Tag Archives: Romans 7

Jesus and the Religious Rule Keepers

Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.
Mark 2:27 (NIV)

As a child, I did a lot of walking and playing outdoors with the kids in my neighborhood. The neighborhood around the 3100 block of Madison Avenue was pretty much a virtual playground for us. I still remember who lived in most of the houses on our block and several of the houses on the blocks around us. We knew all of the “shortcuts” between garages, through fences, and how to quickly both get to other places and to disappear in need. We also knew the quickest routes, by foot or bike, to the woods, creeks, and green spaces that surrounded our neighborhood.

As we would play tag, hide-and-seek, or walk to the woods, I can remember nonchalantly playing with whatever plant I happened to walk over or past. Dandelions could be turned into a woven bracelet, and their dead blooms could be blown to the wind as a natural form of confetti. The leaves from corn plants in people’s backyard gardens could be held tightly between your thumbs like a diaphragm and made to make the most unusual noises when you blew through the hole between your thumbs. Of course, apples, cherries, and other fruit could be picked as you walked by for a quick snack. If you could spot one, a four-leaf clover was always a must-grab for luck in our next game of Freeze Tag, T.V. Tag, or Kick-the-Can.

What struck me in today’s chapter was the fact that, as Jesus and his followers were walking, “they began to pick some heads of grain.” Of course, they did. They were no different than me and my neighborhood friends as we walked through a neighbor’s yard. If you’re on a walk and you walk through a field your hands naturally reach out and caress the heads of grain to feel the softness across your hand. Your hand unconsciously closes around one and your fingers rub the grain loose from the head. You let the chaff fall from your palm or blow it like the natural confetti of a dandelion. You pop a grain into your mouth without thinking much of it. I learned as a child that interacting with creation as you walk through it is as natural as breathing.

How silly, then, that the religious people of Jesus’ day thought the natural act of picking heads of grain to be breaking “the Sabbath.” The “Sabbath” day was simply a day of rest each week. It follows God’s example in the creation poem in Genesis. God creates the universe in six days and then takes a day off. God later told His people in the Ten Commandments: “Do just like I did. Work six days, but make sure you take a day off, a sabbath.” The rule was meant to help perpetuate a healthy life. I need sleep each day. I need a day off each week. I need a few weeks of vacation each year. It’s part of the healthy physical rhythm that promotes mental and spiritual health, as well.

Along my life journey, one of the things I’ve observed is that religion likes to translate spiritual principles into strict, prescriptive rules of behavior. I remember one Bible college a friend of mine considered attending desired that their students stay sexually pure, so the rule was that if a member of the opposite sex is sitting in a chair and vacates it you must allow time for the chair to cool from that person’s body heat before you sit in it. I wish I was making that up. Without the rule, I would have never even thought about residual female body heat on a classroom chair. The legalistic rule intended to keep me “pure” actually ends up creating the illicit thoughts it was intended to prevent. The religious rules intended to ensure that I keep the spiritual principle actually become more perverse than the sin it’s trying to keep away from. It’s a perfect illustration of what Paul told the followers of Jesus in Rome in his letter to them:

The law code started out as an excellent piece of work. What happened, though, was that sin found a way to pervert the command into a temptation, making a piece of “forbidden fruit” out of it. The law code, instead of being used to guide me, was used to seduce me.

Read Romans 7:8-12 (MSG)

So, let me come back to today’s chapter. Jesus and the disciples walking through a field casually picking off a head of grain. The legalistic, religious rule keepers confront Jesus and point to the behavioral rules they’ve manufactured to give clarity to the earlier code of conduct which was born out of the one rule God gave them in the Ten Commandments in order to adhere to a spiritual principle of making sure you get some rest and stay healthy.

Jesus, in reply to the religious rule enforcers, simply points out an exception to the rule that those same legalistic rule enforcers chose to ignore (e.g. “You’re condemning me for doing the same that King David and his men did, but I don’t hear you condemning him.”) Jesus then cuts to the heart of the matter: the Sabbath was made as a principle of rest to help give you have a good life and keeping your heart, mind, and body healthy.

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking of all the ways I once adhered to religious legalism. I confess, there was so much about what Jesus was teaching and getting at that I didn’t get at all. But, that was my journey. I had to walk through those stretches in order to learn, fail, struggle, persevere, grow, and mature in my own heart and mind. As the old hymn says: I was blind, but now I see. I have come to perceive that I, as a religious person, can be more spiritually blind than the “sinner” I believe that I am trying to save.

