Tag Archives: Rome

Wrestling with Subjection to Authority

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.
Romans 13:1 (NIV)

For the record, I don’t belong to any political party.

I was just reminded this morning of a passage in The Lord of the Rings when Pippin asks the Ent, Treebeard, whose side he was on. “Side?” Treebeard replies. “I’m on no one’s side, because no one is on my side.”

Along my life journey I have respected certain leaders from both of the major parties here in the States, and I have had personal disdain for leaders from both of the major parties. I’m thankful for living in a representative republic. There is always the possibility of change in every election cycle.

Paul is writing his letter to followers of Jesus in Rome during the time of the Roman Empire. One of the reasons the Romans were able to control such a large area of the western world for such a large period of time was the fact that Rome tended to bring and maintain a certain amount of law and order wherever they ruled. While there were always those unhappy with Roman occupation, there was a certain understanding among the common population that the system of Roman law and order was better than the chaos which was often the reality when a local tyrant or warlord reigned.

In today’s chapter Paul provides a fascinating perspective as he tells the followers of Jesus living in Rome itself to be subject to governing authorities, to pay their taxes, and to respect those in authority. This is the Roman Empire. The Jewish authorities in Jerusalem, whom Paul once worked for, have an entire terrorist network developing which is going to erupt into outright rebellion in about 20 years from the writing of Paul’s letter. Even one of the Twelve apostles came out of the anti-Roman Zealots. But Paul is direct, authoritative and unequivocal in stating that authority is a construct of God, so we must respectfully subject ourselves to government authority.

A couple of thoughts on this. Underneath Paul’s teaching on this matter is an understanding that on the eternal, cosmic, Level 4, Great Story perspective all things are moving toward the end of the Story, which is already written. If we want to get into the notion of God and eternity existing outside of the dimension of time then one might argue that it’s already happened. Maybe you need another cup of coffee before wrapping your brain around that.

There is also plenty of precedent from the Old Testament (Paul was a lawyer by training, remember) that God raises up and uses certain kings and rulers (Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar, for example) who were not the most benevolent leaders. Even David respected and viewed Saul as God’s appointed authority and refused to depose and kill the mad king when he had every reason and opportunity to do so. In telling the Roman believers to subject themselves to their Roman authorities, Paul was channeling thinking and teaching that was quite ancient.

Then there is the most fascinating fact that Paul is a Roman citizen. This is no small detail. It’s a huge deal in his day and age. Roman citizenship was extremely hard to come by and afforded the person all sorts of perks in Roman society. Paul states elsewhere that he was born a Roman citizen, so he grew up enjoying the protection and status of that citizenship. Paul will soon use that status to appeal his upcoming conviction to Caesar himself. Paul will end up a prisoner in Rome itself.

What’s ironic is that Paul and the believers he’s writing to in Rome will be scapegoated by Caesar, blamed for the Great Fire of Rome to cover up Caesar’s own culpability, and they will be persecuted mercilessly. The Roman authorities to whom Paul is telling the believers to submit will throw them in prison, cover them in wax and light them on fire (while still alive) to illuminate Caesar’s garden, feed them to the lions in the Coliseum, and execute Paul by chopping of his head. By the way, beheading was another perk of Roman citizenship. If Paul had not been a citizen he’d have suffered a much more agonizing death by crucifixion, which was the gruesome fate awaiting Peter in Rome.

Would knowing the end awaiting him change Paul’s charge to subject themselves to Rome’s authority? I don’t think so. A few weeks ago I reminded our local gathering of Jesus followers that Jesus told Peter about the death by crucifixion that was awaiting him after His resurrection. Once again, the present, Level 1 daily circumstances were lived with an eternal, Level 4 perspective.

This is one of those mornings when, in the quiet, I have more questions than answers. What about…? What if…? Despite all the questions, I’m reminded that I’m not always going to like those in authority. I’m reminded that being respectful and lawful is part of being a “living sacrifice” (see yesterday’s post). I’m reminded that Jesus subjected himself to cruelty and a completely unjust execution after a series of kangaroo court trials before religious, secular, regional, and Roman authorities to whom He was always respectful. He knew that his Level 1 circumstances had Level 4 purpose. So did Peter. So did Paul.

That is whose footsteps I’m following.

Art History; History Art; Art, History

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
Romans 1:20 (NIV)

Back in college I was required to take a visual art class as part of my major. Being a lover of history I chose to take Art History II. The fascinating thing about Professor Jeff Thompson’s class was that the text book was not an Art History textbook. It was simply a History textbook.

