Tag Archives: Religious

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.

Showdown!

Showdown! (CaD John 8) Wayfarer

When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
John 8:12 (NIV)

“Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!”
John 8:58 (NIV)

When we left yesterday’s chapter of John’s biography of Jesus, Jesus was teaching and performing miracles at the Temple in Jerusalem during a national religious festival called the Feast of the Tabernacles. Jerusalem and the Temple were teeming with religious pilgrims in town for the festival. Jesus, His teaching, and His miracles are making a huge impression, and there are a myriads of opinions among the people about who Jesus is.

In today’s chapter, John shifts focus from the crowds and their popular opinions to the two leading players in the story: Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders. Today’s chapter is a showdown that has been building between Jesus and the religious institutional establishment, and it’s an important one in the story. Once again, identity is the theme of this showdown: “Who am I?” and “Who are you?”

I find this chapter to be a critical text in what it means to me to be a follower of Jesus. Jesus is an upstart and a maverick. Like Clint Eastwood in his spaghetti westerns, He seemingly shows up out of nowhere to challenge the institutional religious authority. I’ve learned along my life journey that institutions of every kind are about authority, hierarchy, and control. Institutions can be healthy human systems or very dysfunctional human systems, but in either case institutions balk at direct challenges that come from outside the system.

As this question of “who is Jesus” gets bandied about, there are two parties who have never wavered in their opinion. Jesus has claimed to be the Son of God who has come from the Father in heaven to bring God’s Kingdom to earth and salvation to anyone who believes, receives, follows, and obeys. The institutional religious authorities have pegged Jesus as a threat to their prestige and authority, an unknown firebrand who is wildly popular with the unruly poor masses, and a disruptor of their lucrative religious racket.

In this showdown, Jesus steadfastly proclaims and maintains His eternal nature (I came from my Father in heaven to do His will, and I am returning there when my mission is completed) and His condemnation of the religious leaders who have transformed the plan God gave through Moses into an institution that oppresses the poor and needy in order to feed the egos, bank accounts, and authority of the religious ruling class.

In this showdown, the religious leaders proclaim and maintain their authority. These authorities are all essentially lawyers, and they default to multiple legal arguments to condemn Jesus:

  • Objection: You don’t have two witnesses. (vs. 13)
  • Objection: You keep talking about your Father, but you can’t produce Him. (vs. 19)
  • Examination: They directly ask Jesus to say who He is in order to get it on record so as to build a legal case against His claim. (vs. 25)
  • Point-of-order: We’re descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves, so how are you going to “set us free.” (vs. 33)
  • Point-of-order: We are Abraham’s children, God’s chosen institutional authorities, and you are not. (vss 39, 41)
  • Verdict: You, Jesus, are a half-breed, racially inferior, and heretical Samaritan scum, and you’re demon possessed.

What’s fascinating is that Jesus bookends this public showdown with two fascinating claims:

Jesus starts by saying that He is the “Light of the World” which directly connects to John’s assertion in chapter one, that Jesus is the eternal agent of creation and when God said, “Let there be light” it was Jesus flipping the switch.

He ends the showdown by countering the religious leader’s authoritative claim to being Abraham’s children by stating “before Abraham was, I am.” That’s critically important because these lawyers all know that in Exodus chapter 3 God revealed Himself to Moses as “I Am.” In fact, they considered “I Am” as “He who must not be named” and it was strictly forbidden to utter the name “I Am.” Jesus ends the showdown with a bang by firing the claim to be the eternal “I Am” who existed before Abraham. He is essentially proclaiming Himself God, which is why His opponents “picked up stones to stone Him.”

In the quiet this morning I find myself confronted, once again, by John’s story. In relating this debate about Jesus’ identity, I can’t help but see the contrast of Jesus’ personal, relational connection to individuals outside the system and the authoritative, human, religious institution of the Jewish authorities.

I hear Jesus saying, “This is, and always has been, about a personal, eternal relationship into which each and every one is invited. These people have taken it and made it into just another kingdom of this world, and all the kingdoms of this world are ultimately powered by the prince of this world.”

Here are the questions my soul is asking this morning:

  • What kingdom(s) am I building on this earth journey?
  • Is my faith personal or institutional? How do I, and others, know the difference?
  • How can I be more like Jesus, and less like a card carrying member of an institution?

