Tag Archives: Spiritual

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.

Left-Brain Development in a Right-Brain Dude

When Moses entered the tent of meeting to speak with the Lord, he heard the voice speaking to him from between the two cherubim above the atonement cover on the ark of the covenant law. In this way the Lord spoke to him.
Numbers 7:89 (NIV)

Confession time this morning. I am an organized wannabe. My whole life I have had a desire for my life to be organized, measured, well-structured and disciplined. In that effort I’ve dabbled in Day-timer, Day-keeper, Seven Habits, Scan Cards, pocket calendars, Palm Pilots, Outlook, and you-name-the-organizational-big-name-fad-gadget-system-of-the-moment-here.

My right brain always betrays me. Just ask my wife, Wendy, who is a certified, card-carrying rock star of the organized world, and also sports an amazingly developed, creative right brain.

Now, in my defense, I will tell you that I’ve progressed a long way in my life journey. I’m more organized and disciplined than, perhaps, ever. My organizational discipline has grown and developed over time and it has developed in parallel with my spiritual journey. Get this: I’ve come to realize that God holds the tension between right and left brain. The Creator is the ultimate fullness of both creativity and order. God is both limitless possibility and infinite detail. The further I get in my spiritual journey of unity with the Creator, the more balanced I find my life becoming in this regard.

Let’s be honest. Today’s chapter is a slog. It’s the longest chapter in the five books known as the Torah (a.k.a. Pentateuch, Books of Moses, Law of Moses). The chapter is incredibly ordered, detailed and repetitive as it describes the pageantry of the dedication of the traveling temple tent (called the Tabernacle) that the Hebrews carried with them on their march out of Egypt and to the promised land. In orderly fashion the leader of each of the twelve Hebrew tribes brings their offering to the Tabernacle. Each tribal leader brought the same gift, listed in the same order in detail. They brought the gifts in the same order given for the organization of their marching and their encampment around the Tabernacle. Today’s chapter is a left-brain’s dream on steroids (as the right brain reaches for a bottle of five-hour energy).

I’m reminded this morning of Paul’s letter to Jesus’ followers in Corinth where he writes:

Let all things be done decently and in order.

The kicker comes at the end of today’s chapter (if you make it that far) when it reports that after the orderly pageant God’s presence and voice became manifest to Moses when he would enter the inner sanctuary of the tent before the ark of the covenant [cue: Indiana Jones Theme]. In other words, God’s power, presence, and voice came at the end of well-ordered offering and dedication.

This morning I’m reminded of the description of the Temple of Solomon (designed to replicate the basic structure of the Tabernacle tent) the we read back in 2 Kings just a few weeks ago [here’s the post]. No order. The scroll with the law of Moses had been lost for years. The Temple of God had become an unruly farmer’s market style carnival of religious idols, complete with temple prostitution. No order. No discipline. No presence.

Despite the groaning from my creative, go-with-the-flow right brain, I’ve come to acknowledge along life’s journey that detail and organization are a critical, spiritual component. There is a certain peace, power and presence of Spirit that accompanies life and worship when things are managed in a detailed, disciplined, orderly way. And so, I press on in the development of my left-brain.

Now, does anyone know where I put my phone?

Special Vows

“Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of dedication to the Lord as a Nazirite….”
Numbers 6:2 (NIV)

I run into some of the most interesting people in my job. Years ago there was a Customer Service Representative (CSR) for a client company who stood out from the crowd because he had the longest hair I’d ever seen on a man. The man was tall and thin and had incredibly straight, long hair that most women would envy. It went all the way down his back. It was so distinctive and prompted such curiosity that one of my colleagues went out of his way to ask the man about it.

It turns out that this man was a follower of Jesus, and he had a friend who was in prison. He wanted to find a tangible way to express his love and loyalty to his friend, and so he informed his friend that he was making a special vow to God, and his friend, that he would not cut his hair until his friend was released from prison. It had obviously been several years, and he was obviously committed to his friend and to God.

