Tag Archives: Ritual

Wisdom in Knowing the Difference

Wisdom in Knowing the Difference (CaD Gen 24) Wayfarer

Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebekah. So she became his wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.
Genesis 24:67 (NIV)

I was in my late twenties and early thirties when I first began to ask a lot of questions about the systems and roles that influenced the child I was, the young adult I grew into, and the adult I became. For me, it is a worthwhile journey of self-discovery and understanding that continues as I progress into new stages of life. There are so many formative pieces of self that I did not, and do not, control. At the same time, there are so many pieces of life that I do control. As the Serenity Prayer so aptly requests, I have found that wisdom is required to know and embrace the differences.

Today’s chapter is fascinating on multiple levels. It tells the story of Abraham sending his trusted servant back to his family and tribe; The family and tribe he left when God initially called him to his faith journey back in chapter 12. The intent of the mission is to secure a bride for his son Isaac from his own tribe. The chapter describes this mission in detail and with it, we get a glimpse into the marriage customs of the ancient near east.

Perhaps it’s because I have officiated a host of weddings along my journey, but I have always been interested in marriage customs and rituals. What’s fascinating to me is the genuine lack of specificity given in the Great Story regarding marriage ritual or customs, and the genuine, legalistic rigidity with which institutional churches, denominations, and members become entrenched despite there being zero biblical support for most all of it.

Once again, I’ve found it helpful to be honest about what is essential (e.g. sacrificial love, spiritual union, honor, intimacy, fidelity, consideration, separation from the childhood family system and the origination of a new family system together) and what is completely absent in scripture (e.g. engagement rules, betrothal rules, and/or wedding ritual, and what exactly determines the moment and reality that two people are “married” to one another). In today’s chapter, Rebecca leaves her family, is led by her fiance into the tent of his deceased mother. BOOM they are married.

Was there a ceremony? Doesn’t say.

Was the act of sexual intercourse a determining factor? Doesn’t say.

Is it possible that the spiritual union of a man and woman that transforms them into husband and wife can and does happen without a marriage license from the county, a church official making a pronouncement, and a public wedding ceremony? Doesn’t say.

Is it equally possible that a man and woman can get a marriage license from the county, have a church official pronounce them married at a public ceremony in front of many witnesses, and yet never experience the spiritual union that transforms them into husband and wife? Doesn’t say.

And yet, along my spiritual journey I have observed many human religious rituals that don’t appear to have any transformative spiritual effect. I’ve also observed spiritual transformations in individuals that have nothing to do with any institutional religious ritual or involvement.

Today’s chapter describes how families arranged a marriage in ancient Mesopotamia which bears little resemblance to the free will engagements two people make in modern American culture. There are no specifics about what exactly made the marriage other than an agreement, two people entering a tent, and the fruit of love.

So in the quiet this morning, I find myself asking a lot of questions that don’t have specific answers in the Great Story. And, while I don’t have a lot of specific answers, I find myself comfortable with the conclusion that marriage as described in the Great Story is not about paperwork, cultural tradition, and religious ritual. It’s about sacrificial love, spiritual union, honor, intimacy, fidelity, consideration, separation from the childhood family system and the origination of a new family system together. There’s wisdom in knowing the difference.

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.

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.

The Religion Game

Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me;
    to those who go the right way
    I will show the salvation of God.”

Psalm 50:23 (NRSVCE)

As a child, my family regularly attended church where worship was held with lots of traditional, liturgical pomp. I even got to participate as I sang in the children’s choir wearing my robe. Looking back with understanding, I have an appreciation for the metaphor and intent of all the liturgical devices, even the way the sanctuary was designed and laid out.

I went through the motions like everyone else. Sing this. Proceed to there. Sit down. Stand up. Say this. Sing this. Sit down. Read this. Stand up. Sing this. Sit down. Listen. Stand up. Sing this. Proceed there. Done. It happened every week with very little variation other than the words that were said or sang.

It was regular. It was rote. It was religious.

The problem was, I never thought much about it at all. It was what we did. I checked off the box along with every body else.

As I have ceaselessly journeyed through the Great Story, I’m always struck by the rather exhaustive system of sacrifices, offerings, rituals, and feasts that God dictates to the Hebrews through Moses. As I’ve studied them, I’ve come to appreciate the reason behind them and how they fit together in a cycle that led the Hebrews through specific thoughts and lessons about their relationship with God.

