Tag Archives: Shame

Cutting the Mustard

O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
    Who may dwell on your holy hill?

Psalm 15:1 (NRSVCE)

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Acceptance.
Entrance.
Cutting the mustard.
Making the grade.
The keys to the kingdom.
The punched ticket.
The front of the line.

Along my life journey, I’ve observed a lot of mental and spiritual energy is devoted to who is in and who is out. In fact, I’ve known and spent time in religious groups whose applied theology comes down to intense behavior modification rooted in fear of social and spiritual rejection and ostracization.

Reading the song lyrics of today’s Psalm, I have to remind myself that in David’s day, the center of the sacrificial worship system set up by Moses (which we read about in the chapter-a-day journey through Exodus that we just completed) continued God’s traveling tent sanctuary that had been set up in various places but which David set on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. David’s dream was to construct a permanent temple structure. That dream would be ultimately fulfilled by his son, Solomon. Until then, the ol’ tent temple was used and people would have to ascend the hill where it resided to conduct their ritual sacrifices and offerings.

Today’s song reads like a moral check-list, and some scholars think it may have been used as some kind of liturgy of questions that those pilgrims wanting to enter the sanctuary area had to go through. In other words, “Do you cut the righteous mustard enough to gain entrance?”

In the chapter-a-day journey through Exodus, I was struck time-and-time-again by the ways in which Jesus and His teaching changed the paradigm. He brought a more mature understanding of Spirit and relationship with God. Jesus spoke out against the religious do-gooders and spent most of his time among the sinners who didn’t cut the righteous and religious mustard. He welcomed sinners ostracized by His Temple cohorts, preached repentance of the heart that leads to real change rather than social behavior modification which leads to suppression of our true spiritual selves, secret sins, and false fronts.

As Paul wrote to Jesus’ followers in Rome (Rom 2:4): God’s kindness is what leads to repentance. I’ve observed along the way is that we humans always want to go back to the “my moral purity leads to acceptance model.

But that doesn’t mean I completely dismiss the heart of what David is singing about in the lyrics of today’s psalm because there’s another important life lesson connected here. David goes through his checklist of righteous behaviors:

  • Do the right thing
  • Speak truth from your heart
  • Don’t slander others
  • Do right by others
  • Don’t pile on when others are beat-down
  • Honor God
  • Keep your promises
  • Be generous
  • Don’t take bribes.

He then ends with “those who do these things shall never be moved.” In other words, truly living the right way and doing the right things are the basis of a solid, unshakeable life. You sleep well at night. You aren’t sneaking around trying to get away with things. You aren’t secretly living in shame and the paranoid fear of being found out, nor are you trying to always stay one step ahead of religious checklist keepers and their bandwagon of public shame which is always warmed-up and ready to drive you out into the wilderness of scandal and rejection.

So, in the quiet this morning I find myself back at my heart of hearts. Why would I want to live right and do right by God, myself, and others? Is it to keep up appearances and cut the mustard? Or is it because I’ve honestly come clean with God and those with whom I’m walking this life journey and received from them grace, forgiveness, and acceptance – which leads to so much gratitude that I genuinely want to change my ways and do the right things by them for all the right reasons?

Cutting the mustard, or coming clean? That is the question.

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

A Lesson in the Margins

He made for the altar a grating, a network of bronze, under its ledge, extending halfway down.
Exodus 38:4 (NRSVCE)

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One of the things I’ve observed along my life journey is what little appreciation I often have for how good I have it, and how different (i.e. comparatively great) life is today compared to the other 99% of human history.

Those who read the text version of my posts may notice that I will often quote different verses from different English translations and paraphrases. I typically will put a little parenthetical acronym behind the reference to let those who care about such things know which translation or paraphrase the quote is from. And, those who care about such things may have noticed that these chapter-a-day posts from my current journey through the Exodus story have come from the NRSVCE which stands for New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition.

What’s strange about that?

Well, I am not, nor have I ever been, Roman Catholic (Not that there’s anything wrong with that! [cue: rimshot]).

I have been reading the chapter each morning from the St. John’s Bible, which happens to be the NRSVCE translation. (Stick with me here, there is a point to all of this.)

