Tag Archives: Ritual

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.

Life Between the Prevailing Wind and Hard Heart

Then King Ahaz went to Damascus to meet Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria. He saw an altar in Damascus and sent to Uriah the priest a sketch of the altar, with detailed plans for its construction.
2 Kings 16:10 (NIV)

Last week Wendy and I found ourselves in a discussion about the hazing rituals we experienced growing up. For Wendy it was the process of pledging in a college sorority. For me it was being part of a high school swimming team. In both our cases, the hazing was the relatively minor and harmless. It was the ages old exercise of new members demonstrating allegiance and loyalty to the group and its elder members. There are nightmare stories of those who have been forced to do things against their will in order to be accepted. There are also stories of those who choose to behave against their beliefs, morals, or personal values simply to accommodate the prevailing cultural forces. And, it is ages old. These things have always been part of our human experience east of Eden.

Today’s chapter is dedicated to the reign of King Ahaz of Judah. According to the description provided us by the scribes, Ahaz appears to have had a pattern of choosing to accommodate the prevailing winds of his society’s popular culture. Ahab was a follower. Rather than being faithful to the Law of Moses and adhering exclusively to the faiths of his fathers, Ahaz seemed willing and open to worship anything anywhere. He even went so far as to sacrifice his own child which was a common practice among some of the more gruesome Canaanite cults (and explicitly forbidden by the law of Moses). Ahaz also worshiped the idolatrous gods of their northern counterpart, Israel.

When threatened by military conquest by his neighbors, Ahaz was unwilling to stand up and lead his army in defense of his nation and people. Ahaz was a follower. So, he appealed to the biggest bully in the neighborhood for protection: Tiglath-Pileser of Assyria (note: featured photo of this post is a relief showing Tiglath-Pileser standing over an enemy). The Assyrian warlord was happy to take Ahaz’ gold and defend Judah, but protection came with a higher price than just gold.

After the successful defense of Judah, Ahaz had to complete an ancient form of hazing by traveling to Assyria to pay his respects to Tiglath-Pileser and to prove his subservience. While in Assyria, he copied the plans to an altar there and sent it to be replicated and placed in Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. Scholars believe that this altar was likely the royal altar of Tiglath-Pileser, and its presence at the center of the Temple in Jerusalem would have been a sign that Tiglath-Pileser was to be worshipped as their protector. Ahaz, ever willing to worship anything, anywhere was only too happy to make this accommodation.

This morning I’m thinking about character, subservience, and accommodation. There is a fine line between harmless societal rituals and cruel hazing. There are some who will go along with the crowd to the point of losing themselves, and there are also some who err on the side of being so self-righteous about their beliefs that they cannot extend even an ounce of grace and mercy to those who disagree with every jot and tittle of their dogma. Once again I’m thinking about finding the truth in the tension between the extremes. I don’t want to be an Ahaz who simply “goes with the flow” and follows the prevailing winds of culture to the point that my faith is meaningless. I also don’t want to be so rigid and hard-hearted in my personal standards that love, grace, mercy and forgiveness get squeezed out of my life and relationships.

External Ritual Sans Spiritual Reality

‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
    ‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
    and you have not noticed?’

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
    and exploit all your workers.”
Isaiah 58:3 (NIV)

When people think about what it means to be religious, the mind is quickly filled with mental pictures of what religious-types do. Taking an hour or two each week to attend services, praying over meals or certain hours of the day, reading the Bible (and perhaps, blogging about it :-)), lighting candles, burning incense, and all the other rituals and trappings that commonly seem to accompany the religions of the world.

As someone who could easily be labeled a religious person for most of my earthly journey, I can tell you that there are metaphorical reasons for most of the rituals and trappings. Metaphor is the language of God, and it’s the best we have for trying to embody that which is beyond our finite ability to fully comprehend and communicate. God gives us many and diverse metaphors to express His person: wind, fire, water, gate, bread, lamb, lion, and etc.. God also provided tangible external metaphors and spiritual exercises to connect us with the spiritual internal realities He wants us to experience in oneness with Him: bread, wine, water, rest, sacrifice, prayer, fasting, and etc..