Nevertheless, there is sprinkled through the words of the psalmists and prophets a recurring theme that the people are doing all the things, but they’re hearts aren’t in it. They are making the sacrifices, offering the prescribed things at the prescribed times, going through the rituals, and attending the feasts. It was regular. It was rote. It was religious. The problem was that they weren’t really thinking much about it.

Today’s psalm was written to be sung as part of worship in the temple, but the songwriter, Asaph, is calling God’s people out for their mindless, spirit-less dedication to going through the religious motions. The “thanksgiving” offerings are void of any real gratitude. The real sacrifice, the songwriter says, is a heart full of gratitude to God which motivates all the other rituals.

This was the same thing Jesus found in the religious leaders of His day. They were continually critical of Him for breaking the religious regulation they added to the ancient rules. Jesus repeatedly quoted God through the prophet Hosea to them: “Go and learn what this means,” Jesus said, “‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”

Jesus was getting at the same thing as Asaph in today’s psalm. Mindlessly going through religious motions is of no real value, and I believe that this is one of the reasons why denominations are imploding and churches are closing in record numbers. Just minutes ago our daughter sent the family a photo she took of an old church she and Clayton visited in a remote area of Scotland this past week. It’s being turned into a brewery. The altar will be the bar. Some of my ancestors would have found that scandalous. I don’t at all. As I have repeatedly written, Jesus made it clear that it was never supposed to be about bricks-and-mortar, but flesh-and-blood. It was never about the ritual, but the relationship. An honest, transparent, love-motivated conversation over a pint might be the most spiritual, Christ-honoring thing to happen in that building in a long time.

Jesus completely changed the game.

We keep changing it back.

An Ancient Ritual; A Fresh Perspective

When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too.
Luke 3:21 (NIV)

Last week when our family was in South Carolina to celebrate the marriage of our daughter Madison to our new son-in-law, Garrett, we attended their local gathering of Jesus’ followers on Sunday morning. It was a celebration Sunday and several believers were baptized by immersion in a large baptismal pool that had been set up in the middle of the auditorium. It was fun to hear their stories about faith, following, and how Jesus had transformed their lives. The baptisms took place right in the middle of a loud, raucous, worshipping crowd singing and praising at dangerous decibel levels. There were so many people it was standing room only. Inspiring to say the least. Madison said it’s her favorite Sunday of the year, and I’m glad we experienced it.

My visit to the Holy Land many years ago changed the way I understood and experienced the Great Story. One of the things that changed drastically on that trip was my understanding of baptism. In Jesus’ day, ritual baptism was widely practiced by the Jewish people. In the wilderness around the Dead Sea there lived a colony of the monk-like ascetic priests, a Jewish sect called the Essenes. They believed in poverty, simplicity, benevolence, and daily ritual baptism. In the caves where they lived, you can still see the intricate system of baptismal pools in which their daily baptism was practiced.

Scholars believe that the Essene priests were celibate, and it is believed that they took orphans into their community to be raised in their ways and to grow their community. In yesterday’s chapter, Dr. Luke shares the story of John the Baptist’s miraculous conception to the elderly priest, Zechariah, and his wife, Elizabeth. In today’s chapter, the good Doctor fast-forwards to an adult John the Baptist living simply like a hermit in his camel-hair robe in the wilderness around the Dead Sea, preaching repentance, contentment, and baptism. He sounds exactly like an Essene. Born to elderly parents, it doesn’t take a huge mental leap to envision John being orphaned at a young age and his priestly family sending him to be raised by the Essenes, or perhaps a young John choosing to join the sect.

Being raised in the institutional protestant tradition of the Western church, baptism is considered one of the significant sacraments. Babies are sprinkled or adults are immersed. Most Christian theological traditions hold to baptism being a once-in-a-lifetime event. There are very strong feelings about the theology of baptism. Along my life journey, I’ve come to a very different conclusion than the tradition in which I was raised, especially after my visit to Israel and my exposure to the ancient tradition of ritual baptism that preceded and informed the Christian sacrament.