Professor Thompson began the class with a question: “Does art merely reflect history, or does it drive history?” If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you’ll recognize this is a binary, “either, or” question, and the answer to his question that we arrived at was “yes, and.”

What was fascinating in the course of study was the connection between all that was going on during a certain period of time of history (politics, religion, economics, and etc.) and what we were seeing in the important artworks of that period. Not only that, but also the connection between what we saw in visual art (paintings and sculptures) and the other art mediums (music, theatre, architechture, and literature). The art of each period both reflected what was happening and drove history forward.

That class planted in me a seed which has grown over time to bear much fruit of thought. Here is the root of it: In creating art, no matter the medium, artists express themselves through what they create. It cannot be otherwise. It is inherent in that act of creation itself that artists express who they really are, what they see, what they think, what they feel, and how they’ve experienced the world around them. In expressing these things, they influence the world around them and they drive the action of this Great Story.

This morning, in this chapter-a-day journey, we make our way to Paul’s letter to the followers of Jesus living in Rome, heart of the Roman Empire and epicenter of western civilization at the time. Today, art historians flock to Rome to see remnants of the ancient city with its architecture and artwork. The people Paul wrote to were surrounded by it as it was happening all around them, and to them he wrote this:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

The creator revealed themselves in what was created. The Genesis poem says that humans were created in the image of the Creator. Just as Van Gogh painted the unique way he saw light and color, just as Bach channeled his love and understanding of mathematic order and the woven details of the universe into his music, just as Shakespeare expressed the tragedy of everyday humanity in the gilded trappings of man-made royalty, so God the Creator expressed  the light, energy, life, beauty, and power of their person(s) in all creation.

In the quiet this morning I’m pondering how through much of my journey I’ve viewed faith and science as living entrenched in their “either, or” camps like the armies of World War I dug in for the long haul, reduced to hurtling grenades at one another across no man’s land. At least, that’s the perception I’ve had from what has been presented to me by media who like to simplify complex issues into simple binary groups in conflict (it sells more). As I’ve proceeded in my journey I’ve met many fellow sojourners who could be easily labeled as a members of either trench, but who have wandered out into no man’s land. They observe and study and appreciate this cosmic work of art still expanding outward, still creating, still reproducing life, and  they’ve come to a “yes, and” realization, just as we did in Professor Thompson’s Art History class.

That’s where Paul begins his letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome. He starts with the expansive canvas of the cosmos through which the Creator expresses self. From the mystery of the cosmos Paul will dive into the mystery of being human, and how he sees the Creator has interacted with creation in the Great Story.

To Be Continued….

For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him.
Acts 28:30 (NIV)

It’s always frustrating when a television series that I love comes to an untimely end. There have been a number of shows over the years that I wish had continued. What makes it even more frustrating when a smart, intelligent show gets cancelled is all of the mindless schlock that seems to perpetuate itself for decades.

As an amateur writer, I’m always fascinated how the writers and producers handle a show’s storyline once they know the show has been cancelled. Many shows are written from the beginning to contain multiple story lines or “arcs.” This allows for there to be a sense of closure after one season, or a part of a season, while leaving other story arcs open to lead into future seasons. So, what happens when the writing team is told that they only have two episodes to wrap things up for good?

I’ve observed that some try to wrap up all of the loose ends, which leaves things feeling clunky, because not all of the story arcs have been fully fleshed out. Some introduce a tragic end to the protagonist which allows for a reason that the series has ended. Much like the untimely end of a loved one in real life, this option leaves viewers grieving for what “might have been.” Sometimes the writers simply let the series end without ever trying to give viewers closure. This, in turn, reminds me of Wendy.

Wendy has always been an avid reader. She tells me that when she was a young girl she never wanted to put a book down in the middle because she was afraid the story would go on without her. Instead of “to be continued” the next time she picked up the book, she feared that the story wouldn’t wait for her.

I mention this because in today’s final chapter of the book of Acts we find Paul arriving in Rome to wait for his trial with the Roman Emperor, Nero. The tension of the story has been building as Paul appeals his case to Caesar and makes an epic journey, including shipwreck, to Rome. In this final chapter, Luke tells us that Paul rented his own place, was allowed to live a relatively free existence with his Centurion guard. He met with the local Jewish population. He “welcomed all” who came to see him and continued to proclaim the Message of Jesus.

