Tag Archives: Rules

Freedom, Indulgence, Hard Knocks, and Wisdom

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Galatians 5:13-14 (NIV)

Among most of Wendy’s and my circle of close friends we happen to be the furthest down the path of life experience. As we enjoy being grandparents for the first time and watch our adult children embarking on their own adult journeys, most of our friends are somewhere between the stages of young children taxi service and sending children off to college for the first time. Just yesterday I was speaking with my friend who is experiencing the latter.

For young people who have lived in a secure home with engaged parents, going off to college is the first opportunity to experience real freedom. No one is looking over your shoulder. No one is reminding you of what you need to do. Plus, opportunities to experience the appetites of life in all their excesses tend to present themselves in abundance.

For many of us, the years of college and young adulthood are when we learn some crucial lessons on life’s road. Chief among them is answering the simple question: “What am I going to do with my freedom?” 

I don’t know a single individual who didn’t, at some point, use freedom to engage and indulge unhealthy appetites in one way or another during these years. Perhaps there are a few true saints out there. Most parents I know, however, like to conveniently white-wash their own young adult excesses as they place all sorts of appetite controls and lofty expectations on their children.

Along the journey I’ve come to the conclusion that each one of us must learn the hard lessons of how we’re going to use our freedom. It’s part of the journey. We all need to have our own wake-up moments like the Prodigal Son finding himself up to his knees in pig slop. We all need our personally induced wake-up calls when we find ourselves saying: “My own choices led me to this awful place. I think I need to make some changes.”

In today’s chapter of his letter to the believers of Galatia, Paul is addressing this same principle. Legalism is great for creating compulsory obedience to a defined set of rules, but it does nothing for helping us learn the crucial, spiritual maturity lessons of appetite control. It’s no coincidence that Paul’s list of behaviors that mark spiritual maturity include “self-control.”

This morning I find myself praying for our own adult children and our grandchild. The truth I’ve discovered is that the lessons of managing our appetites and developing mature self-control are ongoing throughout our life journeys. So, I’m praying for them in their own respective waypoints on this life journey.

I’m also saying prayers for our friends who are in the stages of raising willful children, teenagers testing their boundaries, and young adults experiencing freedom for the first time. I’m praying wisdom for all those parental decisions about rules, consequences, clamping down, and letting go. I’m also praying for the grace and wisdom of the Prodigal’s father, who knew that his Prodigal had to learn his own crucial lessons and experience the awful places we find ourselves when we use our freedom to indulge our appetites. The father didn’t track his son down. He didn’t send a rescue party. He didn’t deny his son life’s required coursework from the school of hard-knocks. The father sat patiently on the front-porch, said his prayers, kept his eye on the road out front, and waited for a much wiser son to come home.

The Boulevard and the Gate

So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.
Galatians 4:7 (NIV)

In the early stages of my spiritual journey I wandered down the path of legalism. I was never particularly comfortable with it’s straight-and-narrow streets and the authoritarian, self-appointed traffic cops on every block wearing their spit-polished Junior Holy Spirit badges. Nevertheless, I came to an understanding of why so many people find their way to that huge boulevard.

There’s a certain ease to the path of legalism. It requires little in the way of thought, meditation, grace, wisdom, or knowledge. Everything is prescribed for you in black-and-white terms and simple rules of obedience. There’s strict accountability to keep you on the straight-and-narrow. Your fellow wayfarers will, of course, watch you like a hawk, but then there are the self-appointed traffic cops to watch your every move, remind you of the rules, and threaten you with any number of heinous punishments (i.e. alienation, condemnation, damnation) should you stray from their prescribed path.

Along that stretch of the journey I met a number of individuals who had been walking the path of legalism for many years. They had given themselves over. So comfortable had they become with their enslavement to the rules that the simplest notion of grace or freedom became a fright. They reminded me of the Hebrews in the wilderness begging to return to slavery in Egypt. “At least we knew the rules. Life was so much easier to understand. It wasn’t so hard or so complicated.”

