Tag Archives: Spiritual

Let Good Rule

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

Religion loves rules.

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

Religion loves rules.

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

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

Genesis 2:2 (NIV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let good rule!

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

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

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

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

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

New Ways, Old Ways, and the Inside-Out

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

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

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

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

And, He is stirring things up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greater Than Fair

“Truly I tell you,” [Jesus] continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”
Luke 4:24-27 (NIV)

There are many things I don’t understand in this world. Along my life journey, I have regularly been perplexed at the seeming lack of fairness in life. Like most contemplatives, I am perplexed as to why one person experiences great fortune and another person experiences great tragedy. Even as a follower of Jesus, I have been struck at the incredible diversity in stories and spiritual paths. One person’s life journey appears to be a stroll down Easy Street while another’s is a painful slog down a muddy path riddled with potholes, switchbacks, and roadblocks.

In today’s chapter, Jesus not only acknowledges this reality but also affirms it. As we pick up the story after Jesus is baptized by John, He heads on a sojourn into the wilderness where He successfully overcomes the temptations of the Evil One. Then follows the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry and things get off to a great start. Everyone loves his teaching. He speaks with spiritual authority no one has ever heard before.

Then Jesus comes to His hometown of Nazareth. He quotes an ancient prophecy from Isaiah that proclaims the coming of the Messiah who will bring good news to the poor, make the blind see, and set prisoners free.

But not for you,” Jesus says to His long-time friends and neighbors. No miracles for you. He goes on to explain that there is this longstanding spiritual theme in the Great Story in which prophets are never honored in their hometowns. He references Elijah who could have healed any one of his homeboys but instead heals the son of a foreign widow in Phoenicia. Likewise, Jesus states, the prophet Elisha could have healed any leper in his local Jewish leper colony but instead heals a Syrian leper.

This lesson did not sit well with the hometown crowd. This wasn’t fair. So, they attempted to kill Him. It wouldn’t be the last time Jesus’ message ended with death threats rather than any kind of spiritual transformation in His audience. He doesn’t seem concerned. Perhaps for the first time in His ministry, it seems that there is something bigger at stake that Jesus is trying to get at.

What I find fascinating about this episode at the very beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry is that it so perfectly foreshadows what was going to happen at the end of it. It will be His own people who reject Him and hand Him over for execution. When this happens, Jesus will again reference the recurring theme of His people killing their own prophets throughout their storied history. Jesus also foreshadows that, after His resurrection and ascension, His “Good News” would miraculously explode across the non-Jewish, foreign Gentile population that His own people despised (which is the story told in the book of Acts).

The other reality I cannot escape in this episode is that, on a purely human level, it isn’t fair. A group of people won’t experience Jesus’ miracles. Their demon-possessed children won’t be released. There won’t be a miraculous transformation of tap water into Tempranillo to keep the wine flowing and the reception going at his Nazareth neighbor’s wedding. And, all of these things won’t happen just because Nazareth happens to be Jesus’ hometown? It isn’t fair.

In the quiet this morning I am pondering the fact that Jesus never promised fairness. I searched for it this morning just to double-check. Jesus never said that He came to bring fairness. Of course, He also wouldn’t experience fairness either. He would be unfairly accused, unfairly tried, and unfairly executed. It would seem logical to me to assume that I should not then expect fairness in my following of Jesus either. And, some will choose not to follow Jesus for this very reason. That was the reaction of Jesus’ hometown entourage. I observe people making the same choice today.

But what if fairness isn’t the point? What if my earthly journey is about something purposed which is far greater than what appears on the surface? What if there is a spiritual economy that is, in the grand scheme, actually more real than the temporal experience of my five earthly senses and my base human appetites? In my almost forty-year study of Jesus’ life and teachings, I find that Jesus’ came not to make life fair, but to exemplify love and call us to follow that example. And love isn’t fair. Love sacrifices all that it has, and is generously extravagant, and almost always receives an inequitable return on the investment. I believe that’s what Jesus came to show me, and in doing so He points me to something greater; He leads me to faith in the understanding that the eternal which I cannot touch, taste, see, smell, or hear is far greater and actually more real than any fair thing on this earth.

And so, I keep following.

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!

Connect, Disconnect, Reconnect

The whole company that had returned from exile built temporary shelters and lived in them. From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy was very great.
Nehemiah 8:17 (NIV)

As a child growing up, I attended a protestant church that practiced what I would call a very “high church” worship. I was part of a children’s choir. We wore robes with embellishments that corresponded to the season of the church calendar, as did the minister. There was a lot of pomp and grand tradition complete with a pipe organ and stained-glass windows. The service contained many prescribed liturgical practices, responsive readings, and the like. As a child, it was at first all I knew and I found meaning in it all. As I got older, however, it all seemed a bit boring and empty. There grew within me a huge disconnect between my spirit and all the rote repetition of those high-church liturgical practices.