And then it ends, as if the show suddenly got cancelled. Luke simply leaves the storyline there, and we must assume that his historical narrative, penned for a man named Theophilus, was wrapped up and sent off at this point. Luke leaves the rest of the story open because it hadn’t happened yet.

The rest of Paul’s story is left for us to piece together from the writings of early Christians and Roman historians. In July 64 AD the “Great Fire of Rome” broke out for six days. According to the Roman historian, Tacitus, only four of Rome’s 14 districts escaped damage. Nero blamed the fire on Christians and immediately set out to persecute them. It is documented that Nero had both Paul and Peter executed, which is consistent with his persecution of Jesus’ followers. The exact dates and the specifics surrounding the events and executions were not well documented at the time.

In the quiet this morning I’m smiling as I think of a young, curly-haired Wendy, with her nose in a book, convinced that the story will go on without her. Indeed, as the story of Acts comes to an abrupt, even unsatisfying end, I’m meditating on the fact that the story did go on. We know that Paul was executed and that the Message of Jesus continued to spread despite horrific persecution. The story continued, and continues to this day. Having taken up the mantel of faith in my youth, I am a part of the same story; Just a wayfaring stranger traveling through this particular story arc, in this particular chapter, during this particular point in the epic.

I only hope that I to play my part as faithfully and as well as those in Acts who led the way.

Have a great day, my friend.

Yes, and Yes (?)

red pill blue pill

Paul said, “I am appealing to the emperor’s tribunal; this is where I should be tried. I have done no wrong to the Jews, as you very well know. Now if I am in the wrong and have committed something for which I deserve to die, I am not trying to escape death; but if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can turn me over to them. I appeal to the emperor.” Then Festus, after he had conferred with his council, replied, “You have appealed to the emperor; to the emperor you will go.” Acts 25:10-12 (NRSV)

While under Roman guard in Jerusalem, Paul received word from God telling him that he would bear witness in Rome. At that point in time, the situation was tense and events seemed to be moving swiftly toward a foreshadowed end for Paul. Then, Paul became a guest of the Roman political bureaucracy. Over two years of house arrest. Paul was a pawn in the Roman governor’s desire to keep peace with the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem.

In today’s chapter, we have a de ja vu moment as the newly appointed Governor sends for the Jewish leaders once more to make their accusations against Paul. I tried to put myself in Paul’s sandals this morning as I read. He’s been accused multiple times now by the Jewish trial lawyers as they drag out their same old, tired lies and accusations. The new Roman Governor seems to be like the last. He knows that Paul is innocent, both he and Paul know it, but they also both know that Paul makes a good bargaining chip with the Jewish leaders. It appears to be a stalemate. So, Paul makes a fateful choice.

Roman citizenship carried with it certain privileges, and Paul was well aware of this. Tired of waiting for the Governor to decide his case, Paul claims his right to appeal his case to the emperor’s court in Rome. Having been told by God that he would bear witness in Rome, Paul chooses to take fate into his own hands and make it happen. The decision effectively ended the stalemate between the Roman governor and the Jewish leaders, and there was always the chance that the Jewish leaders would choose not to pursue the case all the way to Rome.

Today, I find myself once again mulling over one of the classic, on-going debates of Christian theology. Do we have free will to make our own choices and play our own hand (e.g. Paul appealing his case to Rome) or does God predestine our lives and the events therein (e.g. Even if Paul didn’t choose to appeal, to Rome he would have ended up there as God had promised).

Classic, on-going debates occur when clear answers are not easily found. I  have heard the answers at both extremes of the debate and have found them wanting. Truth appears to me to be found at the mysterious point of tension between the two extremes. It will be suggested in tomorrow’s chapter that Paul would have been set free but for his appeal to Rome. Should Paul have waited so he could have chosen to journey to Rome of his own free will in obedience to God? Or, was God at work in Paul’s choice, knowing all along how things were going to play out? Perhaps the answer to both questions is “yes.”

Some mornings I leave my quiet time with God having more questions than answers.

#CrazyTalk #BigMistakeDude

crucifixionLarge crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “…Whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:27 (NIV)

Because Jesus’ death on the cross was the most famous crucifixion of all time, many people today do not realize that crucifixion was actually a very common form of execution in that day. The area was an occupied territory of the Roman Empire. Even in those days it was a political hotbed and the Roman Legion was intent on using force and intimidation to control the masses.