Baptism is a ritual of metaphor just like the sacrament of communion. It’s a sign and a visible word picture. Jesus said, “I am the water of life.” When a believer is plunged into the water it signifies dying to self and being buried in the likeness of Jesus’ death. When the believer rises up out of the water it signifies being raised to a new life in the likeness of Jesus’ resurrection, their sins washed away. It’s a ritualistic way-point on one’s spiritual journey, a fresh start, a new beginning, and an external, public proclamation of an inner-spiritual transformation.

Along my own spiritual journey, I can tell you that my spiritual path has wound itself through some pretty dark places. I’ve experienced my own periods of wilderness wandering. I have found myself the prodigal in far-away lands. I’ve discovered that my own spiritual journey is not a linear, straight-and-narrow interstate but a cyclical, meandering footpath. There are spiritual fits and starts. There are periods of stagnation, moments of repentance, and periodic commitment renewals. I think a ritual cleansing is a perfectly appropriate metaphor for important way-points along the journey. Just as the bread and cup can be a regular reminder of Jesus’ sacrifice, baptism can be a personal statement amidst a supportive community that marks an important shift in one’s spiritual trek.

In my spirit this morning I am still hearing the shouts of celebration, the screams of joy, and the ear-splitting worship that I witnessed with Madison and Garrett’s faith community in South Carolina. I had the opportunity to watch as some of those who were baptized walking out of the auditorium, dripping wet, wrapped in towels as they went to change into dry clothes. Every one of them was smiling, laughing, and visibly ecstatic. I couldn’t help but think to myself, “that’s the metaphor of baptism!” Washed clean, made new, old things passing away, and a fresh start on the right path in a good direction.

Who couldn’t occasionally benefit from that along a long spiritual journey?

Take me to the river.

Reflections on a Sneeze

“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?'”

“This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.'”
Zechariah 7:5, 9-10 (NIV)

I was thinking about sneezing the other day. On a plane, heading down the runway amid the thunderous roar of the jet engines, I sneezed. A couple of seats over, a man who was obviously from a different culture and who was embroiled in what he was doing stopped what he was doing, looked at me, and said, “Bless you.”

“Blessing” someone who sneezes can be traced at least to the first century AD. There are many legends as to the motivation of its invention. History records that Pope Gregory I issued a command amidst the plague of 590 that anyone sneezing be blessed, as it was a common, early symptom of the plague. I find it fascinating that no matter where I am in the United States if a person sneezes then complete strangers will proactively, verbally offer a blessing to them. It’s a fascinating cultural ritual.

Back in the days of Zechariah, it was a common ritual to observe disasters with a period of fasting that might include saying or singing certain prayers of lamentation. When Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple were destroyed and the Hebrew people were taken into exile, they began observing a ritual fast each year that corresponded with the month of their city’s destruction. This continued each year for 70 years.

In today’s chapter, exiles have returned and Jerusalem and the Temple are being rebuilt. The people come to the Temple and inquire whether or not they should continue their ritual fast.

God’s reply through the prophet Zechariah is first to question the motivation of those who are fasting. “Why are you doing this?” God asks. “Are you doing it for me, or has it become some personal religious pageant to show how “good” you are?” God then pointedly offers what His heart’s desire is:

“Treat one another justly.

Love your neighbors.

Be compassionate with each other.

Don’t take advantage of widows, orphans, visitors, and the poor.

Don’t plot and scheme against one another—that’s evil.”

Zechariah 7:10 (MSG)

In other words, it’s like saying to “Mr. Bless You” on the airplane, “Why did you just say ‘Bless you’ to a stranger from whom you just hoarded all the overhead bin space so he had to gate check his carry on? Do you really care about the person who sneezed, or is your ‘Bless you’ just a rote ritual that isn’t about being a blessing at all?” [Note: The nice dude on my plane didn’t steal my overhead bin space, I’m just using the example as a parable.]

This was the exact message that Jesus came to proclaim:

“The religion scholars and Pharisees are competent teachers in God’s Law. You won’t go wrong in following their teachings on Moses. But be careful about following them. They talk a good line, but they don’t live it. They don’t take it into their hearts and live it out in their behavior. It’s all spit-and-polish veneer.

“Instead of giving you God’s Law as food and drink by which you can banquet on God, they package it in bundles of rules, loading you down like pack animals. They seem to take pleasure in watching you stagger under these loads, and wouldn’t think of lifting a finger to help. Their lives are perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowery prayers the next.