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

Cutting the Mustard

Cutting the Mustard (CaD Ps 15) Wayfarer

O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
    Who may dwell on your holy hill?

Psalm 15:1 (NRSVCE)

Acceptance.
Entrance.
Cutting the mustard.
Making the grade.
The keys to the kingdom.
The punched ticket.
The front of the line.

Along my life journey, I’ve observed a lot of mental and spiritual energy is devoted to who is in and who is out. In fact, I’ve known and spent time in religious groups whose applied theology comes down to intense behavior modification rooted in fear of social and spiritual rejection and ostracization.

Reading the song lyrics of today’s Psalm, I have to remind myself that in David’s day, the center of the sacrificial worship system set up by Moses (which we read about in the chapter-a-day journey through Exodus that we just completed) continued God’s traveling tent sanctuary that had been set up in various places but which David set on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. David’s dream was to construct a permanent temple structure. That dream would be ultimately fulfilled by his son, Solomon. Until then, the ol’ tent temple was used and people would have to ascend the hill where it resided to conduct their ritual sacrifices and offerings.

Today’s song reads like a moral check-list, and some scholars think it may have been used as some kind of liturgy of questions that those pilgrims wanting to enter the sanctuary area had to go through. In other words, “Do you cut the righteous mustard enough to gain entrance?”

In the chapter-a-day journey through Exodus, I was struck time-and-time-again by the ways in which Jesus and His teaching changed the paradigm. He brought a more mature understanding of Spirit and relationship with God. Jesus spoke out against the religious do-gooders and spent most of his time among the sinners who didn’t cut the righteous and religious mustard. He welcomed sinners ostracized by His Temple cohorts, preached repentance of the heart that leads to real change rather than social behavior modification which leads to suppression of our true spiritual selves, secret sins, and false fronts.

As Paul wrote to Jesus’ followers in Rome (Rom 2:4): God’s kindness is what leads to repentance. I’ve observed along the way is that we humans always want to go back to the “my moral purity leads to acceptance model.

But that doesn’t mean I completely dismiss the heart of what David is singing about in the lyrics of today’s psalm because there’s another important life lesson connected here. David goes through his checklist of righteous behaviors:

  • Do the right thing
  • Speak truth from your heart
  • Don’t slander others
  • Do right by others
  • Don’t pile on when others are beat-down
  • Honor God
  • Keep your promises
  • Be generous
  • Don’t take bribes.

He then ends with “those who do these things shall never be moved.” In other words, truly living the right way and doing the right things are the basis of a solid, unshakeable life. You sleep well at night. You aren’t sneaking around trying to get away with things. You aren’t secretly living in shame and the paranoid fear of being found out, nor are you trying to always stay one step ahead of religious checklist keepers and their bandwagon of public shame which is always warmed-up and ready to drive you out into the wilderness of scandal and rejection.

So, in the quiet this morning I find myself back at my heart of hearts. Why would I want to live right and do right by God, myself, and others? Is it to keep up appearances and cut the mustard? Or is it because I’ve honestly come clean with God and those with whom I’m walking this life journey and received from them grace, forgiveness, and acceptance – which leads to so much gratitude that I genuinely want to change my ways and do the right things by them for all the right reasons?

Cutting the mustard, or coming clean? That is the question.

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

Spiritual Batting Average

Spiritual Batting Average (CaD Ex 20) Wayfarer

Then God spoke all these words:
Exodus 20:1 (NRSVCE)

Ironically, I have had multiple conversations in recent weeks regarding the text of today’s chapter which is more commonly known as The Ten Commandments. For being an ancient text that’s well over 3,000 years old, the Ten Commandments continue to reverberate in our culture, our spiritual thoughts, our religious practices, and even in our politics.

I spent the past weekend at the lake with my sister and my parents. While driving I noticed one ranch in Missouri that had giant signs on either side of the gates that looked like tablets and had the Ten Commandments inscribed on them. I thought about our weekend and the fact that Jody and I were attempting to do right by Commandment five in honoring our parents.

