoritative stamp of approval. Children shouting that Jesus was the Messiah threatened the entire fundamentalist system and their authoritative control.

In the quiet this morning, I just sat in the reality of that moment for a while. People are being healed. Jesus is revealing divine power no one had ever seen on Earth right in front of them. There is joy, tears of happiness, and the lives of countless individuals and families being forever changed for the good. While the religious leaders are indignant that children are shouting Jesus’ praise.

That is classic fundamentalism. “If it doesn’t exist within our established authoritative system and according to our strict, literal dogmas then it must be rejected, tossed out, and crushed as a threat.”

This brings me back to my and my friends’ hearts being crushed when the religious institution rejected and tossed out our desire to bring in a speaker for a weekend of meetings. As much as I wanted to fight the system, I learned at that moment that it was better to walk away. A fundamentalist system will go to any length necessary to protect the system. They’ll even conspire with political enemies to commit murder. Which is just what they are going to do to Jesus, and He knows it.

FWIW: Here’s the message I gave contrasting the tenets of the fundamentalist religious system of Jesus’ day with what Jesus was teaching and doing.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

The Debt

The Debt (CaD Matt 18) Wayfarer

“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Matthew 18:35 (NIV)

He was a big man. He was not a person I would want angry with me, and he had a natural bent toward anger. As we chatted, he shared stories of just how hot his anger burned and the difficult situations he’d found himself in because of it. He’d been brought up with religion. In fact, there was a lot of religion. From the cradle, he’d been raised with rules, rituals, and regulations out the wazoo, but by his own admission, religion did nothing to curb his anger or modify the spiteful way he treated anyone who crossed him. And his rage led him to some nasty places. Then, through a series of unfortunate events, he found himself in the darkest, seething rage of his life. It was there he met Jesus.

This man came to mind this morning as I read the parable Jesus told His disciples in today’s chapter. If you didn’t read the chapter yourself, I encourage you to take 60 seconds and read it (Matthew 18:23-35). It’s a simple story of a servant who owes the king 10,000 bags of gold. When the king calls the loan, which will bankrupt the servant and ruin his life, the servant pleads for more time to pay it back. The king has compassion and forgives the entire debt. No sooner had this servant left the king’s presence that he runs into a fellow servant that owes him 100 silver coins from a wager they’d made on the Jerusalem Jackals game. The servant chokes his friend, demands payment, and has him tossed into debtor’s prison until he could pay the small sum.

Along my spiritual journey, I’ve both experienced and observed that there are common circumstances in which individuals struggle to actually “forgive those who sin against us” as Jesus famously told us to pray.

I’m simply a religious person going through the ritual motions. This lesson can be applied to so many circumstances, but in this case, it has everything to do with my ability to forgive and withhold judgment. Being a member of a church, or adhering to the tenets of religious rules and rituals only modifies my public behavior. It does nothing to change my heart. I’ve only seen a heart and life transformed and changed when a person has experienced a relationship with Jesus. My religion will never transform my heart and life, but a heart and life transformed by Jesus will definitely transform my religion.

I have no idea how great a debt I owe. If the servant in Jesus’ parable had been ignorant of just how much he owed the king, his behavior toward the fellow servant would not seem like such huge hypocrisy. As humans, I’ve observed that we have a penchant for keeping score with our mental scales. We know we’ve done this bad thing so I’ll throw that on one side of the scales. But, the person who injured me has done this and that so I’ll throw them both on the other side. See that! They’re worse than me so they deserve my wrath! James 2:10 points out that God’s economy doesn’t work like ours. If I keep all the rules and trip up on just one, I stand condemned and guilty of all of it. From God’s perspective, keeping score is a fool’s errand. We’re kidding ourselves to think or believe that we’re “not that bad.”