The problems comes, however, when the external ritualistic metaphors are carried out without the requisite spiritual realities being experienced. What was supposed to connect us is disconnected. Ritual and religion without repentance, redemption, and righteousness becomes empty and even dangerous.

In today’s chapter God speaks through the ancient prophet Isaiah to address this very disconnection. The people of Isaiah’s day had ritualistically gone without food and covered themselves in the clothes of mourning and repentance hoping for God to respond with blessing. God, however, points out that while they are acting out religious ritual in public, in private they have been self-centered, exploitive, greedy,  unjust, and selfish. There is a fundamental core disconnect between true, internal, spiritual oneness with God, and external, rote religious ritual. When that happens, religion becomes all of the ugly and profane things it has been guilty of across time.

This morning I’m reminded that if my spirit is not connected to Holy Spirit in ways that tangibly increase my love for, and actions towards, others (especially those who are different, down-trodden, beat-down, and in need), then all of my church going, hand-raising, worship singing, communion taking, prayer whispering, Bible reading, (and blog posting) is empty and worthless.

Lord, have mercy… please.

The Ultimate Question

The church I attended every week as a child.
The church I attended every week as a child.

Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say I am?”

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.”

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Luke 9:18-20a (NIV)

Growing up, my family attended church regularly. I sang in the children’s choir, put on my robe each week, and walked in processional up the center aisle and into the choir loft. In the summer I went to Vacation Bible School. In the fall I and my went to the church’s Christmas bazaar (usually because my mother was a volunteer). Every Easter week our family attended the Maunday Thursday communion service. Every Christmas week our family attended the Christmas Eve candlelight service. Every year or two I went to the Father/Son banquet with my dad. At the age of twelve I dutifully attended the confirmation class required by our denomination, and at the end of that year I put on my white robe and was accepted as a member of the church. I got a certificate for my pains and a box of envelopes with my name on it for my weekly offerings.

Michael Corleone
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All of these activities and events made me and my family good, religious people. We observed all of the right things. They did not, however, make us believers in Jesus. Like Michael Corleone standing at the baptismal fount dutifully renouncing Satan while his orders to assassinate all of his enemies was carried out, the rituals and religious trappings had no real relationship with what was going on inside my heart and soul. All of the religious activity really didn’t affect my motives, thoughts, words, or actions on a daily basis.

In today’s chapter, Jesus confronts his followers with two questions:

“Who do the crowds say that I am?”

Simple. There are many answers to this question. We can spend all day going through the options. Some say this, and some say that. Good teacher, Son of God, messiah, prophet, wise man, looney tunes, charlatan, or huckster.

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Now that’s a direct question. That’s a very personal question. It’s an important question. In fact, it’s the ultimate question. The answer to that question makes all the difference.  C.S. Lewis famously wrote that there are three logical answers to Jesus’ question:

  1. Liar. Jesus knew He was not God, but told everyone He was. If Jesus lied then He was morally corrupt and a deceiver. In which case, there is no point in believing in Him or following Him.
  2. Lunatic. Jesus claimed to be God, but was not. In which case, despite all of the nice sayings and good deeds, Jesus was actually crazy and should have been locked up in the psych ward with all of the other lunatics claiming to be God. Again, there is no point in giving Him much thought.
  3. Lord. Jesus was, in fact, who He claimed to be, in which case we much choose to accept Him or reject Him.

When I was 14, in a moment that had nothing to do with my family, church, denomination, or confirmation I found my spirit confronted with the ultimate question:

“But what about you?” came the question deep from in my soul“Who do you say I am?”

“I believe you are, indeed, who you say you are,” my spirit replied to His spirit. “Come into my heart, and be Lord of my life.”

And, that made all the difference.

Signed, Sealed, Delivered

Sello de lacre en sobre, escudo Heraldico de l...
Sello de lacre en sobre, escudo Heraldico de la Familia Fonseca Padilla, Jalisco; México. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Place me like a seal over your heart,
    like a seal on your arm.
Song of Solomon 8:6a (NLT)

I have in my desk a stick of sealing wax and seal press with the initial “V” on it. I purchased it many years ago and still pull it out from time to time when I am writing a special letter of some kind. It’s a funky little detail that makes a letter or card stand out. You light the wax stick and let the wax drip onto the back of the envelope where the letter is sealed. Once you have a little blob of melted wax built up on the envelope you use the press to squish the wax. When it dries, the initial is embossed in the wax and it creates a special second seal on the letter which the reader must break to open the letter.

