Tag Archives: Religion

“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?”

A Different Playbook

A Different Playbook (CaD Mk 3) Wayfarer

Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.
Mark 3:6 (NIV)

As a student of history, I’ve observed that much of history is about those in power, how they came to power, how their power was threatened or taken away. It always makes for a good story, as Shakespeare well knew. The Bard mined a lot of historical leaders and events to write plays that are still being ceaselessly produced today.

One of the themes that runs through both history and our classic literature is that of holding on to power. I find it to be a very human thing. Once I have power, I don’t want to let go of it. This is not just true of politicians who rig the system to ensure they remain in control, or business leaders who cling to their corner office, but it’s also true of parenting. For almost two decades I am essentially ruler and lord with total authority over this child. Then I’m suddenly supposed to just “let go” of my power and authority and let her run her own life when she might make some crazy life decision? Yikes!

As I read today’s chapter, I couldn’t help but see the continued development of conflict that Mark is revealing in the text. Those representatives of the powerful religious institution who were indignant with Jesus’ teaching in yesterday’s chapter, are finding Jesus to be a growing threat to their power in today’s chapter.

Jesus’ popularity is rising off of the charts. His name is trending throughout the region, even in Jerusalem where the earthly powers of politics, commerce, and religion reign. Crowds are traveling to Galilee to see this rising star. And the people who are flocking to Him are the crowds, the masses, commoners, the sick, the poor, the simpletons in fly-over country, the deplorables.

The stakes have grown. The power brokers and their minions are no longer just watching, they are plotting:

“Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus…” (vs. 2)

Once again, Jesus thwarts their monopolistic, religious control by healing someone on the Sabbath. The crowds are cheering. This Nazarene upstart could turn the crowds against them. Mobs, protests, and violence in the streets could be the result, and that’s a threat to our power. Something must be done, and Mark tells us that something interesting happens:

“Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.” (vs. 6)

The Pharisees were religious power brokers who publicly condemned the Roman Empire who was in control of the region. The Herodians (followers of local King Herod) were local political power brokers who did business with Rome in order to get lucrative Roman contracts and Roman authority to wield local political control. These two groups publicly hated one another, and in the media they had nothing good to say about one another. However, history reveals time and time again that in the playbook of the Kingdoms of this World “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Welcome to the smoke-filled back room. Have a seat. We’re just getting started. What are we to do with this “Jesus problem?”

Jesus, meanwhile, has other problems. The crowds are pressing in to the point of almost being out of control. The line of people wanting to be healed is endless. They’re coming from all over. Where are all these people going to stay? What are they going to eat? The locals are complaining about their quiet little towns being overrun with foreigners. The markets are sold out of everything!

And then Jesus’ own mother and brothers show up. They’re scared. Jesus is making powerful enemies. They are feeling the pressure themselves. Is it possible that an elder from the local synagogue was urged by higher-ups to pay Mary a friendly visit? I can imagine it…

“Mary, this isn’t good. Your boy has a good heart. I know he means well, but he’s going to get himself in big trouble with the Sanhedrin, with Herodians, and you don’t want the Romans to get involved. This could look really bad for your family. You’re a widow. Jesus is your oldest boy. He’s responsible to take care of you and instead he’s running around creating trouble for you and your family. We think it best that you talk to him. Be a good mother. Talk some sense into your boy.”

When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” (vs. 21)

Next comes the spin campaign, and those in power know how to spin a narrative. It doesn’t have to be true. It just has to come from a seemingly “reliable” and authoritative source. It has be sensational, it has to be easily repeatable, and it has to create fear and doubt in the minds of the public.

 And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.” (vs. 22)

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking that the more things change, the more they stay the same in the Kingdoms of this World and their playbook.

And Jesus’ response to all this? He sticks to His core message: “The Kingdom of God is here, and it’s not like the Kingdoms of this world”. He continues to heal, He feeds, He tells stories, and He escapes the crowds to be alone for periods of time. He refuses to bow to pressure from the envoys of worldly power. He even refuses to bow to pressure from his own mother.

Poor Mary. It’s hard to let go of authority of your adult child when He can make crazy life decisions that affect the whole family. I think it’s lovely that as Jesus hung on the cross one of the last things He did was to see to it that His friend John would care for His earthly mother.