While at the lake, we spent the bulk of our day sitting on the deck and on the dock chatting. The conversation meandered into the use of language and what we, previous generations, and our next generation perceive to be acceptable, profane, and obscene. Of course, the third Commandment about the improper use of God’s name was a part of the discussion.

I came home last night to discover that my lawn really needs to be mowed. It was Sunday night, and I couldn’t help but think of Wendy’s grandmother who just a few weeks ago reminded me that I’m not supposed to mow on Sundays because it would break Commandment four.

In yet another conversation prompted by a good friend, we swapped self-evaluations on our adherence to God’s Top Ten. My friend, taking a literal interpretation of the text, stated that he was batting .300, which would get him into the Baseball Hall-of-Fame but doubted it would get him through the Pearly Gates. Begin a follower of Jesus, I was forced to interpret my success based on Jesus’ interpretation of the Commandments that raises the bar:

“You’re familiar with the command to the ancients, ‘Do not murder.’ I’m telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder. Carelessly call a brother ‘idiot!’ and you just might find yourself hauled into court. Thoughtlessly yell ‘stupid!’ at a sister and you are on the brink of hellfire. The simple moral fact is that words kill.

“You know the next commandment pretty well, too: ‘Don’t go to bed with another’s spouse.’ But don’t think you’ve preserved your virtue simply by staying out of bed. Your heart can be corrupted by lust even quicker than your body. Those leering looks you think nobody notices—they also corrupt.

Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28

Let’s just say that adjusting my moral batting average based on Jesus’ spiritual sabermetrics, I am hitting well below the Mendoza Line. So, if the heavenly entrance exam is as simple as my batting average with the Ten Commandments, then I’m in big trouble.

As I mull this over, I couldn’t help but think of Paul’s letter to Jesus’ followers in Rome:

But I need something more! For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.

It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge.

I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?


The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.

In the quiet this morning I find myself impressed that a story and text that is thousands of years old is still found relevant and creating multiple conversations with different people in my life over the past few weeks. I am fascinated that it is still stirring people, myself included, to contemplate about our words, our behavior toward God, our relationships with others, and our ultimate spiritual standing.

I find my spirit leading me back to this from Paul’s letter to the followers of Jesus in Ephesus. And, I have to remember that Paul confessed to spending most of his life trying to strictly and religiously adhere to every letter of the Ten Commandments. When he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, everything changed:

Now God has us where he wants us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus. Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving.
Ephesians 2:8-9 (MSG)

Monday mornings are always a mental and spiritual “reset” button for me. As I prepare to enter another work-week I’m thankful for Jesus’ reminder that all of the Commandments, rules, and laws in God’s Book are summed up in two: Love God with everything you’ve got. Love others as you love yourself.

Now that is a pitch I can hit.

Let’s play ball.

Have a great week my friend.

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

The Curse of Being Religious

While being a follower of Jesus may lead me to participate in religious behaviors, being a religious person does not necessarily make me a follower of Jesus. The following post was originally published back in may of 2013. It still resonates with me. Another good one to sow out there again. By the way, tomorrow I plan to start journeying through Exodus. It’s been 11 years since the last time I blogged through it. It’s time to return to the story of Moses. In the meantime, enjoy…

The Lord is more pleased when we do what is right and just
    than when we offer him sacrifices.
Proverbs 21:3 (NLT)

Over the years I’ve had many people refer to me as a religious person. The term has always bothered me. The truth of the matter is that when you read the first-hand accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry you find that He saved His most harsh criticism and angry judgment for the most religious people of His day.

When Jesus encountered a woman caught in the act of adultery He said to her:

I don’t condemn you. Go and sin no more.”

When Jesus talked to the religious church goers He said:

“You hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”

When Jesus encountered a man with leprosy who said, “If you’re willing, you can make me clean,” Jesus reached out and touched the leprous man and said:

I’m willing. Be clean.”

When Jesus talked to the religious church elders He said:

“You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.”

When a poor, paralytic man was brought to Jesus, He said to the man:

Friend, your sins are forgiven.” Then Jesus healed the man.

When Jesus talked to the religious fundamentalists He said:

“You religiously give your ten percent, but you have neglected the more important matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.”

