Tag Archives: Rules

Of Corruption and Cravings

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Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature.
2 Peter 1:4 (NRSVCE)

I ran across a quote yesterday by the Roman stoic, Seneca. He said, “all cruelty springs from weakness.” What fascinates me about this quote is the fact that Seneca was an advisor and tutor to the Roman Emperor, Nero, who was perhaps the most cruel of all Roman Emperors. It was Nero who burned followers of Jesus alive around his garden to provide light for his parties.

Certainly, Seneca had plenty of opportunity to witness cruelties we can scarce imagine in today’s world. It would appear that he failed in his tutoring of Nero. Nero eventually demanded that Seneca commit suicide, a cruel request to which Seneca stoically complied.

I decided to take a quick break from the chapter-a-day journey through Psalms and to finish this week with Peter’s second letter to followers of Jesus. The date of this letter is the subject of much scholarly debate, but in today’s chapter Peter claims to know that his death is soon in coming, and it is generally believed that Peter (and Paul, btw) was executed during Nero’s cruel persecution of Jesus’ followers whom he used as a scapegoat for a massive fire that burned much of Rome in 64 AD. Ironically, Nero’s subsequent scapegoating and persecution of Christians in coincides with Seneca’s ordered suicide in 65 AD. The playwright in me finds an intriguing storyline there.

“All cruelty springs from weakness.”

The quote came to mind once again this morning as I read Peter’s words “the corruption in this world because of lust.” My brain immediately paraphrased it as a parallel to Seneca’s observation:

“All corruption springs from lust.”

Corruption is everywhere. It’s particularly visible at this time as it is during all elections. Politicians and power brokers (on both sides of the aisle and in every arena) obfuscate, deceive, stretch truth, speak in white lies, and hypocritically change positions with the prevailing winds of circumstance and poll numbers. All of those dark ads with ominous tones and carefully chosen photos intended to make their opponents look like criminals as the ad itself bends the truth out of context to make it look as damning as possible. All of the bright ads making themselves look like saviors, and shining examples of goodness and light. It’s corrupt and it springs from lust for power, position, and money.

Along my life journey, my perspective about sin has changed. When I was a child I thought it was simply about rules and obedience. Between parents, school, church, and community I was taught a list of rules to follow and a fairly strict guideline for right and wrong, good and bad. As I got older, I found that I broke some rules religiously no matter how hard I tried not to. I also found that if I keep certain (easy) rules in public where others could see them, then it blinded others to the “ugly” rule breaking I did in private and outside of the public eye. That’s corruption, too. It’s a personal form of the same hypocrisy and corruption found in politics on a much grander scale.

This is what led Paul to write to Jesus’ followers in Rome: “Everyone sins and falls short of God’s glory.” Or, as Bob Dylan sang it in his modern psalm quoting Paul quoting the Sage of Ecclesiastes:

“Ain’t no man righteous. No, not one.”

I began to realize that the problem wasn’t the rules, the problem was my appetites. Some appetites were easy for me to control, but other appetites were seemingly insatiable. An appetite out of control is a craving, a lust. Appetites are natural, but an unchecked lustful craving of that appetite which leads to indulgence will always end in corruption of some form.

It’s easy for me to point to the unbridled lust for worldly power, wealth and prestige found in Nero and present day politicians. But, that only diverts your attention to easy targets and away from me. It is my out-of-control appetites which wreak havoc on my life. My appetite for rest turns into slothful passivity. My appetite for food turns into gluttony. My appetite for sex turns into pornographic proclivity. My appetite for security turns into greed and an insatiable desire for more of everything. My appetite for safety turns into a never ending quest to avoid all pain and suffering.

In the quiet this morning, as I ponder these things, I return to Peter’s letter. My rule-keeping self saw faith and salvation as the end result of obedience. By being obedient to the rules, I thought, I would arrive a place of being good enough to be acceptable to God. But that’s just the opposite of what Jesus, and Peter after Him, taught:

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.
2 Peter 1:5-9

Faith in Christ, salvation, and the cleansing of sin is at the beginning of the journey. It is the motivation. It is the spiritual catalyst that pushes me forward into increasing measures of goodness, knowledge, and appetite control. Not because I’m trying to earn something with my goodness, but because I’ve received something priceless in the gift of forgiveness, grace, and mercy that Jesus freely offers.

Click on the image above for a quick index of all the posts in this series on the letters of Peter!