I haven’t truly experienced the power of grace myself. In the parable, the servant had experienced grace at an unbelievable level. 10,000 bags of gold was an incalculable sum to Jesus’ listeners. It’s like Elon Musk’s net worth in today’s standard. As I just mentioned, in God’s economy we all spiritually owe 100 billion dollars. It’s the contrast between the sum the servant had been forgiven and the paltry pittance the servant was owed that powers the moral of the story. When I know and have experienced how great a debt I’ve been forgiven by Jesus, it transforms the way I perceive and respond to those who offend and injure me.

In the quiet this morning, this brings me back to my big, angry friend. After meeting Jesus amidst his dark, seething rage had shared with me how his life began to change. It transformed his religion, his relationships, and the entire direction of his life. He’s still prone to anger, and he’s still not someone I’d want to see angry, but I wasn’t really worried about it as I listened to his story. After meeting Jesus and experiencing true grace, the fuse on his anger began to grow increasingly longer. The explosions of anger were more tempered, and he began to take responsibility for cleaning up the mess when it occasionally went off.

The words to an old, old hymn have been resonating in me the past month or two:

How deep the Father’s love for us,
How vast beyond all measure!
That He would send His only Son,
To make this wretch His treasure.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

“Leave Them”

"Leave Them" (CaD Matt 15) Wayfarer

“Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”
Matthew 15:14 (NIV)

A cult favorite among theatre types is the movie Waiting for Guffman. It’s a “mockumentary” gem from Christopher Guest about a small-town community theatre troupe who are producing an original musical for their little town’s big anniversary. The members of the production come to believe that a major Broadway producer named Guffman is coming to see their show and it leads them into dreams of grandeur. For anyone who has experienced small-town community theatre, it’s a hoot.

Waiting for Guffman popped into my head as I was reading the chapter this morning because some teachers of the law and Pharisees travel from Jerusalem to observe Jesus. The importance of this statement is often lost on a casual 21st-century reader. Jerusalem was the epicenter of the Hebrew religious machine. The fact that envoys from Jerusalem had traveled to back-water, fly-over country to check out Jesus for themselves meant that word about Jesus had spread. Jesus was making waves and all of the squabbles He’d had with the local religious powers had finally rippled all the way to the seat of religious power.

It’s like a Broadway producer traveling from New York to the midwest to check out a local community theatre production.

It’s like a rural, Iowa high-school kid having a scout from Alabama show up to watch him play football.

It’s like having the FBI showing up to take over the scene of a small-town crime.

Being part of a Fundamentalist religious system, these high-powered envoys are more interested in protecting their religious system than they are in Jesus’ miracles or teaching. They’re the rule police sent to find evidence that will discredit Jesus so the system can proclaim to the people that Jesus is a heretic to be avoided. Thus, the first thing they do is to scold Jesus and His disciples for not following the mandated hand-washing rules before eating.

In response, Jesus points out their hypocrisy. These teachers of the Law had created a legal loophole in their system so that families who had savings built up to provide for their parents in old age could legally use those funds to make a contribution to the Temple. It was essentially robbing from the needy to line the pockets of the wealthy power-brokers running the Temple system. Jesus calls out the hypocrisy: “You’re worried about my disciples not washing their hands before eating, while your heart and hands are permanently stained with greed and corruption.”

Jesus, the podunk country preacher, just pissed off some of the most powerful people from Jerusalem, and it was fascinating to read the disciples’ swift admonishment. “Doesn’t Jesus know that these guys could make or break His career? Doesn’t He know that these are connected men? These lawyers and officials have the power to make life miserable for Jesus, for us, and for our families? They could tell the local officials to throw us out of the synagogue!

“Jesus! You don’t talk to these men that way!

Jesus response? “Leave them. This is a no-win situation. It’s not worthwhile going down the rabbit hole of debate with these Jerusalem big shots. They’re willfully blind and have no desire to see the Light. Walk away.

