Tag Archives: Social

Living in Gray

When the king’s order and edict had been proclaimed, many young women were brought to the citadel of Susa and put under the care of Hegai. Esther also was taken to the king’s palace and entrusted to Hegai, who had charge of the harem.
Esther 2:8 (NIV)

Yesterday at the breakfast table Wendy and I were having breakfast and reading the news, as is our daily habit. Wendy happened upon a news piece that quite clearly divided the United States into two generalized racial groups. Implied in the article was the notion that in America you are either black or white. I find the distinction of choice ironic.

The simplistic divide does not account for the vast number of people of Hispanic, Asian, or Native American descent, nor does it account for the population of interracial couples and their children which, according to U.S. Census figures, has steadily grown since 1967 and continues to do so.

Our culture loves binary, either-or choices. I have observed this to be true of both institutional religion and mainstream news media who are critical one another. When dealing with a large population of people, simple binary choices are much easier to deal with. Here are some examples from both of them:

  • Black or White
  • Conservative or Liberal
  • Fox News or MSNBC
  • Capitalism or Socialism
  • Red State or Blue State
  • Progressive or Deplorable
  • Blue Collar or White Collar
  • Educated or Uneducated
  • Urban or Rural
  • Republican or Democrat
  • Protestant or Catholic
  • Sacred or Secular
  • Christian or Secular
  • Holy or Worldly
  • Evangelical or Mainline
  • Religious or Atheist

And yet, as I have traversed this earthly journey and spiritually followed in the footsteps of Jesus, I find most binary distinctions simplistic and inadequate for addressing complex circumstances and issues. The world and its people with whom I interact every day are an elaborate mosaic of DNA, thought, spirit, background, and experience. To put one complex person into one of two binary boxes for the sake of simple definition is foolishness.

One of the things that I love about the story of Esther is how God works through this young Jewish woman who appears to navigate the tremendously gray territory between binary choices of Jew or Gentile, Hebrew or Persian, and Moral or Immoral. She keeps her heritage and faith secret. Whereas Daniel refused to eat meat provided by his foreign captors, Esther has no such qualms. There is no indication that Esther balks at being part of the Persian harem system that would have instructed her how to pleasure the king sexually on demand.

The book of Esther has confounded binary thinkers for ages. One commentator wrote that Esther’s behavior would not pass any test of modern ethical theory. Her cultural compromises coupled with the pesky fact that God is never mentioned by name in the story led some editors in history to introduce prayers into the book that were never part of the original text along with commentary stating that Esther hated being married to a Gentile. I’ve observed that when the truth is too gray for our comfort zone, we like to shade it to fit our personal binary leanings.

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking about the value and importance of a story like Esther. She successfully navigates a very uncomfortable world of gray politically, culturally, religiously, and morally. From a position of powerlessness and critical compromise, she is used for God’s purposes in profound and powerful ways. In a time when our political, religious, cultural, and social systems seem perpetually intent on placing me in one of two simplistic boxes, I pray I can, like Esther, find a way to successfully navigate the territory of gray that lies in tension between simplistic, black-and-white definitions.

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.

“Yes, And”

I told them, “If you think it best, give me my pay; but if not, keep it.” So they paid me thirty pieces of silver.

And the Lord said to me, “Throw it to the potter”—the handsome price at which they valued me! So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them to the potter at the house of the Lord.
Zechariah 11:12-13 (NIV)

Reading scholarly commentary on today’s chapter, one is confronted with two contrasting interpretations of Zechariah’s prophecy. One sees the text as a conclusion of the previous chapter and a judgement on the neighboring nations who pose an obstacle to the reestablishment of Jerusalem. Others see it as prescient judgement on the rejection of God’s Messiah Shepherd.

What struck me as I read the presentation of contrasting interpretations is that I felt as though I must make up my mind as to which one is right; Which I agreed with and which I would reject. I have been programmed by my culture and tradition to approach interpretation in a dualistic, either-or manner. When I was younger my teachers regularly presented various arguments on different interpretations of a text then argued passionately for the interpretation that the teacher was convinced was the right one. Over time I felt the subtle but pervasive expectation to align myself to groups with whom I agreed on all the right interpretations.

I felt the expectation in the arena of institutional Christianity in which I was to align loyally with the particular denomination with whom I was convinced was right (and of course all other denominations were wrong and not to be trusted). Once aligned with a denomination I found myself pressured to associate with sub-groups of thought within the denomination on hot-button issues of doctrine or scriptural interpretation; Camps who would separate at denominational meetings like the parting of the Red Sea.