When Jesus took the time to ask a woman, who was a social outcast and racially persecuted, for a drink, He said to her:

Whoever drinks the water I give will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give will become a spring of living water welling up to eternal life.”

When Jesus talked to the strict, religious people He said:

“You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

My desire is to follow Jesus each day in the way I forgive, touch, heal, reach, cleanse, embrace, and love. If I fail in this attempt while becoming a good, conservative, church-going, religious person then it is clear to me from Jesus’ own words that I have left the path of His footsteps and have failed miserably in my quest.

So, when I hear people refer to me as a “religious” person, I’ll confess that my heart sinks. I know they may not mean it the way that I receive it, but still. Religious is not the goal. Love is the goal. So, at the moment I hear someone calling me religious, I silently ask God to forgive me for being religious. Then I quietly ask Him to help me be more like Jesus.

Featured Photo: Christ forgives the woman caught in adultery by Boucher (French). From the Met Collection. Public Domain.

New Ways, Old Ways, and the Inside-Out

But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
Luke 5:30 (NIV)

When I became a follower of Jesus I was in my early teens. I had been raised going to a small neighborhood church that belonged to one of the old, global mainline denominational institutions. As such, there was a certain institutional way that everything was done. There were rules, regulations, a chain-of-command, and a dizzying bureaucracy for making decisions. There was a certain formula to faith and life that fit neatly inside the institutional box, and most everyone who had long been part of the institution was comfortable with the formula.

As a young, passionate follower of Jesus, I quickly learned that where I was being led did not fit comfortably inside the institutional, denominational box of my childhood.

In today’s chapter, Dr. Luke continues to chronicle the early days of Jesus’ earthly ministry as he travels from town-to-town around the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The chapter reads like a series of vignettes, giving us a feel for the larger story arc of what’s happening in Jesus’ ministry at this time. He is attracting a following with His teaching. He is calling disciples. He is performing miracles. He is teaching in parables.

And, He is stirring things up.

Like the institutional denomination of my childhood, the religious Judaism of Jesus’ day was a staunch institution with thousands of years of history. There were religious paradigms that were not to be questioned. There were certain ways things were to be done. There were rules upon rules upon rules with regard to how to conduct oneself each day in every aspect of life. There were powers to be obeyed, and consequences if one did not fall in line.

With each vignette of today’s chapter, Luke is telling us that Jesus was cutting against the grain of every religious social convention in the Jewish religious box.

  • Teachers in Jesus’ day called disciples who were aspiring young men of prominence, educated in religion and law. Jesus calls disciples who are rough-around-the-edges blue-collar fishermen and a sketchy, sinful tax collector who was viewed as a traitor of his people.
  • If you want to make it in music you go to Nashville. If you want to make it on stage you go to New York. If you want to make it in movies you go to Hollywood. If you wanted to make it as a religious leader in Jesus’ day you went to Jerusalem to network and teach. Jesus chooses to teach in backwater towns considered the sticks by the institutional religious power brokers.
  • The institutional religious leaders flaunted their religion publicly, wearing robes, prayer shawls, and parading their religion publicly in front of people. Jesus slipped off by himself to remote places to have one-on-one conversations with the Father.
  • Good Jews were expected to live lives of austere appearance, scarcity, and to have nothing to do with anyone who didn’t adhere to the institutional checklist of propriety. Jesus feasted, drank, and frequented the company of all sorts of people, including the socially marginal and religiously inappropriate.
  • The religious leaders of the day were concerned with outward, public adherence to religious rules and practices that had little or nothing to do with inner, spiritual transformation. Jesus used miracles to show that, for God, the things that we humans consider to be important and miraculous in our outside physical world is actually easy and mundane. What Jesus was constantly most concerned with was the health of His followers’ inner, spiritual heart of their true selves and its transformation of their daily lives and relationships.

Jesus came to show a different way. He came, as He put it, to bring “new wine in a new wineskin.” The way of God’s Spirit is not the same as the way of human religion. Jesus even recognized at the end of today’s chapter that “people prefer the old.” With each of the vignette’s Luke shared in today’s chapter, the leaders of the religious institution were suspicious, critical, and condemning.