The events we are reading about in Exodus happened somewhere roughly around 1500 BC/BCE. It was roughly 1500 AD/CE when Gutenberg and his printing press created the first mass-printed copies of the Exodus text. That means for 3000 years the only copies of Exodus were those which were copied by hand using whatever utensils and materials were available. For roughly a thousand years, followers of Jesus painstakingly copied the texts of the Great Story and added to their handwritten copies beautiful calligraphy, ornate illustrations, and artistic flourishes. These have come to be known as “illuminated manuscripts” which now are typically only found in museums and rare book shops.

After mass printing became available, the art of illuminated manuscripts became obsolete. But in 1998 Queen Elizabeth’s calligrapher, Donald Jackson, in conjunction with fellow scribes and some scholars from St. John’s Abbey and University in Minnesota, began work on a handwritten, illuminated manuscript of the Great Story. It’s the first one of its kind in 500 years. The combination text and artwork have been published in seven gorgeous volumes that Wendy and girls have gifted to me over the years. So each morning of this journey through the Exodus story I have come to the quiet of my office and read the chapter in the beautiful calligraphy of the St. John’s Bible.

This morning, I encountered something unusual. Donald Jackson and his fellow human scribes made an error. They left out the first half of verse four. Ugh. I can imagine when you put in countless hours of painstaking, intense artistic labor you don’t simply just scrap the page and start over. So what do you do?

In the margin of today’s chapter, the scribes drew a beautiful eagle holding a rope in its talons and its beak pointing to the space between lines where the missing text was supposed to go. The rope in the eagle’s talons descends all the way to the bottom of the page where I found the first half of verse four inside a text box around which the eagle’s rope appears to be hand-tied and knotted.

Brilliant, and beautiful.

In yesterday’s post, I noted that sometimes with the seemingly boring and rote information in certain chapters of the Great Story I have to look outside the text in order to find what God’s Spirit has to teach me that day. It’s always there if I’m open to it, and it’s taught me an important spiritual lesson: In God’s creation, everything is connected. Yesterday it was in the meta-communication of repetition that I found meaning. Today, I find my lesson in the human error of the handwritten text.

The scribes of the St. John’s Bible made a mistake. I wonder how far along they were on the page before they discovered it, or had it been completed before an editor discovered the bad news? I can only imagine the guttural groan of the calligraphers, the agonizing team meeting that may have taken place, and the depths of artistic shame and despair that may have accompanied the moments the oversight came to light.

This life journey is filled with human mistakes. Buy me a pint and I will give you an entire list of mistakes I’ve made along the way (it might cost you two pints, there are a lot of them). Mistakes that, when they came to light, created all sorts of groans, agonizing, shame, and despair for me. But, I’ve discovered through those stretches of life’s road that God is not a God of condemnation and shame. That’s just human experience projected on the divine or the enemy twisting the truth and passing it off to those who have no desire to ask, seek, or knock. God does what the scribes of the St. John’s Bible did. He takes my failures and shame and does something artistic with it. He molds the old mistakes into a new creation. He redeems it.

In the quiet this morning, this ancient lyric from Psalm 30 (MSG) rose from my memory bank. It’s written by King David (who had a boat-load of his own failures and shame):

I give you all the credit, God—
    you got me out of that mess,
    you didn’t let my foes gloat.

God, my God, I yelled for help
    and you put me together.
God, you pulled me out of the grave,

    gave me another chance at life
    when I was down-and-out.
You did it: you changed wild lament
    into whirling dance;
You ripped off my black mourning band

    and decked me with wildflowers.
I’m about to burst with song;
    I can’t keep quiet about you.
God, my God,
    I can’t thank you enough.

If you find yourself staring at the consequences of your own mistakes and failures, trust that God wants to make something beautiful out of it. As God put it to the Hebrews after delivering them out of Egypt: “I carried you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to myself.

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

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!

More Than Words

Servants cannot be corrected by mere words;
    though they understand, they will not respond.

Proverbs 29:19 (NIV)

A while back my company performed a “pilot” assessment of a client’s Customer Service team. We assessed a couple hundred phone calls between the Customer Service Representatives (CSRs) and their customers over a four week period of time. As with most of our initial assessments, data revealed the team to be pretty good. There was certainly inconsistency across the team. Some team members were naturally better than others. There was also a tremendous opportunity for improvement. Even the best CSR on the team had room to grow.