This was also true of politics, especially true here in the States where everything is divided into primarily two camps at ever and increasingly estranged viewpoints moving further and further apart.

This is also true socially where one social group separates themselves from another social groups and holds the other at an arm’s length of ignorant suspicion: Blacks and whites, academics and business, science and religion, jocks and artists, preppies and burn-outs, nerds and popular kids.

Along this life journey I have found myself consistently moving toward the gray spaces between the separate camps of dualistic thought, which sometimes raises suspicions of both. I have served and worshipped among many different denominations. I have found myself socializing in starkly contrasting social groups. I find myself increasingly rejecting the polarizing extremes of both of my country’s red and blue camps.

This morning I find myself mulling over the dualistic interpretations of Zechariah’s prophecy and whispering to myself, “yes, and.” So it is with the prophetic which can be layered with meaning and revealed by a God who is consistently beyond confinement of human thought or understanding. Even Jesus, whom I believe was the incarnate Immanuel (“God with us”) was consistently found at the tension between dualistic extremes. So much so, in fact, that those of Jesus’ own religion considered Him so threatening to their entrenched, right religious interpretations that they were willing to pay to get rid of Him.

And so they paid one of Jesus’ own followers thirty pieces of silver. When Judas felt the shamed of what he had done to Jesus he threw the silver back at the priests who used the money to buy a Potter’s field to be used to bury poor dead blokes who couldn’t afford a grave.

That’s one prophecy that scholars in either interpretive camp of today’s chapter can agree is eerily present in the text that Zac wrote nearly 500 years before the events occurred.

 

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.

The Bewitchment of “Group Think”

 But the men who had gone up with him said, “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.”
Numbers 13:31 (NIV)

In today’s chapter Moses sends out twelve men, one from each tribe, to spy out the land of Canaan. Two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, come back with a report that the Hebrew tribes should press forward and conquer the land. The other ten spies reported exaggerated claims of giants living in the land whom the Hebrews could not defeat. Their report stoked fear in the hearts of the people.

It’s fascinating how susceptible the majority can be to “group think.” It happens to be the morning of All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween, as I write this. Perhaps that’s why the ten spies swaying the nation of Hebrews with their exaggerated claims reminds me of a handful of schoolgirls convincing the people of their village that they saw upstanding members of the community in cahoots with the devil. Nineteen people were eventually hanged as a result of the Salem witch trials. It’s amazing how bewitching “group think” can be (pun absolutely intended).

The social psychologist Gustave Le Bon theorized that there were three stages of crowd think. A group of people submerge themselves in the collective whole, losing a sense of individual thought and responsibility. Individuals are then susceptible accept, without question, the contagion of popular thought within the group, opening themselves up to suggestion of different kinds. Even in a nation and culture that celebrates freedom of thought and speech we are prone to follow the crowd in all sorts of ways.

As an enneagram Type 4 I tend to be a fierce individualist. Nevertheless, this morning I’m reflecting back along my journey. It’s funny to think about fads, social trends, and popular thoughts I’ve observed and even found myself a part. The further I get in my journey the more desirous I am to think and act independently, rather than allow myself to be submerged in the bewitching trends of the group think of the moment. It’s hard to do. The unconscious draw of group think is often subtle and subconscious as it was for the ancient Hebrews, the puritans of Salem and still is today.

I’m preparing to deliver a message on Sunday morning and one of the key verses on which I’ve been meditating is this: “Do not be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

God, grant me open eyes, open ears, perceptive spirit, and a mind increasingly renewed by Divine Truth and Lady Wisdom.

Old Ways Die Hard

“Take the Levites from among all the Israelites and make them ceremonially clean.”
Numbers 8:6 (NIV)

When I was a kid, I remember the feeling that the Reverend of our family’s church was different. There was something special about him. He dressed differently, he was treated differently, and we children were told to be on our best behavior around him. If he came to visit our house it was a special occasion and we were give instructions that didn’t accompany any other visitor.

The idea of priests, pastors, imams and rabbis being afforded special status runs deep in us. In the Judeo-Christian tradition is goes all the way back to the days of Moses and the ancient religious prescriptions we’re reading about here in the book of Numbers. The priesthood was reserved for the descendants of Aaron. Assistance to the priests was reserved only for those men in the tribe of Levi. There were special rituals of consecration for both. The priests were made “holy” and, according to today’s chapter, the Levites were made “clean.” The priests took on special priestly garments, the Levites washed theirs. Blood was applied to the priests but just waved over the Levites. It is a spiritual caste system in the making.