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

Of Rules and Appetites

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Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
    And who shall stand in his holy place?
Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
    who do not lift up their souls to what is false…

Psalm 24:3-4b (NRSVCE)

The further I get in my life journey, the more I’ve come to understand that the black-and-white behavioral rules of the most strictly religious groups are really about social control in which an institution or group exercise authority over another. The goal and benefit is a sense of order, collective security, and control. Within this type of system, the individual’s role is simple and strict obedience to the group’s behavioral rules (those written, and those insidiously unwritten but understood) under the threat of public shaming and being socially ostracized from the group. This type of system exists as religious fundamentalist sects and denominations, fraternal organizations, gangs, cults, secret societies, and the systemic equivalent can even exist in businesses, corporations, sports teams, and community organizations.

Systems like this have existed throughout history and continue to this day. It is this type of system with which Jesus conflicted in the Temple when he overturned the moneychangers’ tables and railed against the Temple’s religious cabal. It was this conflict that led them to treat Jesus as a threat who was to be ostracized and executed. It is the same system out of which Paul transitioned to becoming a follower of Jesus. Paul also was considered a threat they needed to ostracize and execute.

Please don’t read what I’m not writing. Don’t hear what I’m not saying. It doesn’t really matter which system we’re talking about. They all operate the same way and follow the same basic systemic rules.

The problem with this type of system is that it chains the individual to the group rather than freeing the individual from self. Behavior modification is not about spiritual health but of social order. The individual tries to control behaviors rather than be spiritually transformed. Paul recognized that all the behavioral rules of the system only created more rulebreakers sneaking around in the dark breaking the rules and trying not to get caught.

Scholars believe that today’s psalm was a song David wrote to be sung as the people entered God’s Temple in Jerusalem. If you read it and imagine the Hebrews carrying the Ark of the Covenant (cue: Raiders of the Ark Theme) into the Temple as they sing this song you get the gist. It starts by asking the question: “Who can ascend the hill of the Lord?” (That refers to Zion, on which the Temple was built) and then “Who can stand in his holy place?” (That would refer to the “Holy Place” within the Temple as designed and prescribed through Moses).

The lyric of the song then describes who may do these things. The description is that of a good person, but here’s where translation from the original language (Hebrew) to English can make a huge difference. In verse 4 the English phrase “do not lift up their souls” has an original Hebrew physiological imagery that references the throat. Some scholars argue that the word picture here is more like “nursing an appetite” and the Hebrew word translated “false” is rooted in the idea of “empty” or “vain.” So it’s really about those who don’t nurse their appetites for things that are empty.

In the quiet this morning, that’s what really struck me. What I’ve learned along my journey is that all the religious and systemic rule keeping does not address the real issues of Spirit that lead to transformation. Keeping the rules so as to appease my church leaders, parents, college, pastors, teachers, and peer group in the attempt to avoid being shamed and ostracized did not transform my soul.

What really led to transformation for me was when I realized that all my human appetites were good and created within in me by God. Paul realized it too when he said “Nothing is unlawful for me. It’s just that some things aren’t beneficial.” My appetite for food, for drink, for pleasure, for rest, for sex, for relationship, for security, for peace, for affirmation…all of them are good and part of what God created in me. It’s when I “nurse my appetite,” any one of them, and indulge my good and healthy appetites in empty and unhealthy ways that I hurt myself. And, I bring the unhealthy results to every relationship and system in which I am a part.

It’s not about me behaving for acceptance in a system. It’s about me being the person, the true and healthy self, God created me to be. It’s about what Jesus said when He told His followers to nurse their appetites for the things of God, and not for the things of this earth (including the safety and acceptance of a human system). How can I “love my neighbor as myself” if my unhealthy indulgence of natural appetites is leading to my continual self-injury and disrupting my relationships, my work, my family, and my life?

What appetite am I going to nurse today? That’s the question as I head into the weekend.

Have a great weekend.

Want to Read More?

Click on the image, or click here, to be taken to a simple, visual index of all the posts in this series from the book of Psalms.

There is also a list of recent chapter-a-day series indexed by book.

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

“Jesus People Very Nice”

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You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.
Exodus 23:9 (NIV)

My Vander Well family in America is here because of one ancestor, Walter Vander Well (born Wouter van der Wel) who came to the States from South Holland and settled in northwest Iowa in the 1880s. He was part of multiple waves of Dutch immigrants who settled across Michigan and Iowa, founding rural towns like the one Wendy and I call home today. Five generations later there’s a small army of Walter’s descendants spread across the continent from Michigan to Iowa, Canada, and all the way to the west coast.