When that assessment was complete, we presented the results to the team, and targeted five key service skills for improvement. We trained them how to demonstrate these skills, provided examples, and gave them tactics of how to begin demonstrating these skills into their conversations with customers.

The plan had been for us to immediately begin an on-going assessment of calls for the team, so we could track the individual CSR’s progress, provide data on their individual development, and coach each one towards improvement. The client, however, implemented a change in their telephone system which meant we could not access recordings of the team’s calls for three months. By the time we finally had access to the team’s calls, four months had passed since our initial assessment.

So, how had the CSR done with the information and training we’d provided four months earlier?

Of the twelve CSRs on the team two of them did a bit better, two of them did a bit worse and eight of them were statistically the same. It was a perfect bell curve. Customers had not experienced any meaningful improvement in service.

In today’s chapter, the ancient Sage says that you can’t correct a person “with mere words.” A person may get what you’re saying, but they’re not motivated to actually change their behavior. That is going to require more than mere words and information.

Once our team was able to begin on-going assessments, CSRs were able to see how their service compared to their team each month. They were held accountable for their performance, and given the opportunities to receive cash bonuses if they performed at a high level. Suddenly, change began to happen. I’m happy to say that the team eventually became top-notch in providing service to their customers.

There’s a tremendous life lesson in this for me. Being complacent is the norm. Living each day simply driven by my appetites, habits, instincts, and emotions is really easy. Being disciplined, transforming old, unhealthy habits into healthy new ones, and learning to respond in wisdom rather than emotion are things that require intention, attention, and accountability. The Sage is right. I can read every self-help manual on Amazon and listen to every motivational podcast on the planet, but it’s another thing to actually make a change.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself in self-evaluation mode. How am I doing with the things I wanted to accomplish? Have I been able to actually change my behavior in order to progress towards the internal goals I’ve set for myself this week, this month, this year, in life? Honestly, it’s a mixed bag. I’ve progressed well in some things and haven’t moved an inch in others.

In this season of stay-at-home quarantine, I have the time and opportunity to review, recalibrate, and renew my efforts. My Enneagram Type Four temperament risks letting Resistance drag me into shame for all the things I haven’t done, then sic pessimism on me to convince me I’ll never actually do it. But, I know from previous experience on this earthly journey that shame and pessimism are wasted emotions. I can’t do anything about the past.

I do, however, have today lying before me…

<— Click on Solomon for an indexed list of previous chapter-a-day posts from this series from Proverbs!

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

The Look

The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.
Luke 22:61-62 (NIV)

As a child, I had a healthy conscience. If I had done something wrong, it weighed on my heart like the proverbial millstone Jesus referenced as just punishment for causing a little one to stumble. Looking back, it’s fascinating for me to think about the things that sent me into attacks of shame and the the things I could convince myself weren’t “that bad.”

It starts at such an early age, doesn’t it? The mental gymnastics of moral justice: What’s bad? What’s very bad? What’s not a big deal (if you can get away with it)? What sins weigh heavier on the scales of justice within the family system, the school system, the neighborhood system, and the peer group system?

It was fascinating for me to become a father and observe just how opposite two children with the same genes can be within the same family system. One daughter’s conscience was impregnable. She always pled “not guilty” no matter how red-handed she might have been caught. She remained stoically resolute, stuck with her plea, and quickly appealed any parental verdict as prosecutorial overreach and abuse of power. At times it was comical, at other times it was maddening.

With the other daughter, all it took was a look. A look of condemnation, or worse yet – a look of disappointment. Her little spirit wilted. Tears flowed. If nature helps to determine temperament, then I’m pretty certain she got that from me. Oh, that parenting could always be as easy as a look.

The look. That’s what struck me in today’s chapter. I find it fascinating that Luke included this little detail. Peter utters his third denial and immediately the rooster crows. With that audio cue, Jesus turns and looks directly at Peter. The denial, the rooster, the look. The weight of his denial, his sin, and the hollow emptiness of his emphatic assurance to be imprisoned and die with Jesus all come crashing down on Peter in a moment. He runs. He weeps bitterly.