God’s Message clearly points to a radically new paradigm after Jesus’ ascension and the outpouring of Holy Spirit. There is now no distinctions between Jews and non-Jews, men and women, rich and poor, slave and free. Salvation is offered to all without distinction. Each and every one is an essential part of the same body. Every member is part of a royal priesthood. Spiritual gifts are given to all without regard to age, education, status, maturity, or purity. Old paradigms have passed away, a new paradigm has come. The religious caste system is over.

Or not.

People are people. Deeply held beliefs and traditions are hard to break. Along my spiritual journey I’ve witnessed that we continually rebuild systems with which we’re comfortable. We make special schools for “ministry” and then pick and choose who may attend (by gender, by socio-economic status, by social standing, by educational merit, by perceived moral purity). We develop special rituals and hoops for individuals to jump through, and then we treat them special and “different” once they’ve successfully jumped through them.

Having spent time as both pastor in the pulpit and as (seemingly) peon in the cheap seats, I’ve witnessed our penchant for treating pastors and priests differently from both sides. Having a systematic process of education for leadership is not a bad thing, but when the institutional system begins affording special social rank and privilege (by design or default), then it begins to tear at the heart of what Jesus was all about.

This morning I’m thinking about how given we are as humans to accepting certain thoughts, beliefs, and social mores without question. I’ve noticed along the way that some people get less likely to question them the further they get in life. I’m finding myself becoming more inclined to question, to prod, to push. “Old things pass away, new things come,” it is said. But we only have room for new things if we are willing to let go of the old. The tighter we cling to that which is dead, the more impossible it is to truly experience new life.

If you want to…

The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.
Leviticus 13:45-46 (NRSV)

I have a nasty cold. You don’t want to shake my hand.”

It’s not uncommon to hear that phrase when greeting someone during cold and flu season. With all we know about germs, bacteria, and viruses, it’s considered courteous and a socially appropriate way to show concern for, and protect the health of, another person. We don’t even think that much about it.

Today’s lengthy chapter is fascinating when I consider what scant medical knowledge must have existed when these laws about visible infections were given thousands of years ago. The prescribed actions in today’s chapter describe a systematic diagnosis of symptoms, the quarantine of infected individuals, the destruction of infected clothing, and the public communication of such infections so as to protect the larger community from transmittal.

What was considered necessary for the health and welfare of the society could also be incredibly shaming for the infected person. You were expected to make yourself look sick and disheveled so others could spot you and would want to avoid you. You were to proclaim loudly and repeatedly “Unclean!” so that others could stay away. How awful for those who lived their entire lives in such a way. I can’t imagine what it would do to my soul to live life always on the periphery of “normal” society, continually repelling people with my appearance and forever announcing to people who I was “unclean.” Talk about tragic.

It brings to mind this morning one of my favorite stories about Jesus. It happens so quickly that it is often forgotten among the wondrous things Jesus did on his miraculous mystery tour:

Then a leper appeared and went to his knees before Jesus, praying, “Master, if you want to, you can heal my body.”

Jesus reached out and touched him, saying, “I want to. Be clean.”

I think about this leper in terms of today’s chapter with its rigid legal and religious societal prescription. This is a person who has been alienated from family and society, perhaps their whole lives. This is a person who has had people perpetually avoid them, look at them in disgust, and treat them with contempt. This is a person who may very well have not felt the touch of another human being for as long as they could remember. No warm hugs, no human intimacy, no loving caress of a mother or spouse. This is a person who, in word and action, has been repeatedly fed a message by society: “I don’t want to see you. I don’t want to touch you. I don’t want you near me or my loved ones.”

Imagine this wounded soul coming to Jesus at the height of Jesus’ popularity. The crowds were enormous.

“Unclean!” the person shouts hoarsely as the crowds part. Mothers protect their children and hurry them away. People look away in disgust. Shouts and insults erupt as the “normal” people urge this person to leave and get away from them. Perhaps a few even picked up stones to throw in order to physically drive the leper away from them.

But Jesus watches quietly as the leper kneels and proclaims a simple statement of faith. “If you want to, you can make me clean.”

Then Jesus reaches out and touches the leper. “I want to,” Jesus says.

This morning I am thinking about my leprous soul that no one sees. I am thinking about the many ways I am “unclean” and infected with envy, hatred, prejudice, and pride. I am thinking of the ways I secretly identify with the leper, and all the ways I don’t have a flipping’ clue.

Jesus, If you want to, you can make me clean.

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featured image by Hans Splinter via Flickr