Crucifixion catered to the Roman’s desire to create fear and humiliation among their unruly subjects. Those sentenced to be crucified were forced to publicly struggle carry their own cross outside of the town as a form of spectacle. Once there, the victim would die a slow, painful death in view of everyone. Romans Legions would often line the roads leading in and out of an occupied town with multiple crucifixion victims. It was a visible calling card telling everyone that the Romans were in charge. It was a way of reminding visitors what they could look forward to if they created trouble for the occupying Roman force.

When Jesus turned to the large crowd following Him and said “Whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple,” the message was layered with meaning. The crowd was used to seeing the victims of Rome carrying their crosses through the streets. They had all heard the screams of crucifixion victims dying in excruciating pain. They had seen the dead, twisted bodies hanging limp on the crosses that lined the highway out of town.

Jesus was riding a wave of huge popularity. His name and his message were trending like nobody’s business. He healed the sick and crippled. He fed entire throngs of hungry people. He publicly humiliated the rich and powerful religious hypocrites and took up the cause of the poor and downtrodden.

And then, He tells people they’ll have to be crucified if they wanted to follow. They’ll have to become victims of the evil Romans.

I can imagine what the crowd thought:

Be crucified? Did I hear that right? Crucified?! No more free fish sandwiches? No more free healthcare? No more entertaining stories and flash mob rallies? What are you talking about, Jesus? Are you on the side of the hated Romans now? Do you like what they are doing to our own people? Dude, I’m all for socialism and a little political anarchy, especially when there’s something in it for me. But being crucified?! Count me out!!

I can imagine what his disciples thought:

Master, what are you saying? Are you crazyYou’ve got these people literally eating out of your hand. You’re the biggest thing since Elijah. You can make history. You can rally the people against Rome! You can be king (and we’ve already drawn lots for the choicest spots on your new administration)! Why are you telling people to choose to be crucified? Are you nuts? You’re making a huge mistake!! You’ll drop in the polls. The Pharisees are going to crush you on the talk shows. This is political suicide! 

What Jesus followers did not understand about His mission is that it was never about popularity, opinion polls, earthly power, or politics. His mission was all about personal, spiritual, and eternal salvation. He knew His mission led away from the crowds and popularity to a lonely death on a cross. Even in the order of creation it is understood that the new life and hope of spring must be preceded by the long, slow death of winter.

Trial by Fire

The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer
The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You know that everyone in the province of Asia has deserted me, including Phygelus and Hermogenes.

May the Lord show mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains. 2 Timothy 1:15-16 (NIV)

When Paul writes his second letter to his young protege, Timothy, he is in prison for the second time in Rome. The first imprisonment was five years earlier. Paul had used his Roman citizenship to appeal his arrest to Caesar and had been afforded a rather comfortable arrangement in which he was under house arrest in a rented house. He was released in 62 A.D. but was imprisoned again four years later. Now it was a completely different story. The political climate had radically changed.

Two years after Paul’s release from his House Arrest in Rome, the city of Rome was destroyed by the Great Fire of Rome. The city burned for days and countless people were dead. Ten of the fourteen Roman districts were destroyed. Many accused Emporer Nero of setting the fire himself in order to clear land for his palatial complex. Rumor spread that Nero himself played his lyre and performed on stage, unconcerned, while the city burned. His approval ratings plummeted, and he did what all politicians do when they don’t want to face up to their own failings: find someone to attack and deflect the blame. In Nero’s case, he blamed Christians. Roman historians say that Nero fed Christians to wild dogs and crucified others. He also had Christian dipped into oil, then burned alive to provide light for his garden at night.

When Paul was imprisoned in Rome once again in 66 A.D., Nero’s persecution of Christians was well underway. The fact that Paul was a Roman citizen no longer provided political protection. Paul was an outspoken follower and proponent of Jesus, and that trumped the clout of citizenship as Rome daily tried to rebuild itself out of the ashes. There would be no comfortable house arrest. This time, Paul was thrown into a deep Roman dungeon to rot and suffer.

Now read the verses above once more. Can you imagine why others were abandoning, Paul? He was a pariah. At best, anyone associated with Paul could likely face being thrown into the dungeon with Paul for being a fellow Christian. At worst, they could be put on the schedule to be a human candle in Nero’s garden. Paul is feeling lonely and abandoned. The only person who appeared willing to associate with Paul was Onesiphorus from Ephesus who sought Paul out in his dungeon on a trip to Rome.

