Tag Archives: Ritual

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.

Have you missed previous chapter-a-day posts from 1 Peter? Click on the image above for quick access to all the links!

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.

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.