In Paul’s letter to the believers in Galatia, he finds them in a similar spot. Having received the Message of Jesus by faith when Paul was with them, they are now being told by some self-appointed traffic cops from the path of Legalism to get themselves back on the straight-and-narrow. These Officers of Legalism are demanding obedience to their list of religious rules.

In his letter Paul calls on a powerful word picture. He argues that Jesus came to make us children of God and co-heirs with Christ. We are, therefore, no longer slaves to be herded down the path of legalism constantly threatened with alienation, condemnation and damnation should we fail to march lock-step in accordance with the self-appointed traffic cops.

Paul argues that we are free to walk down a very different path as heirs of grace freely given, of forgiveness poured out in excess, of extravagant acceptance, and of unalterable love. Why, Paul asks, would you ever want to go back to Legalism Boulevard?

Along my journey I’ve observed that some people find the path of legalism to be easier than the path of love. Having walked that Legalism Boulevard for a block or two, a piece of me gets why people spend their entire lives on its pristine concrete between its high curbs. I found obedience to a set of well defined rules less painful than dying to myself. I found that condemning rule breakers was easier (and even felt self-righteously satisfying) than forgiving them as I have been forgiven. And, I found that following the straight-and-narrow of Legalism Boulevard was guaranteed not to twist, turn, or lead me to uncomfortable neighborhoods where people look different than me, act different than me, think differently than me, or speak differently than me. There’s a comfort in that.

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that Jesus said that the path of Life lies behind a narrow gate that’s not particularly well-marked. It’s narrow and not necessarily easy to make out because, like Frost’s poem, it’s less traveled than Legalism Boulevard. But those who ask directions will find their way there. Those who seek it out will find their way there. Those who knock on the narrow gate will find it open to them.

I’ve found it a messy and slippery path with some steep inclines and deep valleys. There have been lonely stretches where faith was required. There were some stretches I shared with companions that required humility, trust, forgiveness, teamwork, and grace to get through some of the terrain. I’ve also found myself in some foreign places that forced me to get past my fears. It hasn’t always been easy, but the further I travel on the path the more Life I’ve experienced.

I’ve never regretted leaving Legalism Boulevard. In fact, I’d encourage anyone who’s walking lock-step down that street to make their way down the alley. Ask about a narrow gate. Seek it out. You’ll be glad you did.

Just don’t let the Traffic Cops see you 😉

Cropped Hair and Holy Kisses

Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him….”
1 Corinthians 11:14 (NIV)

For the past few weeks I’ve been giving messages about traditions here in my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. By traditions I mean those social behaviors or events that a group of people adhere to that are tied metaphorically to a larger meaning. It might be a event or person to memorialize, a teaching or command to follow, or something that brings identity and belonging to a particular group.

For 2000 years those who follow Jesus have had many different rituals and traditions. Those who carry out these traditions can be quite dogmatic about the necessity or right-ness of their particular tradition. Conflicts and division among different groups of Christians have been quite common occurrences over time as one sincere group of Jesus’ followers says “Ours is the right and biblical way to hold this tradition” and another sincere group of Jesus’ followers says, “No! Our way of holding to and observing this tradition is the right and biblical way!”

Typically, groups will point to scripture for heir final authority. The truth is, traditions ebb and flow over time and culture. Take today’s chapter, for example. Paul clearly instructs that women should always have their head covered when they “pray or prophesy.” For the better part of 2000 years women have followed this tradition. A few weeks ago I referenced our local costume shop in a post, where you’ll find hundreds of ladies hats from the early-mid 20th century because women in town always wore hats to church. But, that tradition has changed in the past 60 years in our culture. The tradition no longer carries the meaning that it once did for us.

We pick and choose the traditions we wish to keep. Jesus never said to abandon all of the Jewish traditions and festivals, in fact His example was to observe them. Yet that fell out of fashion as the Church became more and more Roman and the Jewish people fell out of favor late in the first century.