In the quiet this morning, this quick decision of Jesus to walk away from further debate and conflict resonated with me. Over the years, I occasionally have had individuals comment, criticize, argue, and even threaten me in comments online. I have experienced the rabbit hole of worthless online exchanges. I have also experienced the value of honest conversation and debate of thought and ideas with someone truly interested in understanding, discovering, and growing. The difference is in the motivation, and I’ve increasingly prayed for greater wisdom and discernment to know when to speak, and when to be silent.

I endeavor to respond to everyone who reaches out, but there are times when Jesus’ directive to His disciples resonates within me.

“Leave them.”

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

“Ins” and “Outs”

"Ins" and "Outs" (CaD Matt 8) Wayfarer

When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.”
Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”

Matthew 8:5-7 (NIV)

I’ve been preparing a message I’m going to be giving among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers this Sunday. A year or two ago I happened to do a little personal study on the subject of fundamentalism. I was prompted to do some research because I noticed certain parallels of thought and behavior among a particular civic group that reminded me of things I saw in some of the Christian fundamentalist groups I experienced earlier in my spiritual journey.

My research came up with six elements that mark fundamentalist groups, elements that I would argue create a toxic cocktail no matter where they are found. All major religions have fundamentalist sects that bear these elements. As I studied and meditated on them, I came to realize that the elements of toxic fundamentalism can really be found in almost any human system including political, institutional, corporate, or even in families. As I was studying the assigned text for this Sunday’s message, I realized that Jesus’ religious critics displayed all six elements within the stories.

One of the elements of fundamentalist systems is that they maintain strict “in-group” and “out-group” distinctions. You must toe the line in thought, words, and behavior to be considered “in” with us, but the slightest misstep or evidence that you’ve run afoul of the rules or belief system and you are “out.”

The Hebrew religious system from which Jesus came was a fundamentalist form of Judaism. They had strict “in-group” and “out-group” distinctions. The religious power brokers wouldn’t associate with fellow Hebrews who were on the “outs” because they didn’t toe the line. And the Roman occupying force in Judea was really on the outs with the good religious authorities as well as almost all Hebrews who considered them the enemy.

In today’s chapter, Jesus has just finished his message on the hill, in which He told His listeners to love the enemy. He returns toward their base of operation and he is met by a Roman Centurion (enemy, occupier, a persecutor of His people, religiously dirty “gentile,” and pagan!). The Centurion asks Jesus to heal his servant. Jesus immediately asks if He should come to the Centurion’s house.

Entering the house of a Roman was strictly against fundamentalist rules. The Romans were the “outs” of all “outs.” Years later, in Acts 10, Peter will face the same fundamentalist religious dilemma of being invited to a Centurion’s home. Jesus doesn’t even hesitate: “Would you like me to come with you?”

In the quiet this morning, I was struck by Jesus’ words to His followers after healing the servant remotely and sending the Centurion on his way:

“I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Jesus points out that people will be surprised who they see at heaven’s feast. Some of those who were on the “outs” on earth will be present while some of the “ins” on earth will not.

So who do I consider on the “outs” with me and my belief system? Who would I refrain from accepting an invitation to their home? Who is so worthless in my eyes and I don’t even want to be near them? I think the roots of fundamentalisms are found in my own sinful nature. Jesus not only came to forgive me of my sin but also to call me to live contrary to it. Which means tearing down my own personal “in-group” and “out-group” distinctions.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Simple Difference

Simple Difference (CaD Matt 7) Wayfarer

But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
Matthew 7:14 (NIV)

Jesus’ greatest human enemy was organized institutional religion. Rome may have carried out the execution, but when you study Jesus’ story it is abundantly clear that the conspiracy to get rid of Him begins with the religious authorities.

Early in my journey as a follower of Jesus, I observed the stark difference between being a follower of Jesus and being a member of one of the human institutions that globally operate in and around His name. Because of this, I have carefully avoided getting involved in said institutions, organizations, or denominations. My journey has led me to worship in and serve among local gatherings of Jesus’ followers from a broad range of institutional persuasions. I’ve always landed where I was led and where I was welcome. In every one, no matter what the denominational persuasion, I observed these common elements:

Distant human “authorities” who were ignorant and out-of-touch with the local believers. In many cases, the “leaders” of the institution were academic, professional administrators whose personal beliefs were opposite of the grassroots people over whom they claimed authority.

