Tag Archives: Righteousness

Forever Young Maturity

What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness,have not attained their goal. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works.
Romans 9:30-32 (NIV)

A few years ago our daughter, Taylor, was living in a Catholic Worker commune. Her fellow residents and the people “The Worker” served each day came from some very different realities than those in which Taylor grew up. One weekend when she was visiting with Wendy and me she shared about a moment of realization listening to all these people who were living on the razor’s edge with no safety net and no back up. There was no “Plan B” if the shit hit the fan.

I realized,” Taylor said, “that I will never know this reality. I have a huge safety net, people who love me, and I will always have a safe place to go.”

When Taylor and Madison were in the toddler phase of life, they were suddenly introduced to all sorts of rules:

“Don’t touch.”
“That’s a no-no.”
“No! You never hit your sister.”
“I said, ‘Put the toys away. Now!'”
“Wash your hands before supper.”

In the toddler phase life is pretty black and white for a child. There is a seemingly endless list of do’s and don’ts, and parents add to the list incessantly. If you follow the rules life hums along relatively swimmingly, and if you don’t follow the rules you learn about parental wrath and punishment. For children, life feels a bit like a legalistic system of merit. Parents and authorities reward me when I’m good and punish me when I’m bad. From a parent’s perspective you certainly love your child no matter what, but I wonder how much a young child comprehends this when the merit system rules his or her existence.

As the girls moved into adulthood our relationship changed as they became mature in their understanding of themselves, their parents, and the world around them. They began to make their own decisions and had to experience the natural consequences of their words, actions, and decisions on their own day-to-day realities. As a father, I still desire for them to make wise decisions. I’m happy to provide advice if asked. Ultimately, however, they have to choose for themselves because it is the right choice, not because of their father’s approval or wrath.

At this stage of life, like Taylor’s observation at The Worker, I’ve watched the girls come to an understanding, now more than ever, that our love and support for them is ever-present, unwavering, and unconditional. They’ve learned the lessons of their childhood. They’ve matured.

I’ve always pondered the notion that God’s relationship with humanity across the Great Story is a bit like the natural human life-cycle. When God gave Moses “The Law” it was essentially the toddler stage of humanity. Things were simple, brutal, and messy. A simple black-and-white system of rules is what humanity in the toddler stage needed, what it could comprehend and understand.

The period immediately following Jesus’ resurrection and ascension is essentially a major life change. If feels a bit like a rite-of-passage shift into a new relational reality between God and humanity made possible by Jesus’ sacrificial atonement. Paul’s letter to the Jewish followers of Jesus in Rome reads like a sage telling the young adult that it’s time to wake-up, and grow-up, into a mature understanding of their relationship with God. Gone are the toddler days of rule keeping, now it’s time to step out and start walking in the maturity of faith in God’s love, grace, forgiveness, and righteousness made possible – not because you kept the rules – but because God showed love for us in this: while we were yet knuckle-headed, foolish children who sometimes go our own way, Christ died for us.

This morning in the quiet I’m looking at a canvas I discovered under the guest room bed this weekend while Wendy and I were cleaning-up. It’s a little something Taylor made for Milo while she was pregnant. It’s now sitting next to my desk, and I think I’m going to hang it in my office while the kids sojourn in Scotland. It’s the words of a song I sang to her repeatedly at bedtime when she was a child. It’s the words of a parent’s faith, hope, and blessing to a child, anticipating that the child will mature into a person of wisdom, Godliness, and yet retain the one thing that Jesus said was, ironically, a prerequisite to a mature person’s entrance to God’s Kingdom:

Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Toddlers, rules, grace, love, maturity, wisdom, parenting, Taylor, Clayton, Milo, Maddy Kate, Garrett, Jesus, Bob Dylan, child-like faith. That’s what’s tumbling around in my heart and head on this Monday morning.

May you stay Forever Young.

Have a great week my friends.

90 M.P.H. Down a Dead End Street

Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness.
Romans 6:19 (NIV)

It is one of those moments in life that is indelibly etched in my memory. Madison was about six years old or so and was sitting next to me as I shuffled through some new photographs that I’d just picked up from being developed (before digital cameras, we had to take rolls of film to get developed and wait for them). There was a photograph of me in the stack and Madison picked it up and held it up with a loud giggle. “Look,” she said. “It’s FAT DADDY!”

Ugh.

Throughout this life journey I have warred with my natural human appetites like every other human being on the face of the planet. I have lost many battles along the way. As a child I was exposed to pornography, and it secretly fed the seemingly insatiable cravings of a young man’s sexual appetite for many years. As a young husband and father trying hard to suppress and control my sexual appetites, I began feeding a different appetite. This time it was my craving for food and for sweets in particular. The result was Fat Daddy.