Immigration is a fascinating thing. Wendy and I were privileged to see a play at London’s National Theatre back in 2009. It was called England People Very Nice by Richard Bean. The setting of the play is a poor tenement building in London and a neighborhood pub. It humorously chronicles the multiple waves of immigrants to flood into Britain over time from French, to Irish, to Jewish, and Bangladeshi. Each wave lands in the low-rent tenement building and raises the ire of the locals in the pub. The previous wave who was hated by the locals, now find themselves being the locals hating the next wave of immigrants. It continues to stir conversation for Wendy and me in light of the immigration issues of our day.

I have observed this same pattern in the experience of my Dutch ancestors who initially struggled to acclimate to life in America. The Dutch huddled together in small communities and clung to their Dutch neighbors, language, and way of life. This often fueled local resentment towards them. My grandparents were both the first generation born in the States and they both spoke Dutch fluently. They refused to teach my father and his brother because of prejudice against the Germanic sounding language during World War II. Our little town, both steeped in its Dutch heritage and proud of its successful American experience, is now sometimes criticized (a la England People Very Nice) of being closed to aliens moving in.

In today’s chapter, God continues to provide the ancient Hebrews with specific rules for life. God repeats the rule mentioned in yesterday’s chapter about treating foreigners living among them with deference. Fascinating that it’s mentioned twice in such proximity to one another in the text. It leads me to wonder if the repetition speaks to the importance God places on it, or the knowledge that it will a tough one to obey given human nature. I personally conclude that it’s a case of “both, and.”

As I mulled this over in the quiet this morning I couldn’t help but think, once again, beyond the letter of the law in the text, to the Spirit of the law to which Jesus pointed time and time again. Far from being obedient to the command, Jesus’ people separated themselves from the aliens living among them. They treated foreigners and those of mixed-race, like the Samaritan people, as inferior. They created systemic social and religious barriers much like the ones we are addressing in our own culture today.

When Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, when He spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, and when He commanded His followers to take His message to Samaria, He was addressing systemic racial prejudice. Jesus was pointing His own people back to the heart of God that motivated the law repeated twice in yesterday’s chapter and today’s. He was, essentially, pointing to His own law of love: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Isn’t that what God says in the text? “You’ve been an alien in a foreign land. You know what it’s like. You’ve been the victim of prejudice and hate. So treat the aliens living among you with loving-kindness the way you wished you’d been treated in Egypt.”

Jesus’ followers did just that and “turned the world upside-down.

I’m reminded this morning that Jesus was not about adherence to textual rules. Jesus was about following God’s Spirit to speak, act, and relate to others in accordance with God’s heart. As a follower of Jesus, I’m called to do just that in my own world and my own culture. That’s what I want to do. That’s who I want to be, increasingly, this day and each day of this earthly journey.

Of course, that requires me to act differently than human nature has led people to behave in ancient Judea, in London tenement houses, and in Dutch-settlements in America, along with almost every other people group on the earth. May I speak and behave in such a way, with anyone with whom I interact, regardless of what they look like or where they are from, that it would be said of me: “Jesus’ people very nice.”

Want to Read More?

Simply click on the image above or click here to be taken to a page with a simple photo index to all posts from this series on Exodus.

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

Spiritual Horticulture

Then [Jesus] said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.

In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots.
Mark 11:14, 20 (NIV)

Over the past three or four years, Wendy and I have worked on a phased landscaping plan for our yard. I’m glad to say that this past year was the final phase (for now). I have never been very good with plants and often joke that I have a brown thumb. Nevertheless, I have been growing in my proficiency as I try to keep the lawn, bushes, trees, flowers, grasses, and shrubs alive.

One of the fascinating things for me to watch is what happens when we plant multiples of certain plants. They may look exactly the same when I planted them, and while they are in the same bed and treated to the same amounts of light and water, one of them will die. I’m sure there are very good reasons why this happened (that I don’t care to spend time figuring out), but it always leaves me scratching my head a bit.

In today’s chapter, Mark tells a curious episode of Jesus and a fig tree. He and His followers were walking from the temple in Jerusalem back to where they were staying. Jesus sees a fig tree and looks for a fig to eat. Finding none, He curses the tree and says, “May no one eat fruit from you again.” The next morning on their walk back to the temple, the disciples find the fig tree withered.

