Tag Archives: Religiosity

Hats, Fasting, and a Couple of Important Questions

“Ask all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted?”
Zechariah 7: 5 (NIV)

Yesterday I had the privilege of leading our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. I was kicking off a series of messages on Paul’s letter to the believers in Corinth. And so, I’ve been mired in studying the letter and the situation in Corinth around 55 A.D.  One of the themes that bubbles to the surface over and over again are instructions that Paul gave which are rooted in contemporary Corinthian culture. Other instructions are universal to human culture in all times.

I find myself asking, “What instructions were for the Corinthian believers at that time (that don’t fit our current realities)? What instructions may speak to me in 2018 (that the Corinthians couldn’t fathom almost 2000 years ago)? What instruction are ours (they apply to anyone, at any time, in any culture)?”

For example, one set of instructions is about covering your head. In first century Corinth there were layers of meaning in the cultural and religious aspects of whether you covered your head and when. Some of it came from Jewish law and tradition (which the Greek believers probably thought silly) and some of it was the practical differentiation of woman broadcasting in publicly that she was not one of Aphrodite’s temple priestess-prostitutes.

The truth of the matter is that until a generation or so ago, the tradition of women covering their heads in church and men removing their caps/hats was still a big thing culturally. The local Costume Shop has hundreds and hundreds of gorgeous women’s hats with cute little veils that locals have donated over the years (see featured photo). There was a time just a few decades ago when a woman would not go to church without a hat on. Today, in our culture, if a woman does so it’s simply a fashionable novelty.

Likewise, my dad and I have a good-natured, on-going feud when we’re gathered for family meals and it’s time to pray and eat. My dad gives me grief if I have a cap on. I have never been able to discern a good reason for having to remove my hat when the family is  informally ordering a pizza and watching the game. I joke with my dad that it’s actually more sanitary if I keep my cap on. He always wins the argument on his authority and my respect, but I’ve still never heard a good reason.

The bottom-line question is: “Why (or why not) are we doing this?”

That was the exact question God had for the prophet Zechariah. Zechariah and company inquired of the Lord whether they should continue to observe traditional months of fasting. God replied, “Why are you fasting?” God then goes on to point out that what Zac and the boys are not doing are things like being just, showing compassion to people who are different, looking out for the needs of orphans, widows, and the oppressed. The implied question God is asking as I read between the lines is this: “Why would I care if you self-righteously starve yourself in some public display of your religiosity when you’re missing the heart of what I desire from you — to love others as you love yourself?”

Good question, and a good question for those of us who claim to follow Jesus and have wrapped ourselves in religious traditions of all kinds over the years.

“What does God care about? What, therefore, should I really care about? What in my religious practices, rituals, and cultural rules do I make a higher priority than the things God truly cares about?

A Spirit of the Law Kinda Guy

Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.”
John 9:16a (NRSV)

In the creation poem at the beginning of the Great Story lies an interesting detail. The universe is created in six days, and then the Artist takes a day off and rests. The ancient Hebrew word for this day of rest, transliterated into English, is “Sabbath.” When God eventually hands down the Top Ten Rules for society to Moses, this day of rest makes its way on the list.

The spirit of the law is easy to understand. We all need rest. A margin in life that roughly measures .143. Take a break. Stop the labor. Take a deep breath. Take a nap. Recharge. Refresh your mind and spirit by doing something different than you’ve done all week. Connect with God. Connect with loved ones. Laugh. Love. Converse. Feast. Worship. Ponder. Re-Create the Creator’s example.

Along this life journey I have observed that it is part of the human condition to take a rule of Spirit and strain it into human legal code, interpreted into volumes of contractual minutiae. And, that’s exactly  what happened over time with God’s rule of rest. A rule designed to foster Life and health became a religious quagmire of black and white thinking. Life-giving rest gave way to Life-sucking religious rules.

I find it fascinating that the more the religious leaders complained about Jesus healing people on the Sabbath day, the more He seemed to do it. It had been one of the sticking points that they had with Jesus since the beginning of His ministry. Jesus continued to “break the law” by healing people on the Sabbath which went against Volume 3, Chapter 9, Paragraph 2, Section (B), Sub-section (c), Line 4 of their multi-volume legal code on keeping the Sabbath. And so, Jesus kept sticking it in their eye by healing people on the Sabbath again and again. I offer you the blind man in today’s chapter as exhibit A.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. I live in a community that was founded on, and is steeped in, religious Christianity. For generations our community had its own multi-volume set of legal code on Sabbath keeping. In our local fellowship of Jesus’ followers it was referenced just this past Sunday. As I said, it seems to be part of the human condition.