As a child with a healthy conscience, it’s easy for me to feel that weight. I identify with Peter.

Me, too, dude,” my spirit whispers to the weeping, shamed, unworthy Simon. I totally identify with Peter at that moment; The seemingly ill-chosen ”Rock” and ”Keeper of the Keys.” By default, I ‘m ready to sit down with Peter and have a shame-induced pity party.

But, there’s something else I noticed in today’s chapter: Jesus knew. Jesus not only saw Peter’s impending denial and failure to follow-through on his assurances, but He also saw past the failure to the sorrow, repentance, and restoration. Jesus’ perceived that Peter’s fall would ultimately help mold him into a more solid, humble, and capable leader. Much in the same way that, as a father, I knew that one daughter’s tender spirit was going to develop into a heart of compassion that God would use in one way, and that God would use my other daughter’s strength of will and resolution for different but just as meaningful purposes.

In the quiet this morning I find the realization that I’m quick to sit and wallow with Peter in the failure and shame. This, however, means that I am slow to accept God’s perfect knowledge of me, my shortcomings, my failures, my heart of repentance, my restoration, and all that He is molding me to be for His Kingdom purposes. Embracing the former without embracing the latter is to accept an incomplete reality: Jesus remains very disappointed in me and I remain shamed and self-condemned. Within days, the resurrected Christ would stand on a beach graciously prompting from Peter three “I love you’s” to replace the three ”I don’t know Him’s.” Peter remains on course for the journey of love, faith, leadership, transformation and sacrifice to which he’d been called from the beginning.

It’s so easy for me to see “the look” of Jesus as one of a disappointment. But just as I could “look” at my daughters and see beyond their momentary infractions to the amazing individuals they would grow to be, “the look” of Jesus always sees beyond my failure to the fullness of all I am and will be in Him.

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!

Lord Protectors of Orthodoxy and Tradition

Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere.
Luke 20:20 (NIV)

It’s been years, but I can still see their faces. The look on most of those faces is a scowl. Along my journey, I have been a member and have taught in many different churches of diverse denominational bents. I have found these individuals in almost every one of them.

They are the thought police, the guardians of tradition, and the Lord Protectors of the Orthodox Realm. They wear the mantel of righteousness, believing themselves responsible to strictly observe and question anything they perceive to seep outside the rigid box in which they hold their tradition and orthodoxy. They often believe themselves to be spiritual heirs of the first century Berean Jews who are described as follows:

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.

Acts 17:11 (NIV)

My experience, however, leads me to believe that “noble character” is not an apt description for most of these individuals. They don’t receive my message with eagerness and open examination but with skepticism and censure. I have come to believe that their motivation is often fear and or pride cloaked in religiosity. Their minds and spirits are not open but closed. The fruit of their words and actions is rarely love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, or gentleness. I have observed that the root of their words and actions lie in the soil of fear, pride, self-righteousness, and anger. The fruit of their words and actions is conflict, quarrels, division, and dissension.

The faces of these individuals came to mind today as I read Luke’s account of the final week of Jesus’ earthly journey. We find Jesus in Jerusalem teaching in the Temple courts. He is drawing large crowds. He is the talk of the town. And, the orthodox power system of that Temple is angry and afraid. Jesus threatens their lucrative religious racket that has amassed their wealth. Jesus threatens their power and social standing with the people whom they control through religious rule-keeping, condemnation, judgment, and shame. Their tradition is holding onto power and they are bent on taking Jesus down.

So these teachers of the law and religious authorities send people to question, to trap, and to report anything the upstart Nazarene says which might be used to make a case against Him. They are already trying to find a way to send Jesus to the Roman Governor, for under Roman occupation it is Pontius Pilate alone who can sentence one to death, and they want Jesus dead.

Don’t hear what I’m not saying. As a follower of Jesus, I firmly believe that I must be responsible to consider, weigh, and test the things said, written, and taught in the name of Jesus. At the same time, I am called upon to be both shrewd and gentle. I have been commanded to follow the law of love in all things. I have been told to reserve judgment for the One true Judge. I am not judge, jury, and executioner of orthodox justice with a Junior Holy Spirit badge pinned to my chest. What a sad way to live and be. It doesn’t seem like the “full life” Jesus wanted His followers to experience and live out.