The further I get on my own life journey, I find myself seeing the Kingdoms of this World with greater clarity on all levels. As that happens, I hear the Spirit calling me to understand that being an Ambassador of the Kingdom of God on earth means living in the World, but following a different playbook.

The Great Conflict

The Great Conflict (CaD Mk 2) Wayfarer

Then [Jesus] said to [the Pharisees], “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
Mark 2:27-28 (NIV)

The Great Story, on the macro level, is a story of good and evil. It’s a grand conflict over humanity and creation. Along my journey, I’ve observed that it’s easy to lose sight of this. In my inescapable, fallen human nature I like to make everything, especially the things of God, all about me. Jesus’ taught that I have to crucify that notion.

This doesn’t mean that I, and my life, are insignificant by any means. Jesus made that clear in His teachings as well. The numbers of hair on my head are intimately known, as are the number of my days on this earthly journey, as are my anxieties and cares. It’s such a mind-blowing thing to discover; The Great Story is both/and epic and personal, macro and micro, eternal and momentary.

A few weeks ago I delivered the Good Friday message among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. In that message I laid out how Jesus six trials and crucifixion were a spiritual conflict between the Kingdom of God and the Prince of this World and his Kingdoms of this World representing their three pillars of power: politics, commerce, and religion.

Mark’s biography of Jesus introduces this epic story right away in chapter one as Jesus’ earthly ministry begins. Jesus is sent by Holy Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the “Prince of this World” just as he tempted Adam and Eve and started the whole grand conflict. The Prince of this World offers Jesus the Kingdoms of this World, which are his to give, if only Jesus will bow down and worship him. Jesus could have it all: human governments from the United States to Russia and China, with the United Nations thrown it to boot. Jesus could have the Dow Jones 100, Amazon, Apple, and the athletic franchises that rack up billions. He could have the media and the power to manipulate the masses. He could have all of human religion from atheism to the Vatican with which to dictate His will and desires with top-down authority.

Jesus passes on the offer. The epic story continues.

In today’s chapter, the conflict continues as the Prince of this World begins to position his pieces on the chess board. Mark gives us four episodes in Jesus’ early ministry. In all four, there is a conflict between Jesus’ actions/teaching, and representatives of the institutional religion that had taken over God’s people.

Jesus forgave a man’s sins.

The religious institution said only God could forgive sins. Institutions of this world like to control all power, even the spiritual power of forgiveness.

Jesus hangs out with tax collectors like Matthew and his sinful friends.

This antagonizes the religious institution who carefully control their adherents with strict moral codes and rules about who is “in” and who is “out.” To break these rules threatens their hold over people.

Jesus and his followers choose not to observe certain religious staples like fasting.

Traditions, especially traditional religious rituals, are yet another essential part of determining a religious pecking order. Both the institutional religious power brokers, and faithful adherents like John’s disciples, are confused. Jesus is not following the playbook of tradition.

Jesus and His disciples appear to blatantly break one of God’s Top-Ten rules given through Moses. They “work” on the Sabbath day of rest by picking some heads of grain to snack on as they walk through a field.

The leaders of religious institution are appalled. The institutions of religion tend to make rules to codify previous rules which were put in place by earlier generations to ensure the original rule is followed. This is how a convenient pecking order of religious and righteous is maintained.

As I read the chapter this morning, I see that on the macro level, Mark is telling us that the pieces are quickly moving into place on the chess board. The middle game and end game are already determined for those who have eyes to see it. Jesus will continue to teach about a kingdom that is not of this world in which individuals are forgiven and spiritually free from the shackles of this world’s pillars of power. Jesus will teach of an eternal kingdom in which any individual, having experienced the love and forgiveness of God’s Kingdom, will be motivated by that love spread eternal love and forgiveness wherever they go. Having failed to tempt Jesus into the sweet deal of earthly power, the Prince of this World will use all of the institutions of this world he controls, starting with the institution of religion, to make the Son of God suffer the ultimate earthly penalty Himself: death.