My spiritual journey led me to leave the denominational institution of my childhood. I did so because, for me, I needed to experience a change and to break out of old patterns to embrace the new ones Jesus reveal to me. The funny thing is, I soon found myself entrenched in other institutional paradigms and falling back into outside appearances and keeping rules. I broke out of one box only to step into another. My spiritual journey has been a perpetual cycle in which I am always trying to avoid falling into patterns of outward religion and to seek out the power of God’s Spirit that results from inside-out contemplation, confession, repentance, and transformation.

In the quiet this morning I’m realizing that two months of constant travel, busyness, and events have depleted my spiritual reserves. I’m thinking about Jesus’ example of slipping away for quiet and one-on-one with the Father. I could use a little of that myself.

Living in Gray

When the king’s order and edict had been proclaimed, many young women were brought to the citadel of Susa and put under the care of Hegai. Esther also was taken to the king’s palace and entrusted to Hegai, who had charge of the harem.
Esther 2:8 (NIV)

Yesterday at the breakfast table Wendy and I were having breakfast and reading the news, as is our daily habit. Wendy happened upon a news piece that quite clearly divided the United States into two generalized racial groups. Implied in the article was the notion that in America you are either black or white. I find the distinction of choice ironic.

The simplistic divide does not account for the vast number of people of Hispanic, Asian, or Native American descent, nor does it account for the population of interracial couples and their children which, according to U.S. Census figures, has steadily grown since 1967 and continues to do so.

Our culture loves binary, either-or choices. I have observed this to be true of both institutional religion and mainstream news media who are critical one another. When dealing with a large population of people, simple binary choices are much easier to deal with. Here are some examples from both of them:

  • Black or White
  • Conservative or Liberal
  • Fox News or MSNBC
  • Capitalism or Socialism
  • Red State or Blue State
  • Progressive or Deplorable
  • Blue Collar or White Collar
  • Educated or Uneducated
  • Urban or Rural
  • Republican or Democrat
  • Protestant or Catholic
  • Sacred or Secular
  • Christian or Secular
  • Holy or Worldly
  • Evangelical or Mainline
  • Religious or Atheist

And yet, as I have traversed this earthly journey and spiritually followed in the footsteps of Jesus, I find most binary distinctions simplistic and inadequate for addressing complex circumstances and issues. The world and its people with whom I interact every day are an elaborate mosaic of DNA, thought, spirit, background, and experience. To put one complex person into one of two binary boxes for the sake of simple definition is foolishness.

One of the things that I love about the story of Esther is how God works through this young Jewish woman who appears to navigate the tremendously gray territory between binary choices of Jew or Gentile, Hebrew or Persian, and Moral or Immoral. She keeps her heritage and faith secret. Whereas Daniel refused to eat meat provided by his foreign captors, Esther has no such qualms. There is no indication that Esther balks at being part of the Persian harem system that would have instructed her how to pleasure the king sexually on demand.

The book of Esther has confounded binary thinkers for ages. One commentator wrote that Esther’s behavior would not pass any test of modern ethical theory. Her cultural compromises coupled with the pesky fact that God is never mentioned by name in the story led some editors in history to introduce prayers into the book that were never part of the original text along with commentary stating that Esther hated being married to a Gentile. I’ve observed that when the truth is too gray for our comfort zone, we like to shade it to fit our personal binary leanings.

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking about the value and importance of a story like Esther. She successfully navigates a very uncomfortable world of gray politically, culturally, religiously, and morally. From a position of powerlessness and critical compromise, she is used for God’s purposes in profound and powerful ways. In a time when our political, religious, cultural, and social systems seem perpetually intent on placing me in one of two simplistic boxes, I pray I can, like Esther, find a way to successfully navigate the territory of gray that lies in tension between simplistic, black-and-white definitions.

The Source Makes All the Difference

Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great:
He appeared in the flesh,
    was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
    was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
    was taken up in glory.
1 Timothy 3:16 (NIV)

Cleanliness is next to godliness,” the old saying goes.

That is not in the Bible, by the way. Scholars say it originated as a proverb in ancient Hebrew and Babylonian texts. It was first quoted in modern times by Charles Wesley in a sermon in 1778.

That’s the thing, though, isn’t it? What human traditions grow up around spiritual themes that actually take focus away from the Spirit to whom I’m supposed to be connected?