Our culture has long forgotten the importance that seals played in ancient times. Kings, officials, and noblemen had their own unique seal which they used to seal letters and documents. It became a public sign of ownership for the person to whom that document belonged. When you saw the seal, you knew who you were messing with. Seals are sometimes known as “sigils” which etymologists trace back to the Hebrew word segula which referred to an item of spiritual effect. In ancient folklore, it was believed that a person poured a part of themselves into the design of their unique seal. An individual’s seal wasn’t just a symbol of a particular person, it was spiritually a part of them.

In light of this understanding of the ancient meaning of seals and sigils, I loved the above verse from the lyrics of Solomon’s song. Sung by the young woman in the duet, she asks Solomon to metaphorically place her as a seal over her heart and upon his arm. There are two layers of meaning here. The heart is the most private chamber of our thoughts, feelings, desires, dreams and intentions. By being placed as a seal over his heart, the young would lay claim to Solomon’s most intimate being. She alone would have access to Solomon’s heart. In Solomon’s day, the arm was often the only part of the man who was publicly seen by others other than his face. The arm is also a symbol of a man’s strength. By being placed as a seal on his arm, the young woman was laying public claim to Solomon and his strength.

God’s Message has scant descriptors of marriage. It does not prescribe a particular method or ceremony for marriage, but seems to allow room for cultures and history to develop a veritable plethora of customs around the marriage ceremony. What God’s Message does simply say is that a man and woman leave their respective parents, unite themselves, and become “one flesh.” When we knit ourselves together in spirit, soul mind and body we place our spouse as a seal over us.

Choose well the person whose seal you place over your heart and life.

Preparing for a Role: Ready for Performance!

The pre-battle speech is an icon of literature, stage and film. From Shakespeare’s Henry V admonishing his band of brothers on the field of Agincourt to William Wallace admonishing his Scottish army to Knute Rockne encouraging his boys to “win one for the Gipper.” Most of us have experienced the mental preparation and psyche up before we are to participate in a big event.

Performance on stage is no different. Weeks of preparation on Ah, Wilderness!, hours of tedious rehearsal, and the combined efforts of a small army of cast and crew culminate this week in just four performances. Every stage troupe has their own unique pre-curtain rituals. Some are very ritualistic and others are more loose. It’s been fun for me to enjoy being part of the pre-show ritual with the Theatre Central cast this week.

Each actor is given his or her “call” time by the Stage Manager(s). This is the time you are required to arrive and begin the make-up process. For Ah, Wilderness!, some of the ladies have more time consuming hair preparations for that 1906 coiffure, so their call is earlier than most of the cast. My call has been one hour before curtain, so I have arrived at the Kruidenier Theatre Center on the campus of Central College about 6:30 each night. Hair and make-up is the first order of business.

Me and Jake Anderson getting ready in make-up alley.
Me and Jake Anderson getting ready in make-up alley.

I start with wetting down and plastering my hair with goop to get that slicked back look. Then apply make-up. The harsh, bright stage lights tend to wash out natural complexion, so stage make-up helps to balance this out. Foundation, eye-liner, rouge, highlights and wrinkle lines are applied and then powdered. Yes, I do this myself. Most stage veterans learn the process and take responsibility for their own basic stage make-up. It’s generally only  when more complex make-up techniques are required that a make-up artist is brought in. The hair and make-up time is also a social time. Actors do this together, music is generally playing and there’s a lot of good natured joking and jovial conversation going on.

It’s during this period that Stage Managers also remind actors to “check props.”  It is ultimately the actors responsibility to make sure the items you need on stage are where they are supposed to be. Once in make-up, I put on the iPod ear buds. Since college my requisite pre-show psych up has begun with the Talking Head’s Psycho Killer followed by Burning Down the House a ritual I picked up from my roommate and senior theatre classmate, Kirk Anderson and one that I’ve never altered. Even thespians have their superstitious rituals. With music cranked and adrenaline beginning to pump through my veins, I check to make sure that cigars, handkerchiefs, newspapers, reading glasses, and hat are all where they need to be on stage and back stage.