In the quiet, I find myself contemplating my own personal relationship with Jesus in light of the Great Story on the macro level. I’m thinking about Jesus’ call to be an ambassador of His kingdom on earth. I find my heart and mind doing a self-evaluation based on Jesus’ example in the first two chapters of Mark:

  • Am I choosing to pass on what the world feeds me, offers me, and tells me is valuable and worthwhile? Or am I living like the world tells me and dressing it up with a religious costume?
  • Am I forgiving others as I have been forgiven, or am I holding grudges, prejudices, and judgment because of the power it makes me feel?
  • Am I seeking out spiritual disciplines that help me be more like Jesus, or am I mindlessly following religious rituals because it’s expected of me by a religious authority or institution?
  • Am I choosing to live in the spiritual freedom Jesus taught and exemplified, or am I choosing religious rule-keeping of my local religious institutions’ brand of self-righteous pecking order?

Lord, help me live out my citizenship of your eternal kingdom on this earth today by fully living the the former on each of these four questions.

Have a great week, my friend.

Just Breathe

Just Breathe (CaD Ps 150) Wayfarer

Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
Psalm 150:6 (NIV)

With today’s chapter, Psalm 150, this chapter-a-day journey through all 150 chapters of the anthology of ancient Hebrew song lyrics is complete. The editors of the compilation chose a short, powerful song of praise for the final refrain. Some scholars believe that it may have been composed for this purpose. In the original Hebrew language, “Praise the LORD” is “Hallelu Ya.” Thus, we end the journey with a shout of “Hallelujah!” and a call for “everything that has breath” to join in the chorus.

Among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers we have a very active team of people who are committed to the spiritual discipline of prayer. They do a great job of teaching others, myself included, in ways to develop our spiritual muscle in this essential practice.

A few years ago, I learned from our prayer team a simple technique that transforms my natural rhythm of breathing into a repeated prayer. One phrase is repeated with every inhale, and another phrase is repeated on every exhale. I have personally found this helpful when I am trying to quiet myself from stress or anxiety and when I am preparing my heart to enter into corporate worship.

As for the specific phrases used, the options are endless, but I have found that certain familiar lines from Jesus teaching and the Great Story that I have particularly helpful…

Inhale: “Come to me you who are weary”
Exhale: “I will give your soul rest.”

Inhale: “Cast all my anxieties on Him.”
Exhale: “He cares for me.”

Inhale: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty”
Exhale: “Who was, and is, and is to come. The whole earth is full of His glory
(This one helps me breathe deeply! 🙂 )

Inhale: “Let everything that has breath”
Exhale: “Praise the LORD.”

In the quiet this morning, I find myself reflecting on my spiritual journey. As a child I was taught religion, in which empty rituals were carried out as part of a transactional process. I did the religious things in an effort to counter-balance my human failures with religious duties in the hope of earning God’s favor. After entering into a relationship with Jesus, I came to learn that the Spirit connects and holds all things together. It made all the empty religious ritual even more impotent while, at the same time, a whole knew world of possibility opened up to me. I discovered that connection with the God of creation is as simple and profound as breathing.

Just breathe.

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

About Knowing

About Knowing (CaD Ps 141) Wayfarer

But my eyes are fixed on you, Sovereign Lord…
Psalm 141:8a (NIV)

When I was a child, I went through all of the religious rituals associated with the church to which my family were members. My parents had me baptized as an infant. I attended Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. I sang in the children’s choir. I participated in, and volunteered to help with, social activities hosted by the church (including the annual “Christmas bazaar” which I remember being a really big deal in my little kid perception). When I was thirteen, I attended confirmation classes and learned what the church believed. I took the test, agreed to accept the terms of membership, and then received my certificate and my own personal box of offering envelopes.

What I came to realize a year or two later was that all of the ritual, participation, knowledge and cognitive assent to a belief statement had relatively little effect on my motives, my thoughts, my words, or my actions. Knowing about Jesus was not the same as knowing Jesus and being in relationship.

That contrast came to heart and mind in the quiet this morning as I meditated on the text of today’s chapter, Psalm 141. There is little doubt that the editors who compiled the anthology of ancient Hebrew song lyrics, that we know as the book of Psalms, were deliberate in putting Psalms 140 and 141 next to each other. They bookend each other well. Both are ascribed to David and both of them feature a lot of physiological metaphors. The biggest contrast is that Psalm 140 uses the physiological metaphors to describe an unrighteous person:

  • stir up war in their hearts
  • sharpen their tongues
  • poison on their lips
  • hands of the wicked

Psalm 141, uses physiological metaphors to describe a righteous person:

  • a heart that refuses evil
  • hands lifted in worship
  • a guard on one’s mouth
  • a door on the lips
  • a head that receives accountability
  • eyes fixed on God

As I mulled over the contrasting descriptions, it reminded me of being a young man and realizing that having a membership certificate to my local church, knowledge of basic beliefs, and dutifully participating in ritual had not translated into making a difference in my self-centeredness, my selfish behavior, my relationships with others, my actions, or my words. I was a egotistical, selfish little prick much of the time. I knew that I could play a good game, but I was also really self-aware enough to know that there were ugly things at the core which needed to change. I knew about the things Psalm 141 describes, but an honest self-examination and moral inventory revealed a person more like what Psalm 140 describes.