I became a follower of Jesus in my teens and quickly left the church of my childhood. I connected with a different church that had what I would characterize as a freer and more laid-back worship style. It felt more personal to me.

The ironic thing is, as I have continued on in my spiritual journey I have found myself reconnecting with some of the types of liturgical tradition I abandoned in my childhood. When I was a child they were empty of meaning for me, but as I have returned to them I have found them to have all sorts of rich meaning for me at this particular waypoint of life.

In today’s chapter, Ezra reads the law of Moses (the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Number, and Deuteronomy) out loud to all of the assembled exiles who had returned to Jerusalem and repaired the walls of the city. This is some 400-500 years before Jesus. The vast majority of the people were illiterate and had lived all or most of their lives in Babylon. Many had likely never heard the law of Moses read before.

In the Hebrew tradition, the law of Moses prescribed various feasts and festivals throughout the seasons of the year. The “Feast of Tabernacles” (a Tabernacle is like a tent or temporary shelter) happened in the fall and commemorated the Hebrew people camping out as they left slavery in Egypt and returned to the land of Canaan. When the Ezra and the people read about this festival, they realized that they should be celebrating it right then. So, they did.

Ezra and the people of Jerusalem reconnected to a tradition that had been lost and forgotten for centuries, and it was filled with all sorts of meaning for them.

Along my life journey, I have observed that this happens to us a lot as human beings. Traditions and rituals get abandoned and fade away as they lose meaning and connection for those of us repeating them. At some point down life’s road, we rediscover them at a point in our spiritual journey when they meaningfully connect and become spiritually filling. What was old becomes new, what was lost to us as meaningless and boring we find to have all sorts of meaning.

In the quiet this morning I am revisiting the many spiritual traditions that I have experienced in my journey. I’ve experienced a plethora of traditions from the liturgical high-church of my childhood to the Evangelical show. I have sat in the silence of a Quaker meeting house, been in the frenzy of a Charismatic revival meeting, and the energetic worship of a black Baptist church. I long ago abandoned any notion of any tradition being “right” or “wrong.” They are all simply different traditions that have something to teach me. Some connect with my spirit in ways others do not, but each tradition and ritual has something to teach me at different waypoints of my spiritual journey if I’m open and willing to learn them.

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

The Nehemiah Two-Step

They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it. But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.
Nehemiah 4:8-9 (NIV)

This life journey always comes with a certain amount of opposition. It can come from any number of sources, and it can take multiple forms. Opposition can be spiritual, emotional, relational, physical, personal, internal, public, subversive, passive, violent, and etc. We all face opposition, conflict, and threats from time to time, even if it is in relatively small ways.

In today’s chapter, the exiles attempting to repair the walls of Jerusalem encounter opposition from the neighboring tribes. Conflict with these tribes and towns had been part of the political landscape of the area for centuries, so it was not a surprise. It was expected.

I found it fascinating that Nehemiah records a “two-step” response to the threats. I think the “Nehemiah Two-Step” is a great move to know when I find myself dancing with the fires of opposition in any form that the antagonistic force might present itself. The first step was to pray. The second step was to respond with the appropriate action.

Along my life journey, I’ve experienced many times when I get this very simple dance move wrong:

  • I pray without responding with action. In hindsight, I realize that sometimes I have placed all the responsibility on God with the expectations that He will supernaturally make it all okay without me being responsible for doing my part.
  • I act without praying. Other times, a threat or attack comes and it elicits from me an immediate reaction. When I react without praying, I’ve come to realize that I have refused to seek, submit, and subscribe to my higher authority. My reactions are often raging but not rational, passionate but not prudent, willful but not wise.
  • I act before I pray. When I get the order wrong, I find myself determining the response I think is warranted and then ask God to honor my plan rather than honoring God to seek His plan for how I should respond.

In the quiet this morning, as I pondered these things, I was reminded of this quote:

“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”

Albert Einstein

The great scientist’s words have always reminded me that no matter what I set out to accomplish, I can expect opposition. And, it’s likely that the greater endeavor I attempt, the greater opposition I’m likely to face.

From a spiritual perspective, God’s Message continually reminds me of the same thing. Specifically, that spiritual opposition is always a threat:

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.

I Peter 5:8 (NIV)

I long ago recognized that the time I spend, first thing in the morning, in quiet reading, writing, and contemplation has a positive effect on the rest of my day. It’s another form of the “Nehemiah two-step.” Pray, then act.

So, now I’ve prayed. It’s time to take action on today’s task list.

Have a great day, my friend.

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

spiritual infection

While Ezra was praying and confessing, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God, a large crowd of Israelites—men, women and children—gathered around him. They too wept bitterly.
Ezra 10:1 (NIV)

Earlier this summer I had outpatient surgery to remove a patch of cancerous cells from my ear. Days after my surgery the pain and discomfort were getting worse instead of better. By the time the chills and fever set in, I knew that something was wrong. It turns out I had a nasty infection that required two rounds of antibiotics and some intense attention to quell.