Matthew 23:2-6 (MSG)

One of the reasons that Christendom has been criticized, and rightly so, is that for centuries we’ve been great at making religious, ritual displays while flatly refusing to do the right thing by others. I can’t think of a better example than the Roman Catholic church’s gross mismanagement of the sex abuse scandals and refusal to deal with it as it was happening for decades.

But, that’s an easy target. In the quiet this morning, I confess that what is hard is for me to honestly examine my own heart, my own life, and my own religious rituals. I write blog posts. I stand up and teach others. I put my faith on public display. So what? Why do I do it? And, will I write nice words this morning only to go out into my day and take advantage of a client, treat an employee contemptuously, refuse to help a stranger in need? Do I worry so much about income, status, and possessions that I offer nothing of tangible value to others in need of real love, kindness, mercy, justice, and compassion?

Important questions for me to ponder as I walk out of my hotel room this morning.

Bless you, my friend. Seriously. Bless you. Thanks for reading.

From Simple Ritual to Complex Regulation

So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.
1 Corinthians 11:27 (NIV)

On the night before His crucifixion, Jesus and His followers celebrated a ritual meal called the Passover. It is an annual remembrance of the events in the book of Exodus, in which God leads the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt. The ritual meal, also called a Seder, is full of metaphors and word pictures that remind participants of key events and spiritual lessons from the Exodus story. At the time of Jesus, the Passover was already an ancient ritual dating back over a thousand years.

On this night, Jesus creates a new ritual and metaphor for His followers. He simply took a loaf of unleavened bread, broke it, and passed it around for His followers to partake. “This is my body, broken for you,” he said. Then he took a cup of wine and passed it, saying, “This is my blood, shed for you.” Jesus then told His followers to share in this very simple ritual when they get together as a ritual remembrance of the sacrifice He was about to make. The fact that it was done after the Passover meal layers the metaphor with even more meaning. Just as God led the people out of slavery in Egypt, Jesus is establishing a “new covenant” in which He is going to lead humanity out of slavery to sin.

Over time, this relatively simple, ritual metaphor came to be known as Communion, the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist. As the organism of the early Jesus Movement became the Institution of the Roman church, the ritual became a much more complex religious act layered with all sorts of rules and regulations. It became the centerpiece of worship surrounded by other rituals for how it was done. Only a priest sanctioned by the church could administer it. Those who don’t belong to your particular group of believers were not welcome to participate. And so on, and so on.

As a young follower of Jesus, I was part of a relatively conservative group of believers. I can remember the verse, pasted above, from today’s chapter being used regularly among my particular tribe of believers as a word of warning to young people. It was a religious variation on the Santa Claus principle: “He’s checking his list to see if you’re naughty. You better be good or Santa won’t bring you any gifts.” When it came to communion, we were warned that we better have our hearts right and our lives free from sin or we were putting ourselves at risk of judgement.

As I’ve progressed in my spiritual journey, I’ve largely abandoned the institutional pomp, circumstance, warnings, and regulatory commands that the institutional church has laid on top of Jesus’ simple act. The warning that Paul gave in his letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth had a very specific context. Believers met and shared a meal together, and then they ended their evening by repeating Jesus’ ritual word picture. In Corinth, some followers were creating cliques, having private meals, and excluding other believers. Some followers were getting drunk on wine and were intoxicated by the time the ritual of the bread and wine was carried out. In both cases, the metaphor of the bread and wine was profaned; It was emptied of meaning by the actions of those believers who shamelessly behaved in a way that diminished the entire meaning of the ritual.

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that Jesus’ institution of the ritual of communion happened with no commands, rules, or regulations other than to repeat the word picture regularly when believers got together. Jesus didn’t make caveats about it only being administered by approved followers, being an exclusive ritual for only certain institutionally approved persons, or that those partaking had to approach with a certain level of holiness. In fact, the word picture itself is about Jesus sacrificing Himself because we can’t attain acceptable holiness on our own, so why would we suggest that purity and holiness are required to partake in the bread and cup? That profanes the meaning of the ritual as well.