Warm-ups!
Warm-ups!

It’s now about 30-40 minutes before curtain. I head to the studio theatre next to make-up alley where I begin to stretch and continue to let the Talking Head’s pump me up. Pretty soon the rest of the cast wander in along with Stage Manager(s) and Director, Ann Wilkinson. The cast forms a circle and we go through a series of physical and vocal warm ups. Soft stretches and tongue twisters are primary as we get our bodies loose and our mouths ready for reciting our lines. Here are a few we’ve done this week (try saying each 4-5 times in rapid succession):

  • Unique New York
  • Irish Wristwatch
  • Aluminum Linoleum
  • Geranium Chrysanthemum
  • Bears eat beets on Battlestar Galactica
  • A box of biscuits. A box of mixed biscuits. A biscuit mixer.

As I mentioned earlier, each stage troupe has their own unique rituals. Ann Wilkinson enjoys an exercise of “singing the theatre alive” which is based on a tribe in Africa who each year gather to “sing the forest alive” by chanting/singing the same phrase over and over and over for an entire week. We divide into groups and perform the chant (phonetically: Ah-mah-ee-boo-oh-ee-ay) in a round with each group choosing a different physical action to complement their vocals.

We then will get our pre-show speech in a quick word of encouragement from the Director and/or Stage Managers along with the occasional instructions or reminders before being dismissed to get into costume. I go into the Costume Room and pull my costume from its place on the rack and head to the locker room to change with the other actors. By the time the costume is on the Stage Managers are generally calling for “places” and it’s time to head through the back stage entrance to take our places for the start of the show.

Cast photo taken after Dress Rehearsal.
Cast photo taken after Dress Rehearsal.

It’s been an enjoyable run. We’ve had good audiences and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working with the exceptional young people and profs at Central. Thanks to everyone at Central for their cooperation and support. Thanks to family and friends who have come out to see the show. Tonight is the final performance and the curtain will close another production. There is always a bittersweet feeling with closing night. While I’m ready to have my evenings and weekends back, there is a sense of loss as I think of the fun and camaraderie I’ve enjoyed in the past weeks.

Next up for Wendy and me is another production of The Dominie’s Wife for the Pella Opera House during Pella’s Tulip Time. It will be Wendy’s third production of the show and my second. We’ll begin production meetings next week. Stay tuned!

Chapter-a-Day Numbers 19

None - This image is in the public domain and ...
Image via Wikipedia

“Anything the ritually unclean man touches becomes unclean, and the person who touches what he touched is unclean until evening.” Numbers 19:22 (MSG)

“Wash your hands,” we are told incessantly from the time we are young children. We are told to do it before we eat, after being outside, when we’ve been around someone who is sick, and when we are preparing food. It’s a matter of hygiene, but even the most menial of daily tasks carries with it a spiritual word picture.

Things that make us sick, both physically and spiritually, have a tendency to spread their ill effects. We can either become fanatical about avoiding anything that might make us dirty, or we can learn the self-discipline of washing ourselves of those things which may make us sick.

Throughout God’s message, water is used a physical word picture of spiritual cleansing.

  • God cleansed the earth with a flood.
  • Israel walked through the water of the Red Sea when escaping Egypt, and then those who enslaved them were washed away in the waters.
  • Ritual cleansing and washing was prescribed in the laws of Moses for anything that made people “unclean” both physically and spiritually.
  • Jonah tried to rebel by escaping God’s call over water, then was carried through the deep to the place of obedience.
  • Baptism, literally defined as plunging forcefully, is prescribed as a public sign of their spiritual transformation for anyone who has cleansed their hearts by placing their faith in Him.

Jesus washed His followers’ feet, then told them to do the same for one another. The word picture is clear. We are expected to follow Jesus’ example. We are to walk through this world and actively love others in tangible ways. The journey carries us through some dark and dirty places. It is important that we are regularly cleansed and refreshed by one another. Otherwise, the dirt may pile up and have gravely ill effects.

Today, as I wash my hands, I’m reminded of the deeper meaning of being cleansed.

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