So, about that time I stopped just knowing about Jesus, and I decided to seek to know and follow Jesus in a very different way. It’s definitely been a forty-year process and spiritual journey. In the quiet this morning I find myself mulling over the person I would be today had I not made that decision. I can only imagine a grown-up version of the young man with ugly things at the core. An arrogant, egocentric big prick with a sharp tongue, and a heart in turmoil.

I’m not perfect by any means, and I could point you to a person or two who I suspect might tell you I’m still an arrogant, egocentric prick. I have my ugly moments. But oh, how worse it would be had I not discovered the contrast between knowing about Jesus and knowing Him.

Division

Divison (CaD Ps 114) Wayfarer

Judah became God’s sanctuary,
    Israel his dominion.

Psalm 114:2 (NIV)

Along my journey, I have experienced discord and division among any number of groups to which I belonged. This includes family, churches, community organizations, and most recently, a nation.

When division happens, no matter the size or scope of that division, it creates so much relational mess in its wake. Suddenly, individuals who love one another find themselves on opposite sides of a topic or circumstance. Mental lines get drawn. Emotional trenches are dug. A relational no man’s land grows between, and neither party feels very much like being the one to crawl out of the trench and initiating the crossing of no man’s land.

It’s hard.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 114, is the second in a series of Ancient Hebrew songs known as the Hallel, which is sung each year at the Passover feast which celebrates God’s deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. Like yesterday’s psalm, it is sung before the Passover meal. In eight simple verses, the song overviews the major events of their exodus out of Egypt, through the wilderness, and into the promised land. As yesterday’s chapter was metaphorically the “call to praise” of the Passover feast, today’s chapter is, metaphorically, a prologue that overviews the journey participants will take through the feast.

What struck me the most as I read this morning was the second verse:

Judah became God’s sanctuary,
    Israel his dominion.

Casual readers are likely to miss the weight of this verse for the ancient Hebrews who sang it back in the day. Scholars say that the song was penned during a period in Hebrew history known as “the divided monarchy.” The twelve tribes of Israel were divided into two nations. Two tribes, led by Judah, became the southern nation of Judah with Jerusalem as its’ capital. The other ten tribes joined into the northern nation of Israel. There was perpetual discord, division, and civil war between the two.

As with any event of human discord and division, there was the drawing of mental lines, digging of emotional trenches, and the development of relational no-mans-lands.

The Passover feast, to which all good Hebrews were expected to attend and participate in was held in Jerusalem at Solomon’s temple in the capital city of Judah. This meant that the faithful who lived in the northern nation of Israel had to cross no-mans-land. I can only imagine the relational tension that existed in the city on that week each year. A festival that was meant to unite the people in remembrance of the unifying event of their national identity became a political and religious powder keg. I can’t help but feel an acute identification with that reality in light of my own nation’s recent events.

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking back to those divisions which I have experienced and which dot the timeline of my life as painful waypoints on my journey. Given time, I’m glad to say that I’ve experienced relational healing and reconciliation in certain relationships. In others, the relational division led to separate paths that I don’t expect to converge on this side of eternity. In yet others, I have made attempts to cross the emotional no-mans-land only to be greeted with an emotional fence of barbed wire. I must also confess that there are yet other circumstances in which I would say that I desire there to be reconciliation, but that desire has not led to my willingness to initiate a crossing of no-mans-land. Those are the ones that lay heavy on my spirit this morning.

I find it ironic that my chapter-a-day journey happens upon the Passover Hallel on this week when followers of Jesus begin the annual spiritual pilgrimage with Jesus to Jerusalem, to crucifixion, and to resurrection. The final, climactic events of Jesus’ earthly life happened during the week of Passover. Followers of Jesus see the two events as spiritually akin. Moses led the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt to the promised land. Jesus led any who will follow out of bondage to sin, through the wilderness of this earthly journey, to an eternal promised land.