In this season of Lent, as I walk towards the annual memorial of Jesus’ death and celebration of His resurrection, I can’t help but think of the confessed thief hanging on the cross next to Jesus. The confessed sinner went with Jesus to paradise while the religious rule-keepers, who condemned and had Jesus executed, stood there hurling insults and condemnation at Him. They were blind, as I once was. Even Jesus said in those moments as he looked down at his executioners and the good religious rule-keepers condemning him: “Father, forgive them. They have no idea what they’re doing.”

I’m left thinking that this wayfaring stranger would rather hang on a cross, a confessed sinner next to Jesus, than religiously stand in condemnation of others for their breaking of the rules that were addendums to the previous code of conduct, which were additions to the one ancient rule, which was originally intended as a principle to spiritually guide people to Life.

I think I’ll go for a walk today. No dandelions out yet to blow to the wind, but I can pick a few leaves, and just maybe a four-leaf clover.

Anyone up for a game of kick-the-can?

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Masking Tape Mess

For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.
Romans 7:18-19 (NIV)

For most of my childhood there was a line of masking tape on the floor in the doorway to my brothers’ bedroom. My bedroom was across the hall. The masking tape was the visual border my brothers placed at the entrance of their bedroom sanctuary. I was told, and reminded regularly, that I was never to cross that masking tape without their permission and presence. Their room was sacred space and it was off limits to me.

So, naturally, I snuck into their room every chance I got.

It’s silly isn’t it? The rules telling us what not to do stirs inside of us the desire to do (and get away with) the very thing the rule is made to prohibit us from doing. The small town where Wendy and I live has a long tradition of being a religious community. The kids in our community are raised feeling pressure of the community to be “good” kids and “Christian” kids. Parents have told me that what their “good Christian” kids now do is to have one social media account to broadcast their “good” kid image to the world, but then they have a secret social media account on the same platform to get away with all the “bad” things they want to say, show, share and sext with their friends.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. That’s a perfect word picture of the human nature problem that Paul is getting at in today’s chapter.

A few weeks ago my friend Katie presented a word picture that I love. The law, she said, is an x-ray. It shows us what’s broken, but it’s not going to heal us. The doctor is not going to wrap the x-ray around your arm in order to heal the break.

For a long time institutional Christianity and its adherents (myself included, I confess) have given the world the perception that being a follower of Jesus is just another religion with another set of rules. Yet when I read Jesus’ teaching and study His example, He is always about freeing me from the silly, broken system of rule-keeping that only seems to feed this insidious, secret desire to do the very things I’m not supposed to do. Jesus calls me to something higher; Something that C.S. Lewis described as “further up and further in.” Self-sacrificing Love, permeating grace, and radical forgiveness that is led by Spirit, built on Truth, and fueled by resurrection Life.

The further I leave behind legalism and religious rule keeping, the more I embrace and experience where Jesus is calling me to follow, the less I feel of that pesky desire to step across the masking tape.

How are Those Resolutions Coming?

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.
Romans 7:15 (NIV)

So, how are those New Year’s resolutions coming? I laughed the other day when a friend on Facebook confessed that he couldn’t wait for everyone at his crowded gym to give up their resolutions and stay home.

Why is it that we struggle to do the things we want to do and the things that we know will be good for us? At the same time, we continue to do things we know are unhealthy for ourselves (and perhaps others) even though we know we should stop.

This is the crux of the rumination in today’s chapter. There are those who steadfastly believe, or act as if they believe, that God’s favor is earned by keeping the rules, being good people, and coloring inside the lines. Paul’s response is basically: “How are those New Year’s Resolutions coming?”

No matter how good we try to be, we never truly rid ourselves of the human condition. Despite our resolutions we find ourselves choosing the couch over the gym after a couple of meager attempts at self discipline. The five pounds we shed in January (of the 20 we need to lose) is back on by Valentine’s Day. And, we won’t even go there with the nasty little secret behaviors the rest of the world doesn’t see.

The message of Jesus was simply this. You can’t rid yourself of the nature of sin. That being the case, death is the penalty. Jesus did not come to give us a a bunch of Pinterest worthy sayings to motivate us toward good works. Jesus came to die the death that we deserve, so that we might have access to the Life we can never afford by our own efforts.