Paul also says in today’s chapter that it’s a disgrace for a man to have long hair. This verse was harped on by the professors of a Bible college I attended one semester. The college had strict, dogmatic rules about how male students should cut their hair based on this particular verse. It was their tradition, and they strictly observed it.

Funny thing. Paul ends his letter to the believers of Corinth by instructing them to “greet one another with a holy kiss.” The school administration seemed to ignore this particular command and tradition. Not once did one of my professors pucker up when I walked into the classroom!

As much as we like to wax self-righteous on being obedient and scriptural, the truth is that followers of Jesus have spent 2000 years following an ever-changing set of traditions and rituals that have ebbed and flowed over time. We can deny this fact and cling to our pride and rightness, or we can humbly embrace that traditions may hold their meaning for a particular time and place only to be released and then, perhaps, rediscovered again. We can let these things divide us, or we can seek to respect and honor the metaphor and meaning others find in traditions and rituals that are foreign to us.  Perhaps God might use them to help me find meaning I’d not before considered.

This morning I find myself praying an ancient prayer (a traditional prayer, mind you) given to us by St. Francis: [I paraphrase], “Help me to be less about being understood and more about being understanding.”

Touch and Cleansing

“Anything that an unclean person touches becomes unclean, and anyone who touches it becomes unclean till evening.”
Numbers 19:22 (NIV)

There is an old saying that “cleanliness is next to godliness” and the saying may well be rooted in the religious rituals God gave to the ancient Hebrews in the book of Numbers. The theme of today’s chapter are the things that made one “unclean” and the rituals for making them “clean” again. While there is certainly spiritual metaphor at work here, there is also practical application for keeping a nation of nomads alive approximately 3500 years ago.

Throughout today’s chapter I got the sense of reading an ancient hygiene manual. Being around things like dead bodies (which may carry all manner of contagion) make a person “unclean.” You had to remain outside the camp for seven days (we call that quarantine), ritually wash, and then wash your clothes before you could be enter the camp once more. Through the ritual, God protects the community from that which could harm it.

By the time Jesus arrived on the scene in history 1500 years later, the “clean” and “unclean” designations of Moses’ law had morphed into systemic religious and social prejudice. Rules had been made to define the rules. Religious Hebrews weren’t using the “unclean” designation to protect the community, but to separate themselves from lower class individuals and those with whom they didn’t want to mix socially.

Read Jesus’ story and you’ll find that time and time again He was breaking the rules. He broke the rules for working on the Sabbath. He touched that which the Hebrew religious leaders said was “unclean” (e.g. a leper, a woman bleeding, a woman caught in adultery).

One of the most powerful stories is when a leper falls before Jesus and says, “If you want to, you can make me clean.”

He didn’t say “you can heal me” or “you can take my leprosy away” or “you can make me whole.” He said you can make me “clean.”

The leper was an outcast, and he was required to shout “Unclean!” wherever he went so that everyone else could avoid him. No one was to touch him. Every day the social system ensured that he repeatedly confirm his unworthiness, dishonor, and shame. All day, every day he would repeat “Unclean! Unclean! Unclean!” and watch people’s faces contort with disgust. He would watch mothers hurrying their children away from him. He watch people cross the street to walk on the other side of the road. This is why you still hear the phrase “social leper” in context of a person who has become an outcast of society.

Matthew is careful to record (Matthew 8:3) that Jesus reached out and touched the leper. This was not a casual touch. This was breaking the rules. This was supposed to mean that Jesus would be unclean, too. But Jesus’ touch healed the man’s leprosy. The touch made him clean.

This morning I’m reminded of the many times and circumstances along my life journey when I’ve felt unclean. Despite the common misperception of those who’ve never really read the story, Jesus didn’t come to perpetuate systemic uncleanliness. He didn’t come to double down on societal rules, stigmas, and shame. He didn’t come to tell me how terrible, unworthy, and unclean I am. I’m well aware of my uncleanliness without having to be reminded.