From “Members Only” to a “Can of Worms”

As for those who were held in high esteem—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism—they added nothing to my message.
Galatians 2:6 (NIV)

Imagine an exclusive country club that has been in existence in a community for hundreds of years. The club, created by the town’s wealthy and politically powerful founder had always been owned and run by the eldest child in direct generational descendant of the town’s founder. For generations the club has always been “Members Only” and only the “who’s who” of the community leaders, political leaders, business leaders, and established local families were allowed to join. Only they could afford the dues and abide by the upscale dress codes and the strictly taught and practiced rituals of the club’s exhaustive book of social etiquette.

Then, the current owner dies. In her last will and testament she states that the Club will now be open to anyone who wants to join, not only members of the local community, but anyone from any community in the entire region. She leaves an endowment that pays for virtually anyone to belong and states that nothing should hinder any persons full acceptance and membership. From that point on, all members of the club will participate in its ownership and have the opportunity for club leadership.

Almost immediately, residents across a ten county area from every social strata, race, gender and cultural background rush to join the club. The existing club members who have only known the club to be one thing, are quickly thrown into a panic. While trying to maintain an air of acceptance and openness, they insist that all of the “new” members must maintain the traditional dress code (clothes none of the “new” members can afford) and the strict rituals of social, club etiquette (that none of the “new” members ever learned, nor do they necessarily care about).

The Board of Directors and its membership committee, packed with long-term, upstanding club members agree to embrace the owners wishes to welcome everyone into the club, but insist that the new members must hold to all of the long-held traditions of the country club even if it’s a terrible burden to them and offers no real benefit.

One influential member from one of the oldest, most well-established blue-blood families in the club’s history stands and confronts the Board and membership committee. The owner’s last will and testament said that “nothing should hinder any persons full acceptance and membership.” To expect new members to buy expensive dinner clothes and hold to social rituals they’d never learned was the exact kind of hinderance that the owner was referring to in her will. He demands that they drop their requirement of historic dress codes and social etiquette rituals.

Can you feel the tension of this situation?

Welcome to the first century Jesus movement.

It’s hard in today’s world to understand just how huge a rift the risen and ascended Jesus created among early believers from different backgrounds. The Jewish believers came from a deep historical and cultural tradition that was a core part of their identity. In many ways it was like a private, “members only” club. When Jesus made it clear that His followers would embrace persons of every tribe, nation, culture and tongue He opened up the proverbial can of worms. It deeply rattled those who had lived their whole lives in a system of exclusivity.

As Paul continues to write his letter to the Galatians, the subtext of his words drips with tension. Paul is a life-long, blue-blood member of the formerly exclusive club. Peter, James and the rest of the Twelve are in Jerusalem trying to balance the enraged emotions and daily struggle of traditional, Jewish believers trying to embrace the new reality. Paul, the maverick, has gone all-in on the side of the non-Jewish Gentiles. This is the conflict threatening the faith of the early believers.

Paul is convinced that the believers must let go of the ancient Jewish traditions and rituals of their members only club as it relates to non-Jewish believers for whom these traditions and rituals are totally foreign and meaningless. He sees Peter and the other leaders as equivocating and trying to accommodate the powerful, established Jewish members of the new paradigm. Paul is pissed off, and is not going to shy away from a confrontation on the subject.

This morning I’m reminded that the struggles we experience in this time and place are not new. I’m reminded that learning to work together, embrace one another, love one another, and accept one another despite our differences is always going to be a messy human endeavor. My job, as I see it, is to follow and abide by the law of love that Jesus modeled and called me to obey. Following Jesus should always lighten the load, not increase the burden.

featured photo courtesy of Chuck Moravec via Flickr

“Sea”

He made the Sea of cast metal, circular in shape, measuring ten cubits from rim to rim and five cubits high. It took a line of thirty cubits to measure around it.
2 Chronicles 4:2 (NIV)

Earlier this year Wendy and I went on our second cruise in a handful of years. I love being on a cruise. I could sit on deck and look out over the ocean for hours and be perfectly content. I don’t know how this land-locked Iowa boy gained a love for the sea. I’ve had it since I was a kid and the ocean was just a picture in a book and figment of my imagination.

In today’s chapter, the Chronicler continues to describe Solomon’s temple and all of the furnishings that were crafted by an artisan named Huram. I couldn’t help notice that it describes Huram making a “Sea.” It was really a giant water reservoir or pool. The water was used for ritual washing and cleansing. But the Hebrew word used by the Chronicler translates “Sea.” Interesting choice.