Today, I’m feeling grateful that my salvation is not dependent on my goodness. I think I’ll keep working on those resolutions, though. They won’t earn me a ticket to heaven, but they will certainly make my journey on this earth a little better for both me and my companions.

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Heroes and Fatal Flaws

But Samson said to his father, “Get her for me, because she pleases me.”
Judges 14:3b (NRSV)

Wendy and I went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens on Saturday. As we were driving to the theater we got into a great conversation about the building blocks of story. Stories and myths from ancient Greece to contemporary cinema have overarching themes that authors, playwrights, and movie makers recycle time and time and time again because they resonate with us and our common human experience.

Our heroes have fatal flaws. From ancient myths we learn of Achilles the mighty warrior who had one fatal weakness – his heel. The force was strong with Anakin Skywalker, but he was angry and the dark side fed his anger until he became Darth Vader. One of my favorite moments in the Force Awakens (don’t worry – no spoiler here) came from the writers introducing an interesting twist. The Dark Side fears for one of the evil characters, because this person appears to have a weakness (a fatal flaw in reverse) for the Light.

In God’s Message there is, perhaps, no greater example of a great hero with a fatal flaw than Samson. A handsome, strong, and rugged warrior of miraculous birth, Samson’s fatal flaw was that he was driven by his appetites. Samson sees a pretty Philistine girl (lust of the eyes) and demands that his father arrange a marriage despite the fact that it goes against all religious and cultural rules of the day. Samson is hungry (lust of the flesh) and his appetite drives him to eat honey out of the dead carcass of a lion, despite the fact that it was against God’s rules. When Samson gets humiliated by his bride’s people (pride), he goes into a homicidal rage and breaks troth with the girl he’d been so driven to marry.

This morning I’m reminded that stories of great heroes with fatal flaws resonate with us because we all have blind spots. No matter how heroic I attempt to be in this life, there is always a chink (or in my case, chinks) in my shining armor. Like Samson, I am driven by my appetites. I know the rules. The right thing to do is perfectly clear, but I so often choose to do the very opposite – the things my appetites crave. It reminds me of Paul’s rumination in his letter to Jesus’ followers in Rome:

What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. So if I can’t be trusted to figure out what is best for myself and then do it, it becomes obvious that God’s command is necessary.

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

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

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

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

In the quiet of this Monday morning, this pitiful hero aware of his fatal flaws is reminded that he needs a savior “who will act to set things right in my life of contradictions.”

And that, is what the Christmas story is all about.

Capter-a-Day Romans 7

Cheetos are commonly considered a junk food.
Image via Wikipedia

 The very command that was supposed to guide me into life was cleverly used to trip me up, throwing me headlong. Romans 7:10-11 (MSG)

There was a drawer in the kitchen when I was a kid. It was a big drawer. The bottom drawer of the pennensuila to the left of the stove. It was the drawer. In that drawer were potato chips, Oreo cookies, Little Debbie snack cakes, and the occasional gold mine of cream-filled Hostess treats. To a young kid, it was junk food Nirvana.

When I got home from school, it was snack time. A Coke and a snack. One snack. Only one snack. That was the law. Thus speaketh almighty mom. “You don’t want to ruin supper,” she said.

So, I would wolf down my coke and cookies before heading downstairs to turn on after-school television: The Brady Bunch followed by Hogan’s Heroes. It always happened somewhere half-way through the Brady Bunch, right when Peter or Jan found themselves in the midst of a polyester, bell-bottomed predicament.

I really wanted another snack.

But mom said, “It would ruin my supper.”

“So what,” I said to myself. “It’s chicken and noodles. I hate chicken and noodles.”

Listen for the footsteps upstairs. Mom’s in the living room. Quietly make your way up stairs. Watch that third step; It creaks. Tip-toe down the hallway. Peek around the corner. Where’s mom sitting? Good! She’s on the couch facing the other way. Just a few more quiet steps to the drawer of forbidden fruit pies! You gotta love that dad made these drawers so quiet. Grab the stash, then quietly dash back downstairs.

I don’t know how many times I successfully made a sneaky snack run.  Sure, I got caught a few times, just like the Brady kids. But I was successful more often than not, which prompted me to do it again and again.

I thought about the snack drawer when I read today’s chapter. It perfectly illustrates for me the sin nature that Romans explains. That sinful nature in me takes the command that was meant for my good, and turns it into a lustful desire to disobediently appease my out-of-control appetites.

Unfortunately, the older you get, the commands are more important and the disobedience yields more disastrous consequences.

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