The Dutch protestant culture from which I spring has always been fastidious, clean, and hard-working. We memorialize it every year during Tulip Time as we first scrub the streets before the parade can begin. Eventually, however, the social and religious pressure to keep up clean and orderly outside appearances with all we are and all we own takes precedence over a Life-filled inner Spirit. The result is what Jesus described of the religious people of His time:

“Frauds! You burnish the surface of your cups and bowls so they sparkle in the sun, while the insides are maggoty with your greed and gluttony. Stupid Pharisee! Scour the insides, and then the gleaming surface will mean something.

“Frauds! You’re like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds.

Along my life journey I’ve been taught many ways to godliness; Spiritual disciplines, rule following, and following the trending spiritual fad hawked by Christian marketers (looking to make a buck) and the spiritual gurus they put on pedestals for us to idolize. I found myself struggling for so long. On the outside I appeared the poster chid of spiritual health as I dutifully kept up with all the outside rules, disciplines, and exercises. Inside my life was dark and out of control.

In today’s chapter Paul writes to his young spiritual protégé about the mystery [“Mystery is not something we can’t understand, but something we endlessly understand.” – R. Rohr] from which true godliness springs, and it has nothing to do with tidying up a la Marie Kondo. Paul goes on to quote what was an ancient poem or hymn about Jesus. True godliness is sourced in the person and work of Jesus. That’s it.

Paul has just finished giving Timothy multiple lists of qualifications for those who will lead the local gathering of Jesus’ followers. He then ends by reminding Timothy that all of these qualifications are not sourced in religious rule keeping and the keeping up of appearances, but in the endless pursuit and discovery of deep Spirit connection and Life-giving relationship with the resurrected Christ. Paul never wrote “I want you to know how to be good religious rule followers,” but he did write “I want you to know Christ, and the power of His resurrection.”

The source from which I seek godliness makes all the difference.

Matters of Heart

He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, yet not with a true heart.
2 Chronicles 25:2 (NRSVCE)

In all my years as a follower of Jesus, I’ve observed that we as humans are far more comfortable with flesh than with Spirit. From our earliest years we’re taught to trust what our senses are telling us:

The stove coil is red and it’s radiating heat. Don’t touch it.

The meat smells funny. Don’t eat it.

Something in my knee just popped. Stop running.

I’m feeling light headed and nauseous. Better lie down.

Following Jesus, however, is a faith journey. God’s Message says that faith is “the assurance of what we hope for, evidence of that which we cannot see.” There’s no sight, smell, touch, taste, or hearing involved. Quite the opposite. Faith is beyond our physical senses. God continues to say over and over and over again that He judges not on what can be seen, but what is unseen; God looks at the heart.

When God was directing Samuel who he should anoint as king, He told the prophet: “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Yet I’ve observed continually that most followers of Jesus, and the institutions we create to organize ourselves, repeatedly revert back to our inherent human instinct to trust our base physical senses. We judge others on what we see in their appearance, what we observe in their behaviors, or we we hear about them from others. Our institutions create rules, both written and unwritten, about a person’s worth and standing before God based on how they look and/or behave. I’ve come to believe that we do this because it comes naturally, it is easy, and it gives us (both individually and as a group) comfort when others conform to the social, religious, and behavioral standards we stipulate and expect.

But that’s not how God operates. He says it quite plainly. “My thoughts are not your thoughts. Neither are your ways my ways.” (Isaiah 55:8) And, as the Bard so beautifully put it: “There’s the rub.”

Dealing with the unseen motives and intents of the heart, as God does, is messy. It requires discernment, wisdom, grace, and risk.

In today’s chapter, the Chronicler describes Judah’s King Amaziah as a person who did the right things, but not from a true heart. His actions were admirable, his behavior conformed to expectation, but his motivations were all in the wrong place. It brings to mind the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, of whom Jesus said:

“You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You keep meticulous account books, tithing on every nickel and dime you get, but on the meat of God’s Law, things like fairness and compassion and commitment—the absolute basics!—you carelessly take it or leave it. Careful bookkeeping is commendable, but the basics are required. Do you have any idea how silly you look, writing a life story that’s wrong from start to finish, nitpicking over commas and semicolons?