I found it interesting that Paul refers to “shame” multiple times in today’s chapter. He encourages Timothy not to be ashamed of following Jesus. Paul is not ashamed of his chains or suffering for his faith in Jesus, but he obviously feels the shame and abandonment of those he considered friends but abandoned him. He’s thankful that Onesiphorus was not ashamed of associating with him.

Today, I’m thinking about the relative ease with which I can be a follower of Jesus. Yes, there are times of being unfairly labeled, misunderstood, and politically skewered. But seriously, some of that is the direct result of the foolish and misguided words, attitudes and actions of Christians themselves. I can easily forgive that and I’m not really suffering in any tangible way. When your life is on the line, it is a true test of what you really believe. What would I be willing to suffer and die for? Would I have been Hermogenes keeping a comfortable distance, or would I have been Onesiphorus throwing caution to the wind to visit and show a little love to Paul?

I’d like to boast that I would be Onesiphorus, but in my heart I know that I have never been tested like that. My honest answer: I pray I would not be ashamed like Paul and Onesiphorus, but I confess that until my very life is on the line, I’m not sure I can say with certainty. I enter my day grateful to live in peace and freedom with blessing beyond measure.

My Summer Reading List

I have a confession to make: I’m a terrible reader. I envy those who can consume mass quantities of books, and I get jealous of people who write columns about the boat load of books they read over the summer months. Don’t get me wrong. I love books, but I read relatively slowly and books tend to stimulate my brain in such a way that I can barely get through a page before I’m thinking about how what I’ve just read relates to other things and I start pondering all sorts of connections and ideas. Pretty soon I’m staring off into space as my brain whirrs and minutes go by before I realize I better get back to the book. C’est la vie.

I made it a point this summer to actually get through a book or two, and I’m feeling pretty proud of myself. So I’m giving myself a guilty pleasure of writing a post about my summer reading list.

Moneyball ImageMoneyball by Michael Lewis. I loved the movie and had been told by two people I respect (one who’s not a baseball fan) that the book was a must read. They were right. While the movie did a masterful job of telling the true and enthralling story, there was no way to relate on screen just how much Billy Beane and his stat geeks changed the game of baseball and why. I loved this book and it prompted a lot of late night baseball conversations. The book made me love the movie even more.

Holy Shit ImageHoly Sh*t (A Brief History of Swearing) by Melissa Mohr. I wrote a blog post a few weeks ago about Melissa Mohr’s book about how swearing has developed in the English language from ancient Rome to modern times. Swearing has always involved the profaning of the sacred (the holy) or exclaiming what is scatological (the shit). The real story is in how the pendulum has swung between the two in history. It’s a fascinating book and Mohr does a nice job of taking what is really an academic work and layering it with her own sarcastic wit. It’s a helluva good read.

Whos on Worst ImageWho’s on Worst by Filip Bondy. If you read this blog with any regularity you know that Wendy and I are baseball fans. This quick, trivial read is a fun look at the worst of the worst in baseball history. I was pleasantly surprised at how few Cubs actually made the list (you knew there had to be a few). Perhaps my favorite chapter listed the worst deals the New York Yankees ever made, paying players millions of dollars for a few hapless innings of work. Amazing. It’s an easy, enjoyable read for baseball fans. And, it may help win me a few game of Lunchtime Trivia at Buffalo Wild Wings.

Tolkien Letters ImageThe Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien. For a life long lover of Middle Earth, I can’t believe what a treasure trove Tolkien’s letters actually are. Sometimes personal letters are rather uninteresting, but Tolkien writes long letters to fans explaining things that have long eluded me about the mythology he created. I was amazed to discover in his letters just how central his personal faith (he was Roman Catholic) was to everything he did and wrote (he called Lord of the Rings essentially a religious and Catholic story). I was also fascinated to find out how often he references C.S. Lewis (it’s actually a lot) and what good friends and colleagues they were.

Saints and Sinners imageSaints and Sinners (A History of the Popes) by Eamon Duffy. I am not Roman Catholic (I have some irreconcilable differences on non-essential doctrinal issues with my Catholic brothers), but I have been fascinated by the long and complex history of the Popes who have shaped the history of the world. I found myself intrigued by the conclave that elected Pope Francis this past summer and have been impressed with the man himself. He’s a leader I could and would follow. So, on the recommendation of the Wall Street Journal I ordered Duffy’s survey of the popes. I’m just getting into it as I write this, but am finding his objectivity and honesty refreshing. It’s already stimulating and challenging my thoughts about the Great Story and the part the church of Rome has played in it.