Individuals who care more about denominational legalities than being a follower of Jesus. At least three times in my life journey I was hired by a local church to serve in a pastoral capacity only to have a well-meaning legalist blow a gasket a year later when it was realized that I didn’t jump through the hoops to “officially” become a member of the church who hired me to lead them. In one case, a congregational meeting had to be called for me to request that the church I was leading accept me as a member and have a congregational vote as to whether they would accept me as a member. I’m glad to say I passed the test. What a waste of time.

I realize that I’m on a bit of a rant here, but as I read Jesus’ teaching in today’s chapter I find Jesus on a similar rant. First He speaks of those who hypocritically judge others. He then cuts through all the religious red tape of His own religion and sums up all of the Law and teaching of the Prophets in one golden rule: “Do to others what you would have them do to you.”

Next, Jesus makes the rather audacious statement: “the gate that leads to Life is small, the road that leads to Life is narrow, and few people find it.” Every time I read this statement I ponder the possibility that one can be a “member” of a church and completely miss the gate and road that Jesus said leads to Life. I then wonder how many of the millions of church members around the globe never find the gate.

Jesus then warns His followers regarding false prophets who have all the trappings of being good religious people but who have completely self-seeking motives. He tells His followers to be wise and discerning. What kind of spiritual fruit do their lives produce? Elsewhere Jesus will teach that what’s inside a person eventually comes out.

Jesus wraps up his message on the hill by creating a contrast between those who are true followers and those who are false followers. The simple difference? True followers hear Jesus’ words and put His teachings into practice in their everyday lives. The false followers call Him “Lord,” they go to church, they do their religious duties, and they hear His words. Then they leave church and ignore His teaching in their everyday lives and relationships.

In a bit of synchronicity, I left this morning’s post half-finished in order to go downstairs and have breakfast with Wendy. She read me this devotional thought from Richard Rohr:

“We have often substituted being literal with being serious and they are not the same! Literalism is the lowest and least level of meaning in a spiritual text. Willful people use Scripture literally when it serves their purposes and they use it figuratively when it gets in the way of their cultural biases. Willing people let the Scriptures change them instead of using them to change others.”

In the quiet this morning, I’m taking a good, hard look at my own spiritual journey and my own heart and life. I have willfully chosen to avoid entanglements in human religious institutions and have purposed to willingly allow Jesus’ teachings to continually change the way I think, speak, act, and relate to others in my own circles of influence. I’m definitely not perfect. I have no justification for judging others no matter what I might observe. My sole responsibility as a follower of Jesus is to hear His words “and put them into practice.”

God, help me to do so again this day. Thanks, in advance, for your forgiveness. May I be equally forgiving of those who offend me, just as you have asked me to do.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Stupid Question (Or Not)

Stupid Question (or Not) (CaD John 5) Wayfarer

When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”
John 5:6 (NIV)

Thirty-seven years he’s been an invalid. His family carried him to the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem and dropped him off to chill with all the other handicapped people.

Archaeologists have identified the place. I’ve been there. Historians tell us that the handicapped would often congregate around pools and springs in ancient times. Gentile shrines of that day, dedicated to Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, often contained pools. The pool of Bethesda was said to have had healing properties. It was believed that when the water in the pool appeared to have been “stirred by an angel” the first person into the water would be healed. Archaeologists say the pool was roughly the size of a football field. Imagine how many handicapped and lame people would be along side waiting for an angel to stir the water. Besides, it was the Passover, and hundreds of thousands of spiritual pilgrims were in the city that week.

There he sat on his mat in the crowd, as he had been doing every day for…how many years? I have to believe he knew the regulars. They were his homies, his posse, the other “broken” people who were a drain on their families and society in general. The lame, paralyzed, blind, deaf, and dumb masses had all been told that something was wrong with them. Not just physically, but spiritually.