Back to the faces and the individuals. I have learned along the way to always try responding thoughtfully, gently, and with self-control. If they are open to a sincere and kind conversation to explore and discuss, then wonderful! However, when a thoughtful and gentle reply is fruitless (and it typically is), then I endeavor to press forward on the path to which God has led me. I keep loving, keep praying, keep reading, keep seeking, keep asking, keep knocking, and I focus on the only things in my control: my intentions, thoughts, words, and actions. And, I pay as little attention to my scowling critics as is humanly possible.

Sometimes, the most loving thing I can do is to walk away.

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!

Scarcity Thinking Before the God of Infinite Resources

If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
Luke 11:13 (NIV)

One of the things I’ve learned in this chapter-a-day journey is that God’s Message never ceases to meet me right where I am.

One of the things that I’ve learned about myself along my spiritual journey is that I have a spiritual Achilles heel called scarcity. It’s a particular form of unbelief rooted in my own toxic shame. The following passage describes me well:

Remembering that God is my source, we are in the spiritual position of having an unlimited bank account. Most of us never consider how powerful the Creator really is. Instead, we draw very limited amounts of the power available to us. We decide how powerful God is for us. We unconsciously set a limit on how much God can give us or help us. We are stingy with ourselves. And if we receive a gift beyond our imagining, we often send it back.

One reason we are miserly with ourselves is scarcity thinking. We don’t want our luck to run out. We don’t want to overspend our spiritual abundance. Again, we are limiting our flow by anthropmorphizing God into a capricious parent figure. Remembering that God is our source, an energy flow that likes to extend itself, we become more able to tap our creative power more effectively.

from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

In today’s chapter, Jesus teaches His followers about prayer. He first gives them the words commonly known as “The Lord’s Prayer.” Then Jesus speaks to His followers about the attitude of prayer. He gets right to the heart of the scarcity thinking that Cameron describes.

Ask, seek and knock on God’s door with audacity, Jesus tells me. God is not a miserly Father to His children. God has an infinite and unlimited supply. The only limitation is my own lack of faith, my lack of trust that my Heavenly Father wants to bless me, and the cyclical loops of scarcity thinking that I allow my brain to keep playing on an infinite “repeat” mode in my head. That stinking pattern of poisonous thinking rears it’s ugly head over and over again in my head and heart.

Lord, have mercy on me.

In the quiet this morning I find myself, once again, reading exactly what I need to hear at this waypoint in my journey. Heavenly Father reminding me how limitless His love and resources are, and how limited I perceive them to be through the lenses of my shame.

Some days are a revelation just how far I still have to grow in my journey.

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!

Grappling with the Unexpected

She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
Luke 2:7 (NIV)

A few years ago, our daughter called late in the afternoon and asked if she could stop by. The last thing on Earth we expected to hear that evening was that she was pregnant. She and Clayton had been divorced for three years and we had no idea that they had seen one another. As the story unfolded, it became clear that Milo’s conception was as improbable as it was unexpected. There are times that God makes it perfectly clear that a baby is meant to happen.

I recommend you click on the image below and read Taylor’s post:

Ironic, isn’t it? The juxtaposition of yesterday’s post and today’s post is not lost on me. What a fascinating journey.

As I read the very familiar story in today’s chapter, I couldn’t help but recognize the poor interpretation that many of us were given in the bathrobe Christmas pageants of our childhood. The familiar King James version of today’s chapter says that there was no room for Mary and Joseph in the Bethlehem Motel. The translation “guest room” is more accurate, and it gets to the bigger picture that is lost on most readers.

Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem for the census because that was his family’s hometown and ancestral home. In those days, families all lived together communally. If Joseph had to go to Bethlehem for the census, so did his parents, siblings, and cousins. Many scholars also believe that the genealogy of Jesus that Luke provides in tomorrow’s chapter is the lineage of Mary, in which case all of Mary’s family, siblings, and cousins would have been required to go to Bethlehem as well. It was a full-scale family reunion thanks to the Internal Revenue Service of the Roman Empire.