Through my battles with personal appetites I’ve experienced the reality that the pleasure from indulging my appetites is subject to the law of diminishing returns. I’ve observed this to be true no matter which appetite I indulge: my taste buds, my sex glands, my adrenaline glands, my need for security, my desire to control, my need to be loved, or any other appetite known to humanity.

I start with a craving. I indulge that craving and I feel a burst of pleasure. My craving is satiated for a moment. Slowly and subtly, the law of diminishing returns set in. What was such a blissfully guilty pleasure for a moment now feels, well, normal. My natural craving ups the ante. My brain and spirit collude to agree that if a little guilty pleasure didn’t do that much harm, then just a little more can’t be that bad for me. This cycle slowly repeats itself until I find myself way down the road in a place I never expected, nor wanted, to be experiencing really negative consequences for myself and the ones I most love in the world.

This is the very thing that Paul is addressing in today’s chapter of his letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome. He uses language and an analogy that all of his readers could understand. Slavery was a common, everyday reality in the world at that time. It was an essential part of the economy in the Roman Empire. There were even “white collar” slaves as former soldiers, physicians, and accountants were often slaves. One could even offer oneself to any number of slave positions in order to have work and the security of basic needs met. All you had to do is give up your freedom and subject yourself to being the controlled property of another. Of course this included your master’s legal right to punish you, torture you, sexually exploit you and summarily execute you at will. A person offering themselves into slavery would end up in very different circumstances depending on the master to whom they offered themselves.

Now Paul tells his readers “you’ve offered yourselves as slaves to sin and to ever increasing wickedness.” There’s the feeding of natural appetites and it’s law of diminishing returns that I have experienced multiple times with very different appetites. Every person I’ve ever known who has followed the path of indulgence and addiction will also tell you that they ended up enslaved to their appetite(s). One of my favorite lyrics is from Bob Dylan describing a person following their amorous appetites into a marital affair:

I took you home from a party and we kissed in fun
A few stolen kisses and no harm was done
Instead of stopping when we could we went right on
Till suddenly we found that the brakes were gone.

You belong to someone else, and I do too
It’s just crazy bein’ here with you
As a bad motorcycle with the devil in the seat
Going ninety miles an hour down a dead end street
Ninety miles an hour down a dead end street.

There is “the cycle” speeding me down the road to a place I never expected, nor wanted, where I will experience really painful consequences for myself and the ones I most love in the world.

Paul now urges me to make a different choice. He urges me to offer myself to God to be controlled by righteousness which leads to increasing measures of Life.

This morning in the quiet I can’t help but find myself looking back with regret at the foolish ways I have repeatedly “offered myself’ to my appetites along my life journey, and the dead end streets where I crashed. But, it doesn’t end there. I am also looking back at the crash sites where there stands one of those little wooden crosses to mark the spot. This cross marks the place where I followed Paul’s words from today’s chapter: “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

To what, or to whom, am I offering myself?

Featured photo courtesy of Bob Dass via Flickr

“Oh Yeah. That’s One of Mine.”

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.
Romans 2:14-15 (NIV)

One of the thematic threads I’ve observed throughout the Great Story is that the Spirit of God is not confined by the trappings of religion and its human penchant for systemic merit. Our human systems love things to fall into rigid rules and lawful order. Follow these rules, dress like this, talk like this, use these phrases, be seen doing these things, act like this when you’re in public, and everyone will know that you’re one of us.

Yet, as I’ve journeyed through the Great Story time-and-time-again I observe that there are those who follow the systemic rules on one hand while the whole time they are breaking the spirit of the law with the other. At the same time, there are those who don’t fit the meritorious religious system and its list of requirements, but who totally get the underlying Spirit that the system was trying to accomplish in the first place.

Then there is God accomplishing their purpose through the most unlikely character in the scene. The fool confounds the wise. The child shepherd kills the giant warrior. The least rises to rule over the greatest. The greatest enemy becomes the strongest ally.

Jesus channeled this theme over and over again. Perhaps the most challenging parable that Jesus taught was right at the climax of His teaching. He was getting down to the very core of his Message, and the leaders of the systemic religious order of merit would kill him for it. (See Matthew 25)

In the parable, Jesus divides everyone into two groups which He labels “sheep” and “goats”, but He might as well have labeled them “religious” and the “heathens.” Or, for the theme that Paul is addressing in today’s chapter, the “Jews” and the “Gentiles,” or perhaps it’s best labeled “God’s people” and “Those people.”

The first group looks like they belong to God’s flock because they look the part. They followed all the religious rules. They worked the system of merit for all it was worth. Jesus, however, says, “I never knew you” because while they followed the letter of the law on one hand, they ignored the heart of what the Law was supposed to create: love that looked out for the sick, the outcast, the foreigner, the lowly, and the weak.