I found myself pondering this rather curious episode this morning just as I would scratch my head wondering why in the world that one arborvitae on the north side of our lawn didn’t make it.

As I am fond of saying, God’s base language is metaphor. Jesus rarely did anything that was not intended to be a metaphorical lesson, so there is little doubt in my mind that the cursing of the fig tree was not just a moment of hunger-induced rage. So, what was that all about?

Jesus and the disciples have arrived at the epicenter of Jewish worship and power. In Jesus’ day, the temple consumed about 25% of Jerusalem area-wise and first-hand accounts say that as many as two million spiritual pilgrims would visit to celebrate the Passover. Passover was the festival which annually memorialized the Hebrews miraculously being freed from enslavement in Egypt (e.g. The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston and Yul Brenner). Being at the temple would have been a huge deal for Jesus’ followers. Think Times Square on New Year’s Eve, New Orleans on Mardi Gras, or Washington D.C. on the 4th of July.

As Jesus passes the fig tree they have just left the temple. They arrived late in the day and Mark records that they only had time to “look around” at the temple, the crowds, the courts, and the merchants. For Jesus and the disciples, who were from the simple, backwater region Galilee, I have to believe the sights, sounds, and smells of the awe-inspiring location would have been what was on everyone’s minds as they walked.

As I mulled this over, I was reminded of another episode from Matthew’s version of Jesus’ story. This happened during the very same visit to Jerusalem:

Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

Matthew 24:1-2 (NIV)

Then there’s the metaphor of “fruit” which Jesus repeatedly used in His teaching, especially when talking about the religious leaders who ran the very temple they’d just exited:

Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

Matthew 7:17-19 (NIV)

As I connected the dots, the metaphorical meaning of Jesus’ actions with the fig tree came into focus. The temple and the Law of Moses had been intended to bear good, spiritual fruit in the lives of God’s people, their community, and the world. Instead, it had become a corrupt, institutional religious system centered on power, prejudice, and greed. It was a religious tree bearing bad spiritual fruit. In the cursing of the fig tree, Jesus was providing a prophetic word picture to His followers consistent with what He had been teaching them all along.

Forty years after the events described in today’s chapter, the Roman Empire would tear down the temple and reduce it to rubble. They would also destroy the genealogical records necessary for determining who was able to perform priestly duties, sacrifices, and care for the temple according to the Law of Moses. In essence, the temple “tree” had been cut down for good.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself reminded that the same metaphor of “fruit” would continue to be central to the teaching of Jesus’ followers:

But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.

Paul’s Letter to Jesus’ followers in Galatia 5:22-23 (MSG)

As I enter this post-Easter week in a world turned upside-down, I’m reminded that Jesus was never about being a religious rule-keeper. He was about being a cultivator of the spiritual fruit of love in life and relationships. And, I desire to have a green thumb when it comes to spiritual horticulture.

Now, if I could just figure out what the heck happened to those Pencil-Point Junipers by the patio. Oh well. Not as important.

All of Tom’s chapter-a-day posts from Mark are compiled in a simple visual index for you.

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. This includes social media such as Facebook or Twitter. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Inside Out Transformation

[Jesus] went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”
Mark 7:20-23 (NIV)

I was a young man when I began my spiritual journey following Jesus. The community of believers I often associated with were very concerned about religious appearance and moral purity. My hair was expected to be short and my dress was expected to be coat and tie. My ears were to be kept pure from rock music, my eyes kept pure from looking lustfully at women, and my body to be kept pure from the usual vices of drugs, alcohol, and smoking.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with these things. I’ll be the first to confess that I wasn’t perfect, but I’m also quite sure that adhering to the religious rigor kept me from getting into various kinds of trouble. As I progressed in my spiritual journey, however, I began to observe a few things.

First, my peers who were born and bred into the religious rigor as part of their strict family and faith systems were often big on obedience to the rules and traditions but really short on any real spiritual or personal maturity. They adhered (at least publicly) to the letter of the religious rules to keep the family and community appeased, but I never saw any real inner desire to pursue the things that Jesus was really getting at.