A big family reunion in the ol’ hometown. And, there was no guest room available for a very pregnant Mary and her betrothed.

At the beginning of John’s biography of Jesus, he states: “{Jesus] came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” The prophet Isaiah wrote of the Messiah: “He was despised and rejected.” These things were true of Jesus from the very beginning before he was even born. An unwed teen mother telling stories about an angel saying she’s pregnant with God’s child didn’t receive a favorable response from the fam.

Wendy and I have been overjoyed the past two weeks to have our kids and grandson back in the states with us. Milo may have been an unexpected and improbable addition to our family, but there is no doubt in my mind that he was intended.

In the quiet this morning I find myself reminded that this life journey is filled with unexpected circumstances. I’ve observed along the way that our journeys rarely end up being what we thought they would be or what we planned for them to be. Nevertheless, it’s easy to feel disappointed, cheated, or somehow surprised by this reality. I’m not sure how or why I ever came to the notion of life’s predictability in the first place. The further I get in my journey the more I try to not fight the unexpected but to trust and flow with it instead.

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!

Legalism’s Tragic Imitation of Faith

What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
Romans 4:3 (NIV)

Legalism /ˈlēɡəˌlizəm/ noun  1. Excessive adherence to law or formula. 2. Dependence on moral law rather than personal faith.

I was a young man when I had the opportunity to pastor a relatively small, rural congregation. Taylor was just a newborn. I’ll never forget meeting informally with one of the church elders to get acquainted over a cup of coffee.

Where are you going to send your children?” he asked me early in the conversation. “Public school or Christian school?

What I didn’t know in that moment was that the question was a litmus test. The elder was raised in a denomination that practiced a form of legalism, and the education of children was part of the “moral law” for this particular denomination. You sent your children to Christian school, and there was no other acceptable option. If parents couldn’t afford it, then grandparents and other family members were expected to pitch in and foot the bill. If you failed this test then there would definitely be social repercussions.

By the way, I failed the test, but that is a different post for another day.

Along my faith journey I have encountered legalism in a number of different populations. I think it important to note that every brand of  denomination I’ve encountered, from Roman Catholic to Lutheran to Baptist to Reformed to Quaker has its own legalistic groups within. Both of the definitions pasted above fit hand-in-glove to what I’ve observed and experienced. What’s been fascinating to observe is how religious legalism seeps into every system with which it comes in contact. While living a among a group of legalistic Christians I found that the legalism was not confined to how the church operated, but it became how the connected family systems, social systems, educational systems, and business systems functioned. I certainly found individuals within these legalistic systems to be sincere and motivated by what they truly believed was “right.” So were many of the Pharisees for whom Jesus had such harsh words of rebuke.

In a legalistic group, observable public and social behavior becomes the standard by which a person’s spiritual standing is judged. Pressure is applied by the group as a whole to conform. Social acceptance or rejection is often the passive-aggressive form of reward or punishment. I’ve personally heard many tragic stories from individuals raised in these legalistic social groups. They’ve shared with me stories of being forced to stand publicly before the congregation in order to be shamed, and stories of church elders making weekly home visits to keep families toeing the line and under the church’s brand of social control.

Within the group I encountered as a young pastor the critical legalistic criteria of the denomination’s moral law not only included sending your kids to Christian school (controlled by the denomination, no doubt), but also strictly observing the sabbath (no work on Sunday), and attendance at two-a-day church services each Sunday (the “no work” law helped with this). Then there were all sorts of other unwritten, behavioral rules about the clothes you wore, the music you listened to, the businesses you supported, the people you dated and married, the acceptable colleges you sent your children to, and on and on and on.

It is written that the “fruit” of God’s Spirit in one’s life includes:

  • love
  • joy
  • peace
  • patience
  • kindness
  • gentleness
  • self-control

I’ve observed that the “fruit” of legalism in groups like the one I’ve described are:

  • obedience
  • guilt
  • fear
  • judgement
  • threats
  • shaming punishment
  • authoritative control

In his letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome, Paul is addressing a different form of legalism. In his case, it was the Jewish believers who’d been raised under the legalistic moral Law of Moses. Their adherence to these laws, along with others that had been made up, and the physical sign of being circumcised were the critical criteria. These followers of Jesus who came out of this form of legalism now wanted to apply their legalistic code to all followers of Jesus.