Jesus came to reach out with grace and love and compassion and power. Jesus came to touch the unclean person and make them clean. Present company included.

For the Good of the Whole

The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: ‘Any man or woman who wrongs another in any way and so is unfaithful to the Lord is guilty and must confess the sin they have committed. They must make full restitution for the wrong they have done….'”
Numbers 5:5-7 (NIV)

Many of the client offices in which I’ve worked over the years are cramped quarters. Numerous people work in confined spaces with little barrier between desks. During the winter months it is quite common to hear stories of entire departments decimated by the flu or other viruses that spread quickly with little or no warning. Over the years when I’ve found myself with a nasty bug I have felt compelled to call clients and explain, “You don’t want me visiting you right now.” I can’t remember a single client who wasn’t grateful for me being considerate of their operation and team members.

When reading through the ancient marching orders for the Hebrew nation in the book of Numbers it’s easy to for me to find myself perplexed in the simple reading of the text. It is so easy to read it from a 21st century American perspective and scratch my head. There is little connection between me (the modern, western technological age reader) and a nomadic nation of semitic people in Arabia around 3500 years ago.

Stepping back and looking at today’s chapter as a whole, the rules prescribed through Moses had to do with things that were threats to their community, starting with that which was physical and easy to see and ending with that which was relational and much harder to judge.

It begins with that which was physical and quite easy to diagnose. In that time period infectious disease could wipe out an entire people in little or no time. While my cold virus might wreak havoc on my client’s workforce and productivity, in the days of Moses a nasty virus could bring death and plague to the entire nation. So, those who showed clear physical sign of what might be a disease were to be quarantined outside the camp. Next came the broad category of “wronging” another member of the community. I think of this as the type of neighborly disputes that might end up in small claims court at my local courthouse. Finally, the bulk of the chapter deals with the most intimate and difficult things to know or to judge: marital infidelity.

It’s easy as a modern reader to get mired in the struggle to understand rules made for an ancient, middle-eastern culture. Wendy and I had a fascinating discussion over coffee last week about the historical and cultural contexts of these rules. Still, I walk away from today’s chapter reminded that all cultures need laws, rules, and regulations that protect the good of the community.  Infectious disease, personal disputes, and the breakdown of marriage all have consequences that  radiate throughout the community. God through Moses prescribed very specific ways to determine and deal with them for the good of the whole.

This morning I’m thankful to live in a community with a strong system of law that protects our community, state, and nation as a whole. I’m also reminded this morning of my individual responsibility to be considerate of my community as a whole. In fact, I report for jury duty in two weeks.

It Was Never About the Rules

The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God.
Hebrews 7:18-19 (NIV)

When our daughters, Taylor and Madison, were young girls they were subjected to a fairly substantial system of rules. There were moral rules (don’t lie, don’t take what’s not yours, don’t hurt another person, et al). There were rules of health and hygiene (wash your hands before meals, no snacks before meals, cover your mouth when you cough, take a bath regularly, et al). There were rules of the family system (do what mommy or daddy says, put away your toys before bed, say your prayers, et al).

Taylor and Madison were both good kids, though they were certainly not perfect. Let me make two very important points:

First, I love Taylor and Madison dearly, but not because of the perfection with which they obeyed my rules! I love them because they are my daughters. They are God’s uniquely beautiful creations. They are inherently lovable, valuable and capable beings.

Second, the rules that I as a father subjected them to as young children had nothing to do with earning my love. Certainly there was a measure of pride and joy when they were obedient (which they did most of the time), and there was disappointment and even anger if they willfully disobeyed (trust me, I have stories). However, neither their obedience nor disobedience had any effect on my underlying love for them. The rules were about teaching them how to live healthy, productive lives, how to successfully live in relationship with others, and how to contribute meaningfully to the lives of others and the world as a whole.