It’s also ironic that today happens to be known as Ash Wednesday, which it the opening event of the season follower call Lent. It’s the day we are called to Spirit mode to embark on a spiritual journey of remembrance with Jesus to the cross. Just like yesterday’s chapter and today’s chapter called the Hebrews to the spiritual journey of remembrance with Moses to the promised land. (By the way, I didn’t plan this!)

I find myself answering the call to that annual journey this morning in the quiet of my office. I find myself thinking about those relationships on the other side of no-mans-land. Holy Spirit whispers the words of Jesus to my spirit:

“This is how I want you to conduct yourself in these matters. If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God.”

My Inmost Being

My Inmost Being (CaD Ps 103) Wayfarer

Praise the Lord, my soul;
    all my inmost being, praise his holy name.

Psalm 103:1 (NIV)

In a few weeks, I will mark a milestone in my spiritual journey. It was a frigidly cold February night in 1981 when I decided to become a follower of Jesus. It’s been forty years.

The number 40 is significant in the Great Story. It is the number of trial, testing, and ordeal:

Noah’s flood resulted from 40 days of rain.

Moses lived 40 years in Egypt, then led the Hebrews through the wilderness for 40 years.

Jesus was in the wilderness 40 days being tempted by the Evil One.

The resurrected Jesus appeared to his followers over a 40 day period before ascending to Heaven.

Ezekiel laid on his side for 40 days as a word picture of the sins of the kingdom of Judah.

Elijah fasted for 40 days on Mount Horeb.

So, I’ve found myself meditating on my spiritual journey of late as I mark the milestone. I had been raised going to church as a child, but the experience for me was largely about ritual. It was something I did because it was what my family did each week. It’s not to say that it wasn’t without its lessons and benefits, but it was largely a weekly physical routine and family ritual to be endured. After completing my confirmation coursework at the age of 13 my parents told me that I could decide on my own if I wanted to go to church or not. So, I stopped going.

What happened a couple of years later on that cold February night was something completely different than anything I’d ever experienced. It was not a religious ritual or physical routine. It was something that happened in my inmost being. I opened my spirit and invited Jesus to come in. I made a spirit decision to surrender myself to following Jesus, whatever that might mean. Something was spiritually birthed in me that is still growing 40 years later.

Jesus gave His followers a word picture about the most religious people of His day. He said that religion was an ornate marble crypt you might see in your local cemetery. It looks beautiful, majestic, and expensive from the outside as you’re driving by, but if you step inside the crypt you’ll only find darkness, cobwebs, and decomposing bones.

If find that a really accurate description of my spiritual experience before that February night forty years ago. I physically went through religious rituals. I mentally considered the things I was taught. I took a class, learned what was required to take a test, and got a piece of paper telling me I was now a member of the institution. Yet, there was no spiritual change.

In today’s chapter, Psalm 103, King David pens the lyrics to a really beautiful song of praise to God. When David was still a kid, God called him “a man after my own heart” and Psalm 103 is a testimony to the intimate Spirit relationship David experienced.

In the very first verse David says that it praise comes from his soul. The Hebrew word he uses there (nepes) alludes to “breath” or the “essence” and “life force.” He then states that his “inmost being” (the Hebrew word is qereb) praises. This word alludes to the intimate interior of the heart that is the seat of thought and emotion. In other words, David is not calling his listeners to trek to church each Sunday and go through the ritualistic motions. This is David, who once got so intense in his worshp that he peeled down to his tighty-whities as he danced and publicly embarrassed his wife. David is calling his listener to an experiential rendevouz with the Creator. He is calling for an all-out ecstatic expression that comes from the depths of one’s soul. A personal exhale of life force in a euphoric song and dance with the divine.

In the quiet this morning, I find my spirit stirred by David’s spirit and the words it motivated in his lyrics. Dude, I get it. It isn’t about empty religious ritual and rote mental and physical machinations. That’s just a crypt. It’s about that which is spiritually alive in me that has to get out. It’s what the prophet Jeremiah described: a fire shut-up in my bones. It’s that life that was birthed in my inmost being forty years ago. I look back from 40 years further down life’s road and find that it only grows stronger within me, even as my body grows slowly weaker.