Tag Archives: Spirituality

Breaking a Stiff-Neck

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For the Lord had said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘You are a stiff-necked people; if for a single moment I should go up among you, I would consume you. So now take off your ornaments, and I will decide what to do to you.’”
Exodus 33:5 (NRSVCE)

One of the ironies of this period of COVID-19 pandemic is that everyone has been stuck inside with nothing to do, but because the quarantine includes actors, crews, studios, and production companies there’s been nothing new to watch on television! So, Wendy and I have been extra excited to have new episodes of Yellowstone airing the past three weeks.

If you haven’t watched Yellowstone, it’s about the patriarch of the largest ranch in the United States that also happens to be some of the most valuable and sought after land in the world. Kevin Costner plays the widowed, wealthy, and powerfully connected rancher John Dutton who struggles to control his dysfunctional family and protect his ranch from a host of enemies who want to take him down and get their hands on his land. Wendy and I have both observed that it’s a lot like a modern-day Godfather, but rather than Italian mobsters in New York it’s cowboys in Montana.

One of the subtle, recurring themes in the show is that of wild horses that need to be broken. In the first season, we’re introduced to Jimmy, a drug-addicted, two-strike loser going nowhere. As a favor to Jimmy’s grandfather, Dutton takes Jimmy on as a ranch-hand. In an iconic moment, Jimmy is tied and duct-taped onto a wild horse that no one else could break. All-day long Jimmy is bucked, spun, and tossed on the back of the horse. By the end of the day, the horse is finally broken, and so is Jimmy.

Today’s chapter is a sequel to yesterday’s story of the Hebrew people abandoning Moses, and the God of Moses, by making an idol for themselves and reverting to their old ways. In response, God calls the people “stiff-necked” (other English translations and paraphrases use words like “stubborn’ or “willful”). One commentator I read stated that the imagery of the original Hebrew word was an ox, bull, or another animal that was unbroken and wouldn’t yield to being yoked. I couldn’t help but think of poor Jimmy duct-taped to that horse.

One of the things I’ve observed in certain human beings is an unbroken spirit. I recall Wendy sitting with a toddler who was determined to climb up our bookcase at the lake which, of course, would have been a dangerous thing to do. The little one had revealed a habit of willfully proceeding whenever an adult said “No.” Wendy sat there and repeatedly pulled the child’s hand and foot off of the bookcase over, and over, and over again as she gently and firmly repeated: “No.” I remember Wendy explaining to the child that she would sit there all day and repeat the process until the child understood. The child cried, wailed, and threw a tantrum in frustration as Wendy calmly continued to deny the toddler’s willful, stiff-necked desire.

Of course, adults can be simply grown-ups who are stuck in childish patterns of thought and behavior. One of the most fascinating things about the story of the early Jesus movement is the transformation in the strong-willed, stiff-necked followers such as Peter, Paul, and John. With each one there was a process involved in the spiritual transformation that included moments of their strong-wills being broken and their spirits humbled as they learned what Jesus meant when He said things like “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” and “Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.”

In the quiet this morning I am looking back on my nearly 40 years as a follower of Jesus. I’ve had a lot of ups and downs. Life has tossed me around a time or two. Some stretches of the journey felt like I was spinning in place. But I’ve come to realize that the spiritual journey is just me being poor Jimmy on that horse. I’ve found God to be a lot like Wendy at that bookcase repeatedly and gently telling a childish, stiff-necked Tommy “No.” The breaking of my will is a prerequisite for discovering God’s.

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

Before “Old Things Pass Away,” They Often Lure Me Back

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”
Exodus 32:1 (NRSVCE)

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Along my life’s journey, I have gone through multiple stretches of time in which my life experienced major change. In each one, it was a period of upheaval, deep introspection, conscious breaking with old patterns of thought and behavior, seeking to reach for new things that were further up and further in than anything I’d experienced before. Each time I have gone through one of these shifts has been a period of discomfort. Comfort, on the other hand, is both simple and easy. All I had to do was stay in the same patterns of thought, relationship, and behavior.

When I was in my mid-to-late twenties I began to seriously address some hard-wired, addictive behaviors, and unhealthy patterns of thought and relationships in my life. I began working with a counselor and going to support-groups with others who were dealing with their own unhealthy patterns. One of the things that quickly came into focus for me was that many of the patterns of thought and behavior I was struggling with were present in me as a child and in my adolescence.