In today’s chapter, Paul tackles the issue head on by asking these legalistic Jewish believers two questions from their own scriptural tradition. Abraham was the spiritual “father” of Judaism (btw, Abraham was the “father” of Islam as well), and their scriptures said “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Not only this, but this simple “believe and you’ll be credited with righteousness” paradigm came before circumcision was a thing and before the Law of Moses existed. So, Paul argues, when Jesus says “Whoever believes in me will not perish but have eternal life, ”  he is simply going back to the original paradigm given to “Father Abraham” at the very beginning.

In the quiet this morning I’m seeing the faces of those who’ve shared with me their stories about being raised in legalism. Some are absurd to the point of laughter, and others are heart-breaking to the point of tears. I get why legalism develops as a human system. There is a social order produced, and we humans love our social order. The problem I’ve found, and that Paul is arguing, goes back to the definition I pasted at the top of this post: “adherence to moral law rather than personal faith.” Legalism actually chokes Spirit and Life and replaces it with a cheap imitation which actually destroys faith and, insidiously, feeds the flesh.

More about that in the chapters ahead.

The Mess of Relationships

Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches.
1 Corinthians 7:17 (NIV)

My friend Matthew is a marriage and family therapist here in our small Iowa town. This is a great little community founded in 1847 by a Dutch pastor and his devout group of Jesus’ followers. After 170 years our community retains a strong culture of Christian values, and I would daresay that a majority of our town’s citizens would claim to be believers. Nevertheless, I’ve noticed over the years that my friend Matthew never ceases to be booked solid with clients. My quiet observation is that even among those who sincerely seek to follow Jesus, relationships are a never-ending challenge.

Today’s chapter reads like a modified bullet list from Dear Abby as Paul advises those who are married, those who are single wishing to be married, those who are widowed, those who are separated from their spouses, and those who are married to unbelievers. He weaves in and out of stating what he knows from Jewish laws and tradition, and what he believes in his own opinion as the first century believers struggle to determine what it means to live as a follower of Jesus in a rapidly developing faith tradition. Based on what he has already established earlier in his letter, Paul is addressing a fledgling group of Jesus’ followers from diverse cultural traditions living in what is primarily a pagan Greek town in the first century Roman Empire. Most of what the Corinthian believers knew of Jesus’ words and teaching was transmitted orally by the Apostles. It is likely that none of the Gospels had even been written when Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians.

I’m an amateur student of history, I’ve come to accept that every generation of believers in every culture have struggled with all of these relational and marital issues. Courtship, sex before marriage, marriage, sex within marriage, infidelity, separation, divorce, widowhood, sex outside of marriage and remarriage have always been challenging issues. They have always spurred intense debate and emotional turmoil for individuals, families, churches, communities, and nations. I believe they always will this side of eternity.

As I read through today’s chapter and couldn’t help thinking of real people I know in very real and very unique life situations. It spurs questions of “Yeah, but what about….” God’s Message through Paul provides a general  guide for believers, but it certainly isn’t  exhaustive and it doesn’t come close to addressing countless specific situations. Being a divorced and remarried follower of Jesus, I have grappled with my very own relational struggles and failures. I have received (both solicited and unsolicited) diverse opinions from other sincere believers ranging from grace and forgiveness to judgment and condemnation. [sigh] Life gets messy on this earthly journey.

This morning I find myself grappling with my own past. I have continuously journeyed through and studied the Bible for almost 40 years. I have sought to increasingly live as a sincere believer of Jesus, though I regularly fall short. The failure of my first marriage and all the personal shortcomings that led to it are right up there at the top of my failure list.  Yet, there are a few things Holy Spirit continually whispers to my soul when my shame rolls in like the tide:

  • First, nowhere in God’s Message does the failure of a marriage exclude a person from God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness.
  • Second, God has a long track record of redeeming and using broken people with personal failings for His good purposes.

The good news for my friend Matthew and his colleagues is that they will have job security as long as imperfect human beings date, get married, and seek to successfully live together in this fallen world.