“You must have sinned.”
“Your parents must have sinned.”
“Bad seed.”
“Cursed by God.”

So they would gather and wait for Gabriel to stir the drink. Had anyone really ever been healed by dropping in the drink when they spied a ripple? What if they couldn’t swim? Archaeologists say the pool was 20 feet deep. Are you really going to throw yourself in to drown? I don’t think there was a lifeguard.

Into this scene walks Jesus. He’s still relatively unknown in Jerusalem, especially among the masses of Passover pilgrims. He walks up to the man and asks…

“Do you want to get well?”

On the surface, it appears a stupid question to ask a handicapped person.

The further I’ve progressed in my Life journey the more I’ve come to appreciate the endless depth of that question.

“Do you want to get well?” Because being handicapped has become your identity. These are your people. This pool is your home. Do you really want to leave the only life you’ve known for almost 40 years?

“Do you want to get well?” Because being handicapped has made you special all these years. No pressure to provide. Everyone is required to care for you. Do you really want to go back to being just another regular schmo like the minions who pass by the pool and pretend not to see you every day?

“Do you want to get well?” Because the moment you step back in your family’s house they will say, “You’ve got to get a job tomorrow morning and start contributing instead of taking from the family all these years.” Seriously, do you want to labor every day in the quarry with your brothers, or would you rather just hang here with your homies?

“Do you want to get well?” Because there’s all sorts of passive aggressive power in playing the victim card.

“Do you want to get well?” Because being an oppressed minority can be an addictively powerful drug that justifies all sorts of nasty thoughts, feelings, words, and behaviors.

“Do you want to get well?” Because it’s really more comfortable to remain as you are rather than face the challenge of becoming the healthy, true self God is asking you to be.

Perhaps it’s not such a stupid question after all. Perhaps this is the question I should ask myself in all the stubbornly broken places of my own life.

Jesus heals the man. Reaching down to give the man a hand, Jesus says, “Pick up your mat and walk.” Jesus lifts the man to stand on suddenly sturdy legs, then slips anonymously into the bustling crowd of passover pilgrims.

The man is immediately condemned by the religious leaders for breaking code 356, paragraph 6, sub-section 2, line 8 of the religious law book: Carrying your mat on the sabbath “day of rest.”

I mulled that over in the quiet this morning. The religious rule-keepers are suffering from a very different sickness and paralysis of Spirit. It is, nevertheless, very real. Completely ignoring the miraculous power that has been displayed and the life-changing event that the man has experienced, they squint their beady little self-righteous eyes to pick at a minor infraction of their fundamentalist rule-book.

I’ve observed along my own journey individuals and groups with this same spiritual illness.

“Do you want to get well?”

In the quiet this morning, I’m considering the possibility that I know more people who would answer the question with either “No,” or “But, I’m not sick” than the number of those I know who would sincerely answer, “Yes, I do.”

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

The Contrast

The Contrast (CaD Mk 7) Wayfarer

“Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.”
Mark 7:18-19 (NIV)

When I was a young man, I spent a short period of time working in a county office building where I participated in the the legal investigation and documentation of real estate transactions. I did it for less than a year, but it was an eye opening experience. I observed and learned how government worked under the control of a political machine. I observed and learned how people use the letter of the law to circumvent the spirit of the law to achieve their own selfish ends. I learned and observed how people try to use real estate to con others, and once or twice I actually caught people doing it. It was a crash-course in “how the world works.”

In yesterday’s post/podcast I mentioned that it’s easy to get stuck looking at the text with a microscope while ignoring the bigger picture. I can lose the forest in the trees, as the old saying goes. In today’s chapter, what resonated most with me was, once again, not mired in the minutia of Jesus words, but the larger context of what is happening in the story.