In today’s chapter, a very similar distinction is being made that is critical to our understanding of both God the Father (God for us) and Jesus, God the Son (God with us). The law of Moses (that would include the Big Ten commandments and the more than 600 other rules) was the guiding force of Hebrew religion. The Hebrew priests, descendants of Aaron, along with the descendants of the tribe of Levi were in charge of these rules and the rule keeping. Rule keeping became the focus of the Jewish people as if being perfectly obedient to the rules put you in right standing with the Father. But no one became a perfect person by religiously adhering to a set of rules.

A priest is a “go-between.” Some one who represents others, intercedes for others, mediates for others, sacrifices for others before God. Jesus perfectly fits the definition of High Priest, but the author of Hebrews continues to make a very important distinction, that Jesus was not a High Priest  in the traditional, Law of Moses prescribed genetic line of Aaron. Jesus was a High Priest in the line of the cosmic, eternal, mysterious figure of Melchizedek.

Why is this important? It tells us that perfection of religious rule keeping was never the point to earning God the Father’s love any more than my love for Taylor and Madison being hinged on the perfection of their keeping the rules of my house. We are loved by God inherently because we are His uniquely beautiful, lovable, valuable, and capable creation. So loved, in fact, that Father God (God for us) made the ultimate sacrifice of sending Jesus (God with us) to free us from our silly religious rule keeping and to show us the deep, abiding, full, limitless, abounding, abundant LOVE that defines God. When conversing with God the Father, Jesus used the word “Abba” which is defined more commonly as we would use “Daddy,” “Papa,” or “Pops.” Jesus came as Priest, Mediator, and Sacrifice so we could understand that kind of loving relationship with Father God.

This morning I’m thinking about the ways that the rule-keeping paradigm keeps sucking me back into its false economy. I’m mindfully pondering how I actively continue my process of understanding “Abba” and digging into my relationship with Him. I’m reminding myself this morning of the reality that I know deeply as a father of Taylor and Madison: It was never about the rules, or the rule keeping. I am loved inherently for who I am as God’s child.

Getting to the Heart of the Matter

“Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”
Matthew 15:16-20 (NIV)

Religion has always been good at making a lot of rules. This was certainly true in Jesus’ day and we read about it in today’s chapter. Jesus’ followers didn’t ceremonially wash their hands before they ate. The religious leaders were appalled that Jesus’ followers didn’t follow their rules. Jesus rolled His eyes. This was one of many religious rules that Jesus and His followers broke from not picking grain on the Sabbath day of rest, to healing on the Sabbath, to fraternizing with sinners, and on and on and on.

Rules aren’t necessarily a bad thing. God gave the initial set of rules through Moses, and they were a guide for life lived decently and in order. Of course, over time the religious people took the basic rules and made even more rules to clarify the original rules. Then they added more rules labeled “traditions.” Rules, upon, rules, upon rules that moved things away from the heart of the matter until rule keeping became a religious, behavioral litmus test. But, at the core the original rules meant to guide life still hold true. Jesus said, “I didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.”

In today’s chapter, Jesus makes it very clear where He is coming from on the subject of rules. He tells us that it all comes down to the spiritual condition of our hearts. If my spirit is diseased with pride, anger, hatred, grudges, greed, lust, prejudice, bitterness, envy, malice, jealousy, impurity, et al than it doesn’t matter how well I follow the religious rules about propriety and what to eat, what to wear, or what not to do. And, simply following a labyrinth of religious rules is not going to change the spiritual condition of my heart.

Jesus came to do heart surgery for humanity. He came to change our hearts, knowing that a heart that is spiritually healthy and connected to God’s Spirit will continually beat with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control. It will be motivated to naturally fulfill the only important rules. Out of that healthy, Spirit-connected heart will flow thoughts, words, and actions marked by that same love, joy, peace, kindness, gentleness, consideration, faithfulness, and self-discipline.

This morning I’m reminded that rules of behavior are impotent to change the condition of my heart, but my heart, transformed by Jesus, will powerfully and perpetually change my behaviors and relationships for the betterment of myself and others.