Second, the adults in these communities and religious systems were really focused on all of the easily recognized and visibly apparent illicit behaviors. People, especially young people, were publicly shamed for all the usual social vices. No one, however, seemed to care when it came to gluttony at church potlucks, gossip between the youth group member’s mothers, the man in the church with anger issues who used the Bible to justify the secret physical abuse of his family, deacon John who was not shy about his racism, elder Bob who was a dishonest businessman who’d filed for bankruptcy three times, or that the women of the church treating Ms. Jones like a social leper because her husband left her, filed for divorce, and so she must not have been the dutiful wife he needed.

Finally, I eventually found myself really dissatisfied. When I made the decision to be a follower of Jesus, it was about me being less pessimistic, impatient, immature, shallow, dishonest, inauthentic, and self-centered. It was about me wanting to grow into more self-less-ness and more love, life, joy, and peace. Checking off a bunch of religious and moral rules wasn’t addressing my desire to become more like Jesus. In fact, I don’t think Jesus would want to be with these people. I realized that Jesus would probably want to be with all the people that got shamed and kicked out of that church for their public mistakes.

In today’s chapter, Jesus is hitting this stuff head on. He gets in trouble with the religious rule-keepers because they didn’t ceremonially wash their hands before supper. He looks at the good religious people from His own religious system and explains that they are doing the same thing I witnessed among my own religious community. They were keeping all of the religious rules about washing your hands and eating only the prescribed dietary foods, but they weren’t doing anything about the anger, malice, judgment, critical spirit, discord, gossip, dishonesty, selfishness, racism, hatred, and condemnation that was polluting their souls.

This morning, I find myself contemplating the Jesus that I’m reading about in Mark’s account. I love that He was not about me keeping external rules and regulations, but about me getting my heart and life transformed from the inside out. I love that Jesus heals the daughter of a “sinful” outsider who His religious community would never have even acknowledged. I love that Jesus continues to compassionately pour out love, kindness, and healing even when He was tired and wanted to be left alone for a while. I love that He keeps telling people not to talk about the miracles because they weren’t the point; The miraculous physical healings of eyes, ears, and limbs merely pointed to the real miracle He came to perform: His love transforming me from the inside out as His life emerges from my dead, self-centered spirit.

That’s the Jesus I want to be more like, and keeping rules won’t get me there.

All of Tom’s chapter-a-day posts from Mark are compiled in a simple visual index for you.

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. This includes social media such as Facebook or Twitter. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

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?

All of Tom’s chapter-a-day posts from Mark are compiled in a simple visual index for you.

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. This includes social media such as Facebook or Twitter. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Let Good Rule

Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?”
Luke 6:9 (NIV)

Religion loves rules.

When I was a young man I, for a short time, found myself living among a conservative, legalistic, religious Christians. I stop short of calling them Jesus’ followers because I eventually came to realize that they were the spiritual descendants of the religious leaders who, for two chapters now, have been keeping their critical, judgemental, condemning eyes on Jesus. Their motivation is to catch Jesus doing something wrong so that they can dismiss Him, judge Him, and condemn Him. In doing so, they can feel righteous about ignoring Jesus’ teaching and proud of leading others to do the same.

Religion loves rules.

In Jesus’ day, there was no better example of religious rule-keeping than the Sabbath. The Sabbath was established at the very beginning, right after creation:

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.

Genesis 2:2 (NIV)

This was a long time before God gave the Top Ten through Moses (Sabbath made it to #4 on the Top Ten commandments list).

Sabbath simply means a prescribed time of rest. It’s a day-off, a time-out, a quiet time, and it’s all about R&R, recharging, and being refreshed. Sabbath began as a spiritual principle God exemplified for all of humanity. After six days of work, everyone could use a little break from the daily grind, even God. It’s good for your body, mind, and spirit.

The problem with humanity, of course, is that we struggle with principles. They are so, well, gray…

“What does ‘rest’ mean exactly? I need that defined. And ‘work’ too. Is feeding my cat work? What about taking out the trash with my baby’s stinky diaper? And, speaking of stinky, what about having to watch the stinkin’ Packers game with my in-laws (that always feels like a lot of work)?”

“We’re supposed to labor for six days and rest on the seventh? What if I work weekends?”

“By ‘work,’ are we talking gainful employment here? What if I’m currently unemployed?”

“You tell me how in the world I’m supposed to rest from being a mother. There is no rest from these rug rats and their incessant demands!”