As a follower of Jesus, I find myself increasingly inclined to follow Jesus’ example. I once was more of a letter of the law kind of guy. Maybe, with age, my eyes are tired of trying to read all the fine print and keep it straight. Or, maybe I’m actually still growing in Spirit. I like to think it’s the latter. I’ve become more of a Spirit of the law kind of guy with regard to rules of Spirit. (Plus, I kinda like occasionally sticking it in the eye of religious legalists)

 

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featured image by mrtindc via Flickr

 

Shift Focus

Shift FocusDo not gloat over me, my enemy!
    Though I have fallen, I will rise.
Though I sit in darkness,
    the Lord will be my light.
Because I have sinned against him,
    I will bear the Lord’s wrath,
until he pleads my case
    and upholds my cause.
He will bring me out into the light;
    I will see his righteousness.
Micah 7:8-9 (NIV)

As a person in leadership, I am aware that I often stand in a public spotlight. As a person who doesn’t exactly hide my faith, I am equally aware that people are going to weigh my words and watch my actions. I long ago gave up trying to be the person I suspected everyone else wanted me to be. I am quite sure that I have given plenty of evidence for any who wishes to accuse me of hypocrisy. I am painfully aware of my mistakes and shortcomings.

My heart resonated with Micah’s verse this morning:

I have sinned…I will bear the Lord’s wrath.”

Guilty as charged. Perfect? By no means. Hypocrite? By all means; More often than I’d care to admit.

But then, Micah shifts focus:

until he pleads my case
    and upholds my cause.
He will bring me out into the light;
    I will see his righteousness.

Salvation is not in Micah being a better person. He doesn’t write: “until I attain moral perfection,” “until I become righteous,” or “until I become a better person.” Salvation is not in what I do, but what God does for me in spite of my flaws and my failures. Salvation in the Light of God’s righteousness. Jesus never said, “seek righteousness,” He said, “Seek HIS Kingdom and HIS righteousness.”

Today, I’m reminded that My hope is not in my human struggle for elusive moral perfection, but in having God step up be my Advocate despite my glaring imperfections.

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“Every Subject’s Soul is His Own”

church elders“Therefore, you Israelites, I will judge each of you according to your own ways, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall.” Ezekiel 18:30 (NIV)

This morning as I read today’s chapter I was reminded of a story shared with me by a man raised in a very conservative, religious family. In his youth, the man had been a real hellion, getting involved in all sorts of unhealthy behaviors and rebelliously acting out against his parents. Because of his rebellious reputation, the elders of the religiously constipated church paid weekly visits to his father, shaming him for not being able to control his son. In turn, the son seemed to carry a sense of guilt and shame for what he put his parents through.

In a land and culture of rugged individualism and personal freedom, I think it’s hard for most of us to fully grasp the social realities of living in a staunch, patriarchal society like that of Israel in Ezekiel’s day. While there are still pockets of it as in the example I shared, I think most of fail to fully appreciate how power, wealth, and position flowed from father to eldest son or male relative. From a societal perspective, shame and guilt was shared in the same way. A father’s shameful acts tainted the son’s reputation. A son’s shameful acts tainted the father’s reputation and ability to control his family.

I have observed that in these types of patriarchal sub-cultures the truths of God get easily and confusedly mixed up with the cultural rules and power plays of the local authority figures (family fathers, church elders, town council, secret cabals of local businessmen, and etc.). So it was in Ezekiel’s day, and in today’s chapter God attempts to set the record straight through Ezekiel.

A child is not guilty for the sins of his or her parent and a parent is not guilty for the sins of his or her rebellious child. Each person must stand in judgment before God for his or her own actions. Period.

Every subject’s duty is the King’s, but every subject’s soul is his own.”
– Shakespeare (Henry V, Act 4, Scene 1)

Today, I am thinking about ways I may have mindlessly allowed one person’s actions or reputation taint my feelings or actions towards that person’s other family members. And, I’m determining to change my way of thinking.

Chapter-a-Day 2 Peter 2

Poster by Mat Kelly

They promise freedom, but they themselves are slaves of sin and corruption. For you are a slave to whatever controls you. 2 Peter 2:19 (NLT)

This past Saturday night, Wendy and I went to see a new play performed at Central College. Dead Man’s Curve was adapted from the book Yellow Cab by Robert Leonard. Leonard, a former professor of anthropology at the University of New Mexico, shares his experiences of driving a Yellow Cab during the graveyard shift in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Through the play we are introduced to a wide variety of very real people with whom Mr. Leonard rubbed shoulders. He calls them “invisible people.” It was a fascinating ride. Days later, Wendy and I find ourselves continuing to talk about the people and stories to which we were exposed.

I thought about some of those people this morning as I read the chapter and particularly the verse above. Indeed, despite the promise of freedom, we are all slaves to those things which control us. It’s too easy to draw a dotted line from this truth to the common addictions of sex, drugs and alcohol. The more insidious truth I’ve come to believe is that there are far more people enslaved each day by socially acceptable appetites out of control like pride, hunger, control, greed, materialism, and even religiosity. Legalistic religiosity is simply the gluttonous indulgence of the human appetite for power and control. It is just the point Peter was trying to make in today’s chapter. That which promises freedom only creates a different version of slavery.

As we watched the play I was struck by the number of times drivers, who each had their own set of troubles and issues, acted out of love and compassion both for the needy and the foolish humans who happened into the backseat of their cab. Modern day Samaritans providing random acts of grace and kindness, often to those who didn’t really deserve it. Those acts of love are examples of the very essence of Jesus’ entire message. Freedom does not flow out of a license to do whatever we want, nor out of religious adherence to lists of rules meant to keep us away from doing what we shouldn’t. Freedom, Jesus said, flows out of the truth embodied when we obey the law of love He taught: To love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength; To love our neighbor as we love ourselves.