The CSR’s vow was a modified version of a voluntary, “special vow” that the ancient Hebrews called a Nazarite vow, as described in today’s chapter. The idea of the Nazarite vow was a way for individuals to “dedicate themselves to the Lord” for a particular period of time for a particular reason that may have been very personal between themselves and God. The reasons can be as diverse as the persons making them, but I have come to believe that there are stretches of life’s journey when a special vow can be an opportunity for incredible growth of spirit and/or witness.

This morning I’m thinking about the special vows individuals make from choosing a monastic life, to a lenten fast, and even to a chapter-a-day journey.  The thing I appreciate about special vows is that they are not compulsory or demanded. Special vows come from a special place of the heart. They are Spirit led and Spirit driven. They may be for a brief period of time, for the remainder of the journey, or somewhere in between. That’s between the person making a special vow and God.

Years after our relationship with the client ended my colleague told me one day that our CSR friend had contacted him. The CSR reported that his friend had finally been released from prison. He was there to meet his friend at his release. Together, they went to the barber shop. To this day my heart smiles to think of what that moment must have meant to both of them. For me, it illustrates what special vows are all about.

Into the Wilderness

The Israelites are to set up their tents by divisions, each of them in their own camp under their standard.
Numbers 1:52 (NIV)

Today we begin a sojourn through the book of Numbers. It’s one of the most ancient of texts in God’s Message and the fourth of five books known by many names such as the Torah, the Law, the Books of Moses, or the Law of Moses. It picks up the story of the Hebrew people’s  “exodus” from slavery in Egypt. Having escaped from Egypt into the Arabian desert (as told in Exodus), they camped at Mt. Sinai where Moses was given the commandments and the law (as laid out in Leviticus).

Every sizable journey begins with preparation. In today’s opening chapter we pick up the story as Moses carries out a muster of the twelve tribes and a census of men capable of fighting. They are preparing for a march, and the tribe of Levi is given the role of the set-up, take-down, and transportation of a giant tent called the Tabernacle, which served as a traveling temple for the nation. The destination of the wandering nation is “the promised land,” but first they have to traverse the wilderness.

We’re heading into the wilderness, which is a crucial, prescribed path for every spiritual journey. Moses had his years of exile in Midian. Elijah had his flight through the wilderness to Mount Horeb. Jesus went “into the wilderness” for 40 days to fast and to be tested. Fascinating to connect that at Jesus’ transfiguration it was both wilderness wanderer’s, Elijah and Moses, who appeared on the mount with Him.

The hero’s journey of every great epic includes a journey into a wilderness of unknown territory. Bilbo had his mountain and Mirkwood. Luke Skywalker had his Dagoba, Harry, Ron, and Hermione spent almost an entire book alone in the wilderness seeking the Hallows. The wilderness is where we find ourselves (the good, the bad, and the ugly). The wilderness is where we are tried and prepared for the purpose. Without the wilderness, we will never be prepared for the ordeal through which we reach the reward and begin the road back.

This morning I’m looking back at my own life journey. There have been various stretches of wilderness wanderings spiritually relationally, artistically, and vocationally. I’m quite sure there are more to come before the journey’s end. Wilderness is a part of the process and, as we’ll find in our sojourn with the Hebrews, the longer I refuse to embrace the process and learn the lessons I need to learn, I will continue to wander.

Time to lace up the hiking boots. Here we go.

My Eternal Mystery, My Forever Friend

Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the temple of the Lord.” He gave it to Shaphan, who read it.
2 Kings 22:8 (NIV)

Occasionally I have had people ask me how my “chapter-a-day” journey began. It goes much further back than blogging. The roots of it go all the way back to early 1980s. I was in high school and had only recently struck out on my path following Jesus. I had an after school job, and my boss was also a follower. He invited me to join him in studying God’s Message together, and the first thing he asked of me was to memorize Joshua 1:8:

This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success.

I did memorize the verse,  and I took it to heart. As I meditated on the verse during the memorization process, I came to mull over the word “meditate.” It struck me in those early stages of my journey that God’s Message was to be more than something I give a nod to on Sunday morning when the pastor refers to it. It was supposed to be more than a routine duty that I check off my daily task list of religious self-righteousness. God’s Message was the guide. It was the constant companion and the mystery to be endlessly understood. It was something to ingest and digest on a continual basis. It was something to dive into, excavate, mull over, and apply to my every day circumstances. Success in the spiritual journey came through the conduit of meditating on the Message.