Along life’s journey, I’ve come to observe that humanity is given to rule-making in almost every area of life. Government institutions become bureaucracies with libraries dedicated to tracking all of the laws, codes, rules, and regulations. In fact, according to LegalZoom, if you’re driving through certain rural parts of Pennsylvania you are legally required to stop every mile and shoot off a flare to mark your position. In North Dakota, it’s unlawful to buy beer and pretzels at the same time. Women in Florida are forbidden by law to fall asleep under a hair-dryer.

Another example is how the notion of taxing citizens to pay for Government services has resulted in the 74,608 page U.S. Tax Code.

When it comes to religion, we humans do the same things. Well-intentioned religious institutions start with a spiritual principle about getting some much-needed rest and end up with an endless list of rules which, eventually, require a lot of work to keep straight and follow. This is where things stood in the days when Jesus was teaching in today’s chapter. Breaking the “sabbath” rules was something that Jesus and His followers were accused of doing repeatedly.

In today’s chapter, the Sabbath police were following Jesus around just waiting for Him to break one of the rules. That’s the other thing about religious and social rule-keeping, it typically ends up with some kind of group who police the masses. Of course, Jesus knew they were there.

Jesus asks, “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” The answer, of course, goes back to the principle of rest that was the heart of Sabbath in the beginning. The tome of sabbath rules, sub-rules, and clarifications had both perverted the principle intent (keeping the Sabbath became work) and allowed the perpetuation of evil (people refused to help out a neighbor in an emergency in order not to be caught by the Sabbath police).

So, Jesus healed a man’s paralyzed hand in front of the crowd on the Sabbath.

Let good rule!

The religious rule-keepers immediately went into judge, jury, and executioner mode.

There’s something grossly wrong with this picture, and that was what Jesus was trying to get people to see and understand for themselves.

My time among the legalistic Christians didn’t last very long. All of the silly rules about clothes, hair, shoes, music, and fraternization were more than I could take. I did, however, make a number of worthwhile observations and I learned a lot of very valuable lessons. I came to understand that legalism keeps people imprisoned to rules, codes, and regulations while keeping them from developing the spiritual maturity and self-discipline necessary to develop Godly wisdom.

This morning I find myself reminded that doing a good thing for someone else should never be against the rules.

Have you missed the previous chapter-a-day posts from this journey through the Gospel of Luke? Click on this image and it will take you to a quick index of the other posts!

New Ways, Old Ways, and the Inside-Out

But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
Luke 5:30 (NIV)

When I became a follower of Jesus I was in my early teens. I had been raised going to a small neighborhood church that belonged to one of the old, global mainline denominational institutions. As such, there was a certain institutional way that everything was done. There were rules, regulations, a chain-of-command, and a dizzying bureaucracy for making decisions. There was a certain formula to faith and life that fit neatly inside the institutional box, and most everyone who had long been part of the institution was comfortable with the formula.

As a young, passionate follower of Jesus, I quickly learned that where I was being led did not fit comfortably inside the institutional, denominational box of my childhood.

In today’s chapter, Dr. Luke continues to chronicle the early days of Jesus’ earthly ministry as he travels from town-to-town around the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The chapter reads like a series of vignettes, giving us a feel for the larger story arc of what’s happening in Jesus’ ministry at this time. He is attracting a following with His teaching. He is calling disciples. He is performing miracles. He is teaching in parables.

And, He is stirring things up.

Like the institutional denomination of my childhood, the religious Judaism of Jesus’ day was a staunch institution with thousands of years of history. There were religious paradigms that were not to be questioned. There were certain ways things were to be done. There were rules upon rules upon rules with regard to how to conduct oneself each day in every aspect of life. There were powers to be obeyed, and consequences if one did not fall in line.

With each vignette of today’s chapter, Luke is telling us that Jesus was cutting against the grain of every religious social convention in the Jewish religious box.

  • Teachers in Jesus’ day called disciples who were aspiring young men of prominence, educated in religion and law. Jesus calls disciples who are rough-around-the-edges blue-collar fishermen and a sketchy, sinful tax collector who was viewed as a traitor of his people.
  • If you want to make it in music you go to Nashville. If you want to make it on stage you go to New York. If you want to make it in movies you go to Hollywood. If you wanted to make it as a religious leader in Jesus’ day you went to Jerusalem to network and teach. Jesus chooses to teach in backwater towns considered the sticks by the institutional religious power brokers.
  • The institutional religious leaders flaunted their religion publicly, wearing robes, prayer shawls, and parading their religion publicly in front of people. Jesus slipped off by himself to remote places to have one-on-one conversations with the Father.
  • Good Jews were expected to live lives of austere appearance, scarcity, and to have nothing to do with anyone who didn’t adhere to the institutional checklist of propriety. Jesus feasted, drank, and frequented the company of all sorts of people, including the socially marginal and religiously inappropriate.
  • The religious leaders of the day were concerned with outward, public adherence to religious rules and practices that had little or nothing to do with inner, spiritual transformation. Jesus used miracles to show that, for God, the things that we humans consider to be important and miraculous in our outside physical world is actually easy and mundane. What Jesus was constantly most concerned with was the health of His followers’ inner, spiritual heart of their true selves and its transformation of their daily lives and relationships.