Jesus ministry, at this point, has taken place in the rural backwaters of Judea. If I were to use the United States for context, I would say that Jesus has been spending all of his time and energy in fly-over country while avoiding both coasts. All of the miracles, crowds, and exorcisms have Jesus trending off the charts and the establishment powers-that-be have begun to notice. Since the beginning of time, power-brokers at the top of the political, commercial, and religious establishments have known to ceaselessly look for any threat to the stability of their power and the continuity of their cashflow.

I found Mark’s observation fascinating:

“Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it.”

The more they talk about it, the more of a potential threat Jesus becomes to the religious powers-that-be. In the beginning of today’s chapter, Mark notes that an entourage of political and religious leaders from Jerusalem come to see for themselves what the hub-bub is all about. They are big fish coming to the small pond of Galilee, but along the blue-collar shores of Galilee they are not in their own environment while Jesus is definitely in His.

The Jerusalem entourage are here to find ways to discredit this threat to their control on the religious institution and the lives of all who adhere to it. They quickly call Jesus out for not washing his hands before supper, which the establishment long ago elevated onto the checklist of religious rituals and behaviors they used to maintain their self-righteous judgement of who is naughty-or-nice, who is in-or-out.

Jesus response resonated with me because He calls them out on a point of legal order. Nowhere in the Ten Commandments or the laws of Moses was ritual hand washing a thing. The religious-types, over time, had created rules that were part of legal codes which codified and expanded the interpretation of the original spiritual principle. Jesus turns this into a very simple illustration that gets to the core of the difference between His teaching and that of the institutional human religious establishment.

The religious leaders made a spectacle of their ritual hand-washing before meals to show how pious and righteous they were. Jesus quickly points out that at the same time these same religious leaders had used the letter of the law to allow children to avoid the obligation of adult children to care for their elderly parents. They allowed people to bring “offerings” as a charitable donation to the religious establishment which would otherwise have been the money needed to pay for their parents needs. They then declare a form of bankruptcy as to escape their financial obligation to their elderly parents with the absolution of the religious institution who benefitted handsomely for it.

This is a version of what I observed and learned in the county office building when I was a young men. This is how the Kingdoms of this World work.

Jesus’ response was a simple word picture. Along with hand-washing, the power-brokers from Jerusalem also had many dietary restrictions which also fell into the category of religious rule-keeping. Jesus’ observation is so simple. Food, he says, goes in the mouth, through the stomach, and out the other end. Whether eaten with ritually cleansed hands or dirty hands, the food never passes through the heart.

From a spiritual perspective, the distinction is essential, Jesus says:

“It’s what comes out of a person that pollutes: obscenities, lusts, thefts, murders, adulteries, greed, depravity, deceptive dealings, carousing, mean looks, slander, arrogance, foolishness—all these are vomit from the heart. There is the source of your pollution.” Mark 7: 20-23 (MSG)

The entourage will return to Jerusalem. Their dossier on Jesus will speak of a popular teacher among the poor and simple masses who follow Him in throngs, hang on His every word, and are won-over by His miracles. He will be labeled an enemy of the institution. He threatens the stability of their power, their control over the masses, and ultimately the stream of cashflow from their religious racket. We are still a couple of years away from this religio-political machine condemning Jesus and conspiring to hang Him on a cross, but the pieces are already moving on the chess board.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself once again inspired by Jesus. The more I read the story, and read His teachings, the more I see the contrast between the heart-principles of the Kingdom of God and the religious rule keeping of the institutions of this world. I am compelled to continue following the former with all my heart while exposing the latter for what it is. In other words, I want to be more and more like Jesus while shunning the religious institutions and establishments who point to their moral codes and religious rules and say, “this is what Jesus meant.”

I believe that humans will perpetually turn eternal Truth into earthly rules and religious systems. C’est la vie. It’s part of the fabric of a fallen world in this Great Story.

Nevertheless, I get to choose every day which I follow.

“Hang on Jesus. I’m lacing up my shoes for another day. I’m right behind you. Where are we headed?”