Thus, what became this chapter-a-day blog began in a young man wearing Forenza parachute pants and sporting a righteous mullet. I’ll let that imagery sink in while I transition back to today. 🙂

The setting of this morning’s chapter is Solomon’s Temple. It is the Temple of the Lord built to the exact specifications prescribed in God’s Message through Moses and by plans developed by David. It was built to be the worship center of YHWH whose first command was “don’t have any other gods before me.”

But, over time the temple had become a multi-cultural interfaith religious center filled with the worship of all sorts of local dieties, some of whom practiced all sorts of nasty things we can scarcely imagine today. The scroll of God’s Message had been so long forgotten that the High Priest didn’t even know where it was nor remember what it said. When the scroll is discovered during some Temple renovations, it is a major find. When King Josiah tells the priest to “Inquire of the Lord for me concerning this book,” the priest has to scour the city to find a lone prophetess named Hulda who was “keeper of the wardrobe.” [Note: I’ve learned in theatre to always trust the costumers. They make a lifetime of keeping track of things long forgotten by others!]

The Message had been packed away, put aside, and forgotten. The words that were to be the guide for the journey weren’t even known and barely remembered. Without the guidebook, the people naturally wandered until they found themselves spiritually lost.

This morning I’m reminded of the simple principle that came out of meditating on a verse that I was asked to memorize as a kid:

If I’m going to be successful in this journey of following after God then I have to do my best to do what God’s Message says. If I’m going to do what God’s Message says then I have to constantly discover what that is and what it means. The Message has to become my source material, my constant companion, my eternal mystery, my forever friend.

Enough

Elisha replied to her, “How can I help you? Tell me, what do you have in your house?”

“Your servant has nothing there at all,” she said, “except a small jar of olive oil.”
2 Kings 4:2 (NIV)

Many years ago I was pushing into my spiritual journey and trying hard to understand my feelings of shame, the deep, abiding sense that I was worth-less to the core. I have shared before about my friend and counselor who asked me to label my shame. He wanted me to give my shame a name tag; A moniker of my shame that would allow me to pick up my Sharpie and write on the my name tag at church: “Hello, My Name Is…” and write my shame right on there.

Not Enough” was the label I gave to my shame.

As I’ve continued on in my spiritual journey I’ve come to have more than a few head-slapping, eureka moments as I mull over my “Not Enough” shame moniker. Of course I feel “not enough” because it’s what culture and marketing have whispered and screamed to me so regularly since I was a toddler that I don’t even recognize it anymore.

You’re not athletic enough. Eat your Wheaties.
You’re not manly enough. Smoke a Marlboro.
You’re not beautiful enough. Wear brand “X”.
You’re not good enough. Work 24/7/365.
You’re not rich enough. Climb that ladder at all costs.
You’re not suave enough. Act like James Bond.
You’re not good enough. Stop sinning.
You’re not Christian enough. Only listen, read, and consume things labeled and marketed as “Christian” and sold by an acceptable, orthodox supplier.

You get the picture.

In today’s chapter the ancient prophet Elisha is approached by a widow who is in a desperate situation. Her husband died and was indebted to another man in the town. In ancient days, if you couldn’t pay your debts the creditor took whatever collateral the borrower had. Because the widow was left with nothing of real value her two sons were going to be taken from her to become the creditor’s slaves.

When Elisha asks the woman, “What have you got?” she replies that all she has is a small jar of oil. Elisha tells her to get all the empty jars she can find and borrow and pour the oil from her small jar into all the empty jars. Miraculously, the woman keeps pouring and the oil keeps flowing until her house is packed full of jars of oil. She is can now sell the oil and pay off the debts. And, there’s enough left over to provide for her and her sons.

What does this remind me of?

Oh yeah. Jesus fed the crowds (more than once) with just a few fish sandwiches that Peter and the boys could scrounge off a little kid whose mother packed him a sack lunch. The woman and her oil jars is kind of like that. In fact, it’s just like that.

I love it on my chapter-a-day journey when I begin to see patterns, themes and dots to be connected across the Great Story. This endless jar of oil is just like Jesus’ endless baskets of filet o’ fish sandwiches.