“You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You burnish the surface of your cups and bowls so they sparkle in the sun, while the insides are maggoty with your greed and gluttony. Stupid Pharisee! Scour the insides, and then the gleaming surface will mean something.

“You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You’re like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds.

“Snakes! Reptilian sneaks! Do you think you can worm your way out of this? Never have to pay the piper? It’s on account of people like you that I send prophets and wise guides and scholars generation after generation—and generation after generation you treat them like dirt, greeting them with lynch mobs, hounding them with abuse.”

The religious people of Jesus day were doing the same things I have observed in religious people of my day. Posturing, appearance, and propriety intended to prove righteousness from what can be physically seen and and audibly heard.

Jesus took a different approach. He gathered a motley crew of followers that included rough, uneducated fishermen, a pair of brothers with anger management issues, a sleazy tax collector, a thief, and a right wing terrorist. He taught them about faith. He exemplified the love he expected of them. He instilled in them compassion. They didn’t come close to measuring up to any kind of acceptable religious standard of their day. But that didn’t matter to God. “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” 

God’s standard is as simple as a Broadway tune: “You gotta have heart!”

This morning I find myself wanting desperately not to be an Amaziah or a Pharisee. Screw religious trappings and the litmus tests of the institutional church.

I want more heart. And I want to find the heart of others, not their conformity to the standards with which I’m personally comfortable.

Not Getting It

There were still people left from the Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites (these people were not Israelites). Solomon conscripted the descendants of all these people remaining in the land—whom the Israelites had not destroyed—to serve as slave labor, as it is to this day.
2 Chronicles 8:7-8 (NIV)

Jesus told a simple parable of the King’s servant who owed the king 10,000 bags of gold. To those who listened to Jesus tell this story, the idea of owing 10,000 bags of gold was a ridiculous amount of money. It would be like me owing someone billions or trillions of dollars. More than I could pay back in many lifetimes.

Be patient with me and I’ll pay it back,” the servant said to the king. This is also ridiculous because I couldn’t pay back billions or trillions of dollars in many lifetimes. The king decides to forgive the debt and let the servant go.

As he’s leaving the palace, the servant runs into his buddy who owed him a hundred bucks. When he demanded repayment of the debt, his buddy says, “Be patient with me and I’ll pay it back!” (Sound familiar?) The King’s servant who’d just been forgiven from multiple lifetimes worth of debt refused to forgive his buddy a debt of a hundred bucks.

Jesus point was clear. If God forgives me for my lifetime of mistakes and poor choices and then I refuse to forgive an individual who offended me, then I’ve completely missed the point of everything Jesus came to teach me.

Buried in today’s chapter is a simple observation that brought this parable to mind this morning. Solomon, King of Israel, builds his temples and palaces by forcing all of the non-Israelite people of the land into slave-labor. Now, this was common practice among nations and empires of that day. Solomon was not doing anything differently than what every other King around him would do. But there’s a difference.

The roots of Solomon’s Kingdom were in the story of the Exodus. When Solomon’s people were living in the land of Egypt they were forced into slave labor to work for Pharaoh. God went to great lengths to free them from their slavery and lead them back to Canaan. Now, Solomon builds his Temple to the God who freed his people from slavery, by enslaving others.

As if to add insult to injury, Solomon then has his slaves build a palace for his queen, Pharaoh’s daughter of Egypt, the very nation from whom his people were freed from slavery.

Along my journey I continually encounter individuals who live very religious lives. They never miss a church service. They listen only to Christian music and Christian radio stations, watch only Christian television, read only books written by Christian authors, refuse to darken the door of a pub, associate only with Christians of acceptable repute in the community, and etc. And yet, among these types of squeaky-clean religious types I’ve known I can recall specific individuals who were slum lords, deceptive businessmen, money launderers, bigots, misogynists, and the like.

This morning I’m thinking about Solomon. I’m thinking about the religious individuals I’ve observed and described. I’m thinking about Jesus’ parable. I’m thinking about my own life. Where are the blind spots in my own life? Are there any areas of my life when I’m subjecting others to judgement or burdens from which I, myself, have been freed? Where are the places in my life where it’s obvious to God that I still don’t get what He came to teach me?