In the Hebrew rituals, washing and cleansing were an important part of worship. You know, the whole “cleanliness is next to godliness” motif. Jesus and his disciples, however, were criticized by the religious leaders for not ceremonially washing before they ate (That’s right. Jesus was a religious rule breaker!). Jesus’ response was classic. He made it clear to his critics that washing their hands religiously while ignoring their filthy souls was completely hypocritical. Jesus would elsewhere claim to be “Living Water”: An internal, eternal, spiritual spring within to quench, refresh, sustain, wash, and cleanse.

In the quiet this morning I’ve been meditating on the “Sea” described by the Chronicler. A ritual pool intended to be a word picture of the internal, spiritual washing we all need. By Jesus day, the word picture had been lost to empty religious regulation. Jesus sought to redeem the metaphor. He would be the “sea” and “spring.” He would be the Living Water not for the washing of dirty hands, but the cleansing of our stained souls.

Paul wrote to his friend, Titus:

“[Jesus] saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” [emphasis added]

As I sit on deck of a ship and look out over the seemingly endless ocean, there’s something that it does for my soul. I think my spirit connects the sea to something deeper in Spirit. I look out over the sea and my spirit touches the word picture intended by the “Sea” made by Huram. My spirit connects to the “Sea” of Living Water endlessly springing up within, filling, quenching, sustaining, washing, and cleansing.

Back home in Iowa, a photo and a memory will have to suffice as a reminder (until our next cruise!).

[sigh]

Touch and Cleansing

“Anything that an unclean person touches becomes unclean, and anyone who touches it becomes unclean till evening.”
Numbers 19:22 (NIV)

There is an old saying that “cleanliness is next to godliness” and the saying may well be rooted in the religious rituals God gave to the ancient Hebrews in the book of Numbers. The theme of today’s chapter are the things that made one “unclean” and the rituals for making them “clean” again. While there is certainly spiritual metaphor at work here, there is also practical application for keeping a nation of nomads alive approximately 3500 years ago.

Throughout today’s chapter I got the sense of reading an ancient hygiene manual. Being around things like dead bodies (which may carry all manner of contagion) make a person “unclean.” You had to remain outside the camp for seven days (we call that quarantine), ritually wash, and then wash your clothes before you could be enter the camp once more. Through the ritual, God protects the community from that which could harm it.

By the time Jesus arrived on the scene in history 1500 years later, the “clean” and “unclean” designations of Moses’ law had morphed into systemic religious and social prejudice. Rules had been made to define the rules. Religious Hebrews weren’t using the “unclean” designation to protect the community, but to separate themselves from lower class individuals and those with whom they didn’t want to mix socially.

Read Jesus’ story and you’ll find that time and time again He was breaking the rules. He broke the rules for working on the Sabbath. He touched that which the Hebrew religious leaders said was “unclean” (e.g. a leper, a woman bleeding, a woman caught in adultery).

One of the most powerful stories is when a leper falls before Jesus and says, “If you want to, you can make me clean.”

He didn’t say “you can heal me” or “you can take my leprosy away” or “you can make me whole.” He said you can make me “clean.”

The leper was an outcast, and he was required to shout “Unclean!” wherever he went so that everyone else could avoid him. No one was to touch him. Every day the social system ensured that he repeatedly confirm his unworthiness, dishonor, and shame. All day, every day he would repeat “Unclean! Unclean! Unclean!” and watch people’s faces contort with disgust. He would watch mothers hurrying their children away from him. He watch people cross the street to walk on the other side of the road. This is why you still hear the phrase “social leper” in context of a person who has become an outcast of society.

Matthew is careful to record (Matthew 8:3) that Jesus reached out and touched the leper. This was not a casual touch. This was breaking the rules. This was supposed to mean that Jesus would be unclean, too. But Jesus’ touch healed the man’s leprosy. The touch made him clean.

This morning I’m reminded of the many times and circumstances along my life journey when I’ve felt unclean. Despite the common misperception of those who’ve never really read the story, Jesus didn’t come to perpetuate systemic uncleanliness. He didn’t come to double down on societal rules, stigmas, and shame. He didn’t come to tell me how terrible, unworthy, and unclean I am. I’m well aware of my uncleanliness without having to be reminded.

Jesus came to reach out with grace and love and compassion and power. Jesus came to touch the unclean person and make them clean. Present company included.