Jesus came to show a different way. He came, as He put it, to bring “new wine in a new wineskin.” The way of God’s Spirit is not the same as the way of human religion. Jesus even recognized at the end of today’s chapter that “people prefer the old.” With each of the vignette’s Luke shared in today’s chapter, the leaders of the religious institution were suspicious, critical, and condemning.

My spiritual journey led me to leave the denominational institution of my childhood. I did so because, for me, I needed to experience a change and to break out of old patterns to embrace the new ones Jesus reveal to me. The funny thing is, I soon found myself entrenched in other institutional paradigms and falling back into outside appearances and keeping rules. I broke out of one box only to step into another. My spiritual journey has been a perpetual cycle in which I am always trying to avoid falling into patterns of outward religion and to seek out the power of God’s Spirit that results from inside-out contemplation, confession, repentance, and transformation.

In the quiet this morning I’m realizing that two months of constant travel, busyness, and events have depleted my spiritual reserves. I’m thinking about Jesus’ example of slipping away for quiet and one-on-one with the Father. I could use a little of that myself.

Have you missed the previous chapter-a-day posts from this journey through the Gospel of Luke? Click on this image and it will take you to a quick index of the other posts!

Rules and Exceptions

On that day the Book of Moses was read aloud in the hearing of the people and there it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever be admitted into the assembly of God.

When the people heard this law, they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent.
Nehemiah 13:1,3 (NIV)

A large part of my daily vocation is working with companies and their Quality Assessment (QA) efforts. You know, when you call and they say, “Your call may be monitored for quality and training purposes”? That’s a piece of what our company does.

Many years ago I observed a pattern in many companies with whom I consulted on their QA programs. An exceptional situation will result in a general rule for the population. Often, the rule had more of a detrimental effect than the exceptional situation that started it ever would. Let me give you an example.

Our team’s customer surveys (another piece of what our company does) typically find that customers appreciate a company who knows their name (Remember Cheers? “You wanna go where everybody knows your name.”) and offers a personal service experience. Then one day a well-meaning Customer Service Representative (CSR) makes a mistake and addresses the caller by the wrong name or butchers the pronunciation of an unusual sounding name. The customer goes postal on the CSR and calls back to speak with managers and executives up the org chart making a huge deal out of a relatively little thing. Management, not wanting to have that happen again, makes a general rule: CSRs will no longer address customers by name!

The result? One exceptional, cranky customer who made a mountain out of a molehill has resulted in all customers getting a diminished service experience from the company.

Then I began to realize that this isn’t just something that happens in business. It happens all the time in families, churches, communities, and cultures. In fact, it happens in today’s chapter, but I bet you didn’t see it if you read the chapter.

Back in the days of Moses, there were two exceptional enemies of the Hebrews. The Ammonites and Moabites had gone out of their way to curse the Hebrews and attempted to thwart their passing through the land. Because of this, the law of Moses contained an exceptional rule:

No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation. For they did not come to meet you with bread and water on your way when you came out of Egypt, and they hired Balaam son of Beor from Pethor in Aram Naharaim to pronounce a curse on you. However, the Lord your God would not listen to Balaam but turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the Lord your God loves you. Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them as long as you live.

Deuteronomy 23:3-4 (NIV)

Then, I read again what Nehemiah and the returned exiles did when they read this text:

When the people heard this law, they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent.

Nehemiah 13:3 (NIV) [emphasis added]

Do you see what they did there? They took an exceptional situation that applied to two specific people groups (the Moabites and Ammonites) being allowed into the temple, and they expanded into a general rule excluding all people of foreign descent from the entire land.

Here’s the kicker. In doing this, they were breaking another very specific law of God in Leviticus 19:

“‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.'”