One of the subtle changes I’ve noticed during my lifetime is the attention that has been given to fighting infectious diseases. You can hardly go into a public venue or restroom without finding sanitizers by the door waiting for you to protect yourself and others from germs, viruses, and disease.

But, like so many things in life, infection cuts both ways. The positive example can be infectious as well. A teacher stands at the door of her classroom each morning and greets every child with their own unique handshake. A stranger surprises with a random act of kindness and then tells the recipient to simply “pay it forward.” One person’s sacrifice or selfless act inspires others to follow like Alex’s Lemonade Stand.

In today’s chapter, Ezra’s very public display of regret and repentance compelled others to stop and notice. Eventually, the crowd began to join him. One man’s confession and dedication became the spiritual contagion that started a spiritual revival.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself taking a trip down memory lane and revisiting various experiences I’ve had along my life journey of spiritual outpourings and movements within groups of people. In most cases, I can follow them back to one person whose faith, conversion, witness, or confession became the spiritual pebble that started the avalanche.

I’m reminded this morning that I have the power to infect people in both positive and negative ways. What am I affecting with my thoughts, words, actions, relationships, posts, tweets, and snaps? When Paul wrote his letter to the followers of Jesus in Galatia, he used contrasting descriptions of infectious spiritual results.

A negative spiritual infection Paul describes this way:

It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community.

Galatians 5:19-21 (MSG)

A positive spiritual infection Paul describes this way:

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

Galatians 5:22-23 (MSG)

I endeavor to infect those around me in a positive way today.

Have a great day, my friend.

Strong Women in Weak Circumstances

“According to law, what must be done to Queen Vashti?” he asked. “She has not obeyed the command of King Xerxes that the eunuchs have taken to her.”
Esther 1:15 (NIV)

In the days after the end of Game of Thrones, I have suffered a bit of withdrawal. I know I am not alone in this. While nothing in the current entertainment market is going to really compare to the epic series, of late I have been catching up on the series, The Last Kingdom, (on Netflix) which has enjoyably filled the void. It follows the life of a young English noble who is captured and raised by Vikings while his uncle claims the title and land rightfully his by birth. The series is set in a period of actual history when Vikings threatened to conquer all the kingdoms of the British isle while Alfred the Great sought to join the disparate Kingdoms of the isle into one united England.

One of the interesting themes that I have noticed of late in multiple series and movies set in medieval times is how the role of women is handled. Certainly, the dark ages and middle ages were a time in which women had little or no social standing. Daughters of nobility were married off to create political alliances. Writers seem to enjoy creating female characters of strength and courage who challenge and undermine the status quo of that time. I laughed a lot as I watched the character of Brida (played expertly by Emily Cox) in The Last Kingdom (who, like the male protagonist was a young Brit captured and raised as a pagan Viking) who re-enters English society and all of the male priests and nobles have no idea how to handle this strong, fiery, female warrior. Earl the Bruce’s wife in the movie Outlaw King (also on Netflix) is another recent example.

Today we begin another chapter-a-day journey through the book of Esther. Along with the stories of Daniel and Jonah, which we just blogged through in the past few months, Esther is set in the period of exile when many of the Hebrew people were living in exiled captivity to a successive series of foreign empires (Babylonian, Mede, and Persian). Esther is one of the most enjoyable and unique reads in the entirety of God’s Message.

The first chapter sets the scene as the Persian Queen, Vashti, refuses her intoxicated husband’s demand that she present herself to him and the drunken, seven-day binge of a frat-boy party that he and his court were having. King Xerxes wanted to serve his wife up to be sexually ogled by his “noble” entourage. When Vashti has the self-respect and courage to refuse her husband’s demand, the boys decide that she must be punished so that all women would know their place and all men could cement their power over their wives and households.

Today’s chapter sets the scene for the story on which we are about to embark. It establishes the setting in an ancient culture in which men systemically dominated politics, society, and culture. Women had little or no power, and to challenge the system – even for the best of reasons – could lead to very negative consequences. The Hebrews, as a people living in exile, understood this position of powerlessness.

As I think about the historical setting of the story of Esther, of the courage of Vashti to stand up to her drunken husband, and the examples of strong women in weak social positions that I’ve been watching of late, I can’t help but think of my wife and my daughters. God has surrounded me with strong women whom I greatly respect. I am partnered with a fiery, Enneagram 8 of a wife, who compliments and challenges me in all sorts of healthy ways. I also know, however, that most of human history would not have treated her and her God-given temperament kindly, despite what Hollywood writers portray as they try to bring 9th-century realities to 21st-century audiences.

In the quiet this morning I find myself excited to once again wade through the amazing story of Esther. It reminds me of the spiritual paradoxes that lie at the heart of being a follower of Jesus: that strength is found in weakness, that spiritual power is often unleashed in temporal impotence, and that the power of Life is found on the other side of death.