Then Jesus turns to “those people” who were never part of the religious system at all. They’d not earned one single merit badge from the meritorious order. Jesus says, “Come on in to my kingdom” because even while they were outside the religious “system” and didn’t follow the legal rules, they found the heart of God. They practiced the law of love. They looked out for the sick, the outcast, the foreigner, the lowly, and the weak.

In today’s chapter Paul pushes into this theme big time. He’s writing to the followers of Jesus in Rom who fall into these two primary camps: Jews and Gentiles. From the Jews’ perspective it was the same systemic thought that Jesus had been dealing with. The Jewish believers saw it as “we God’s people” and “those people.” God’s people had been given “the Law” and had followed the religious meritorious order. The Gentiles, “those people,” were pagans, heathens, foreigners, and outsiders who had never been circumcised (merit badge #1) let alone practicing the exhaustive religious rulebook.

So, Paul picks up on Jesus’ theme and channels it as he begins his letter. The Gentile believers among Jesus’ followers, he’s basically arguing, are the goats in Jesus’ parable. They never had the rule book, the Law, yet they understood and obeyed the very heart of what the rulebook was designed to produce: love.

This morning I find myself challenged and taking a little heart inventory. Everyone knows that I’m a follower of Jesus. I’m one of the sheep and I make that abundantly clear in these posts. But, am I the sheep in Jesus’ parable? Am I looking all religious and righteous in these posts and then ignoring the very heart of what Jesus taught?

Ugh.

In the quiet I find myself asking who are the “goats” in my circles of influence? Who would my meritorious religious system tell me is one of “those people” but Jesus would look at that person’s heart and say, “Oh yeah. That’s one of mine.”?

Both “Letter” and “Spirit”

He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
2 Corinthians 3:6 (NIV)

This past year our friend, Ali, was teaching one Sunday morning among our regular gathering of Jesus’ followers. She made a simple statement that has stuck with me every since she said it. It continues to flower and bear fruit in my thinking. “In the church I grew up in,” she said, “we worshiped the Trinity: The Father, Son, and Holy Bible.”

Ali went on to explain two important observations she was making. One was that she was raised with no real teaching or understanding of Holy Spirit. A member of the “Divine Dance” was missing in her faith journey. The other observation is that the scriptures had been elevated in her upbringing to an unintended spiritual position.

In today’s chapter, Paul contrasts “the letter” and “the Spirit.” When he writes “the letter” he was referring to the Hebrew scripture (what is known among Jesus followers as the Old Testament), specifically the first five books known as “The Law.” Many of the believers in Corinth were Jewish. They had been raised to strictly follow “the letter” of “The Law” in a system of legalistic rituals and daily habits. In strictly following “the letter of the Law” they believed they were made righteous before God. Jesus and His followers taught that salvation was not a matter of obedience to written Law, but of faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and spiritual union with Holy Spirit. Paul went even further to state the legalistic rule keeping actually ends up in spiritual death. “The letter kills.” It was not obedience to a written Law that made us righteous, Paul says, but the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, the power of Jesus’ resurrection, and the indwelling of Holy Spirit into our hearts.

Back to our friend Ali’s statement. Followers of Jesus, especially those in the evangelical traditions, have been historically quick to espouse the power and authority of scripture (now including the New Testament). I have observed, however, that it is just as easy for followers of Jesus to fall into the same “letter” trap that the Hebrew believers were in back in Paul’s day. We simply elevate the writings of the New Testament into a new form of Law. It’s easy to say we believe in Holy Spirit, and then allow our “faith” to be reduced to a list of rules, our righteousness to regress into strict obedience to the letter of a new law. Jesus’ teaching and Paul’s letters become a spiritual system of neo-legalism.

This morning in the quiet I am grateful for, and mindful of, both the power and authority of God’s Message. I am so grateful and mindful, in fact, that this chapter-a-day journey continues. I study the Message. I commit it to memory. I weave it into the tapestry of my everyday life. I don’t, however, ever want to allow “the letter” to replace “the Spirit” in my faith and life journey. I need them both to do their unique, respective work in my life.

Overturning the Scales on the Spiritual Economy

There is, however, some good in you.
2 Chronicles 19:3 (NIV)

In the past few months my past has resurfaced. It happens once in a while. My many failures are a matter of public record. I have spoken openly about them. For certain individuals my record makes me questionable, and every so often the questions come around again.

I find spiritual economics to be a fascinating thing; The way in which we determine, quantify, and respond to the “good” and “bad” (or “righteousness” and “sin”) within ourselves and others. The way we use key indicators within our spiritual economy to determine our view of everyone and everything around us.