Leviticus 19:33-34 (NIV)

I can see the legal wrangling spinning in the hearts and heads of Nehemiah and his people: “If we exclude all foreigners from the land, then we won’t have any of them residing among us, and that renders the Leviticus rule moot!”

By the way, what Nehemiah and the people are doing in today’s chapter is part of why Jesus came 400 years later to find a culture of separation, animosity, prejudice, and hatred between Jews and Gentiles. If they’d have interpreted Deuteronomy 23:3-4 differently and made Leviticus 19:33-34 their general rule, things may have just have turned out differently.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking of all the ways we still do this today. Parents have one child who rebels and they clamp down their draconian rules on all of their children in the belief that the entire brood is a bunch of little rebels waiting to happen. Two young people at a school dance go too far and the girl ends up pregnant, so the church outlaws dancing in any form as evil. One dumb terrorist thought he could plant a bomb in his shoe (simply resulting in him burning his feet), and now billions of travelers have to have their shoes removed and x-rayed at every airport in the world.

By the way, I think both extremes of the political spectrum do this, as well. Let me give you two easy examples. The right does it with guns: “Because the Constitution made an exception for Colonists to have a musket to defend themselves against enemies and provide food for their tables, there’s no reason why I can’t have an M-16 and a rocket launcher in my home arsenal.” The left does it with abortion: “Because there are tragic situations of rape, incest, and life-threatening situations, we should allow abortion for all women, for any reason, right until the moment of delivery in the ninth month.”

The further I get in my life journey the more I observe that we humans are largely driven by fear, distrust, and emotional over-reactions. I don’t want to live that way. I’d rather have my life, words, and actions driven by faith, hope, and love. And, the latter most of all.

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

“Kingdoms Rise and Kingdoms Fall”

In everything set them an example by doing what is good.
Titus 2:7a (NIV)

Tay, Clay and Milo visited Berlin this past week. It was fun for me to see the pictures and to get Taylor’s Marco Polo describing their trip to the Berlin Wall memorial. How remarkable that what stood as a very real, tragic, iconic and seemingly immovable metaphor of the times for my generation is now reduced to a memorial and museum piece.

[cue: The Times They are a Changin’]

I am fascinated by the times we live in. Technology is advancing at a rate faster than any other time in human history. Humanity is witnessing and experiencing more rapid change than our ancestors could fathom. As a follower of Jesus, it is not lost on me that our current culture is being dubbed the “post-Christian” era or the “post-evangelical” era. Denominational institutions are splitting and crumbling. Ironically, I might suggest, much like the Berlin Wall.

I’ve watched this create tremendous anxiety and fear in some. Yet, as I observe and witness these things, I can’t say that I’m particularly worried or upset about them. Why? First, we are told countless times by Jesus and God’s Message not to be afraid or anxious. Second, if I truly believe what I say that I believe, then I have faith that this Great Story has always been moving towards a conclusion that is already written in the eternity that lies outside time. Third, the mystery and power of Christ was never of this world. That’s why the Kingdom had to come as Jesus embodied and prescribed, and why Jesus was never about becoming an earthly King with political power and clout.  When humans attempted to make the Message of Jesus and the Kingdom of God about Level 3, institutional, earthly power I believe we essentially made it into something it was never intended to be and, at the same time, emptied it of its true power.

In today’s chapter, Paul instructs his young protégé, Titus, what to teach the followers of Jesus in Crete. What struck me was not what those specific instructions were, but the motivation Paul gives for the instructions and their adherence:

“…so that no one will malign the word of God.”

“…so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.”

“…so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive.”

The paradigm was not that followers of Jesus would have the political and institutional power to make non-believers toe our moral line. The paradigm presented was that we who follow Jesus would live out the fruits of the Spirit towards everyone, that we would exemplify Kingdom living in all we say and do, and we would love all people in such a way that others would see, be attracted to it, and wonder how they might experience the same love, joy, peace, and self-control they see in us. What a different paradigm that that of making rules, appointing enforcers, and punishing offenders which is the paradigm of this Level 3 world

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking about times and change.

The words of an old U2 song flit into my thoughts:

October,
the leaves are stripped bare of all they wear.
What do I care?
October,
Kingdom rise and kingdoms fall,
but You go on,
and on,
and on.

And so I proceed on, into another day of this earthly journey trying to live out a little love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.

Thanks for joining me, my friend. Have a great day.