So, what is the point? What’s God trying to tell me?

In each case, God took the little that they already had and provided all that was needed. In fact, in both cases there were leftovers. The point is that what they already had was enough for God to work with. God can take what I am and what I have and it is enough for Him to work with to be all that I need, all that He needs, when it’s needed.

I don’t believe this means God is giving me an excuse to be complacent and slothful. It doesn’t mean that I have carte blanche to be foolish and stagnant. God wants me to keep progressing, keep pressing on, and keep pushing further up and further in. It’s important, however, to think about what I’m pursuing.

I’ve found that shame always calls me back. I constantly find my heart slipping off on paths that mindlessly pursue unreachable destinations. The more money I make the more I realize that there’s always someone richer, and I’ll never stop chasing after “just a little bit more.” No matter how skinny, ripped and ruggedly handsome I can make myself with wardrobe, workouts and organic male beauty products, I will still look in the mirror and fail to see Daniel Craig.

This morning I’m reminded that when I stick to the path in pursuit of God and God’s wisdom I find that what I already have is enough. It’s enough even if God has to, once in a while, miraculously stretch my enough to cover what’s needed in the moment.

“Get Me a Musician”

[The prophet, Elisha, said,] “…get me a musician.” And then, while the musician was playing, the power of the Lord came on him.
2 Kings 3:15 (NRSVCE)

I mentioned in my post the other day that while we’re at the lake Wendy and I are limited in our television viewing choices to the collection of DVDs we have there. So it was that last week I pulled out that oldie, but goodie of the cinema: Die Hard. The movie played in the background as Wendy and I sat at the dining room table with our laptops going about our work.

In case you never caught it, the underlying musical score for Die Hard is one endless string of creative variations on what most Americans know as the hymn Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee. The iconic melody of that familiar hymn comes from the final movement of Beethoven’s ninth and final symphony. As I sat at the dining room table, tapping away on my keyboard, the melody suddenly and unexpectedly took me to another moment, in another place.

London. 2009. The Royal Philharmonic. It was our first night in London and Wendy and I had tickets to hear both Mozart’s and Beethoven’s final symphonies in one program. Wendy’s favorite was Mozart, but mine was Beethoven. There is a moment in Beethoven’s ninth when the music suddenly stops and a lone voice begins to sing. I will never forget the moment I heard that voice. I just began to cry as I listened. A chorus of voices joins the orchestra and the music continues to build to one of the most amazing and moving musical climaxes ever. What most people don’t realize is that Beethoven was completely deaf when he wrote his final symphony. He never heard a note of it with his ears. He only heard it in his spirit. Amazing.

There is something deeply spiritual about the language of music, and I have learned over time that music is a language all its own. It has a special place in creation. Music is an integral part of heaven in the glimpses provided in God’s Message and the theme of music is woven throughout the Great Story.

In today’s chapter the prophet Elisha calls for a musician. When the music begins to play the power of God comes upon him. The language of music was the conduit of God’s Spirit. I get that. The language of music is a spiritual language (both for spiritual light and spiritual darkness, btw). Music has the power to reach deep inside to touch hidden places inside us. Music has the power of inspiration, conviction, revelation, exhortation, and even transportation.

My body last week was sitting at a dining room table in central Missouri. The melody of Beethoven’s ninth playing beneath Bruce Willis’ machine gun suddenly and unexpectedly transported my spirit, in that moment, to the Royal Orchestra Hall in London. My eyes began to mist over. Physicists tells us that all of time is contained in each moment. Perhaps music is a gateway.

This morning I’m thinking about this powerful medium we call music. I’m mulling over the incredible breadth of music that has spoken to me, moved me, and inspired me over the years. Beethoven to Berlioz to Bach, Miles Davis to Bob Dylan to Yo-Yo Ma, Gospel choirs to bluegrass banjos to steel drums and a Reggae beat. I’ve come to accept that I will never know (in this life journey) fluency in the language of music that I desire. I still can experience its power in ways human beings throughout the millennia of history couldn’t even imagine. I literally have access to the entire catalog of human music in the palm of my hand.

“…get me a musician.”