The Chronicler and his ancient world had a very ordered system. He dictates for us whether Kings were winners and losers in the spiritual economy. The good and bad are spelled out in black and white terms. In the previous chapter Jehoshaphat made an alliance with Ahab, so in today’s chapter the Seer Jehu calls him out for his “bad,” but then declares “There is, however, some good in you.” The rest of the chapter goes on to describe Jehoshaphat’s exemplary efforts to promote and improve domestic justice in his kingdom. We the readers feel the scales on the spiritual economy tipping back and forth.

It’s no wonder that to this day we perpetuate variations on this system of weighing and judging people on our personal, spiritual economic scales. It’s a very human thing to do. Yet, one of the radical things that Jesus brought to the table was a radically new spiritual economy. He turned the system upside down. In Jesus’ spiritual economy there was no one who measured up on their own. No personal righteousness was enough to tip the scales to the “good.” Every person was in need of grace and mercy. As James 2:10 says “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” So the “righteous” religious people who were “good” in the standard spiritual economic system incurred Jesus’ wrath, while He made a habit of hanging out and showing kindness, love, grace, forgiveness, and mercy to the “bad,” the sinful, the marginal, and the questionable.

This morning I’m once again looking back across my journey. I don’t think I would have fared particularly well in the Chronicler’s spiritual economic scale. I don’t fare particularly well in the spiritual economic scales of some of my fellow believers.

Two things come to mind as I mull these things over in my heart.

One is a passage I memorized long ago. I like how The Message puts it:

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. He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing.
Ephesians 2:7-10

The other is these lyrics from Bob Dylan:

I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea.
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there.
Other times it’s only me.
I’m hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow fallen.
Like every grain of sand.

Spiritual Bankruptcy

If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.

If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing.

If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.
1 Corinthians 13:1-7 (MSG)

It is possible to be religious, but not loving.
It is possible to be righteous, but not loving.
It is possible to be generous, but not loving.
It is possible to be doctrinally sound, but not loving.
It is possible to be right, but not loving.
It is possible to be politically correct, but not loving.
It is possible to be a defender of truth, but not love your enemy.
It is possible to know all scripture, but not love those who mock you.
It is possible to have spotless church attendance, but not love.
It is possible to have spiritual discipline, but not love.
It is possible to have success, but not love.
It is possible to have a million followers, but not love.
It is possible to have good intentions, but not love.

Jesus said there were two basic laws:
1) Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
2) Love your neighbor as you love yourself.

When pressed to define who He meant by “neighbor,” Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan. In the story, the person who had love was a foreigner and an immigrant. The person who had love carried scars from being the victim of racial prejudice, injustice and systemic social, political, and economic ostracization. The person who had love held heretical doctrinal beliefs. The person who had love stood condemned by the prevailing  institutional religion of which Jesus was a part. But, the hated, heretical, outcast foreigner had love, and Jesus’ story made clear that love was the one thing that mattered to God.

On this life journey I’ve taken a good  hard look at myself, and the prevailing institutional religion of which I am a part.

We still haven’t learned the simple and most basic lesson Jesus ever taught. All of my spirituality, righteousness, and religion is bankrupt without love.

Lord, help me love.

featured image is a detail from the St. John’s Bible

Seek Righteousness, Seek Humility

…seek righteousness, seek humility;
Zephaniah 2:3b

I have been making my plodding, repetitive trek through God’s Message for 35 years. One of the fascinating things I’ve experienced is the way in which it always seems to meet me right where I am on life’s road. The Message doesn’t change, but I change and my waypoint in the journey changes each time I return to a book, chapter, or verse. I get something new out of it each time.

Like most Americans, I’m finding myself caught off guard by our current political landscape. I’ve never experienced anything like it in and find myself daily scratching my head at the headlines and Presidential polls. A trash-talking, ego-driven reality t.v. celebrity who says things that would get any middle schooler running for Student Council expelled is one of our leading candidates. Amazing.

Perhaps that is why Zephaniah’s admonishment leapt off the page at me this morning. I acutely feel a desire to find more individuals on every gradient of the political spectrum who honestly and sincerely are seeking to do the right thing while at the same time seeking humility in their quest. It’s easy to find arrogance. It’s easy to find insults hurled at others. It’s easy to find trash talking and people screaming at each other (at the same time) from opposite sides of the issues. We have these things in abundance.

Today, what I seek are individuals willing to have respectful dialogue, willing to humbly listen to other opinions, willing to agree to disagree, and willing to hammer out compromises. Of course, I cannot control Presidential candidates or news channels or others. I can only control my own thoughts, words, actions and relationships. So I will continue to seek to do the right thing, and persevere in choosing humility.

chapter a day banner 2015

Featured image: gageskidmore via Flickr