In a moment of God’s synchronicity, I just happened to be traveling on business to the city where my older brother lived. My brother is seven years older than me and we rarely saw one another in those days. We got together for dinner and I discovered that he was walking his own version of trying to figure out his own unhealthy patterns. As dinner turned into several hours of late-night conversation, we found ourselves attempting to unravel and understand a mystery to us both. Why, when we return home as adults, do we seem to fall back into what feels like this defined role we had always played in the system with which our family operated, complete with scripted lines, well-rehearsed relational blocking? My brother and I walked that stretch of the journey together. In fact, we’re still on it! But, together we’ve made significant progress and some really worthwhile personal discoveries that have informed our respective lives and relationships.

For anyone who grew up annually watching The Ten Commandments with their family every Easter/Passover weekend, today’s chapter should be eerily familiar. Several chapters ago, Moses when up the mountain to talk with God. It’s been over a month now, and he still hasn’t come down from the mountain. So, the Hebrews basically give-up on their relatively new leader and his unfamiliar God with His really strange belief system. They approach Aaron and ask him to make for them a god just like one of the 1500 gods they were familiar with back in Egypt. Aaron relents, makes a golden calf god, and Moses finds the camp in religious revelry.

I confess this morning that every time I watched the movie and every time I’ve read this story before, I have been led to the prescribed audience reaction. I shake my head and whisper a “tsk, tsk” in self-righteous judgment for the weak-minded Hebrews.

This morning, however, I’m seeing it in a whole new way. The Hebrews were only doing what I so often do. I try to push forward into being more like Jesus in how I think, act, and related to others only to find myself slipping back into comfortable old’ patterns that are comfortable, simple, and easy. I spiritually go home and just mindlessly play the old role I’ve always played. It’s just easier. The Hebrews are simply doing the same. God is pushing them out of Egypt, out of victim-mentality, out of the chains of slave-mindedness, into the spiritual boot camp of the wilderness, into a new way of understanding and a new level of maturing relationship. It feels hard, uncomfortable, strange, and unfamiliar. So, they default to back to what is familiar, comfortable, and easy.

In the quiet this morning, I’m recognizing a pattern that has emerged in this chapter-a-day journey through the Moses-story. I keep seeing how the Moses story relates to the Jesus story. Jesus, like Moses, led His followers into major shifts in understanding God, how we have a relationship with God, and how that should lead us to relate to one another and our world. However, when the Jesus movement became the institution of the Holy Roman Empire it was the golden calf moment for Jesus’ followers. In short order, the Jesus movement went back to old, entrenched patterns of social hierarchy, patriarchy, and religious institutionalism.

How do I change? How to I grow? How do I allow old things to pass away and lay hold of the new things God has for me? I’m still learning that piece, but I have learned along the way that it takes both willful determination and the faith to jump and trust that the net will appear. It requires the patience and perseverance to endure discomfort and to keep running even when I hit the wall. It’s helpful, almost essential, to have good companions with me and good mentors out ahead of me. It demands that I learn to have grace with myself when I stumble, stall, and fall back; To receive the grace that God endlessly showers on me if I simply open my heart to it.

It requires that I press on.

And so, on this Monday morning I’m lacing ’em up once again. Another wayfaring stranger on his way home over Jordan.

Thanks for being my companion on the journey today, my friend.

Let’s go!

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

From Bricks-and-Mortar to Flesh-and-Blood

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You shall hang the curtain under the clasps, and bring the ark of the covenant in there, within the curtain; and the curtain shall separate for you the holy place from the most holy.
Exodus 26:33 (NRSVCE)

When I was a child, I had a fascination with spaces that were off-limits to me. Perhaps it was simply part of my personality or the fact that, as the youngest of four siblings, there were so many places that were forbidden and so many things from which I was banned from touching, looking at, or checking out.

As I grew up, I was keenly aware of the rites of passage I passed through. Some where public and institutional like church confirmation, getting my driver’s license, and graduation. Others were more subtle and social, like being an underclassman invited to a party with all upperclassmen, or my older brother letting me have a beer during my weekend visiting him at college. In each of these cases there was an understanding that I had reached a new level of experience. Things that were once off-limits had opened up to new possibilities.

In today’s chapter, God provides Moses with instructions for what is commonly referred to as the Tabernacle, or the Tent of Meeting. It was basically a large, portable temple that they could take with them as they wandered their way to the Promised Land and set up wherever they were encamped.

The design for the Tabernacle included three concentric spaces. There was an open outer courtyard. Then there was a smaller covered inner section known as “The Holy Place,” with a third even smaller section known as “The Most Holy Place” or “The Holy of Holies.” This smallest area was the most sacred, and it was where the Hebrews put the Ark of the Covenant. There was a giant, thick, and colorful curtain that separated this Most Holy space from everyone. Only the High Priest was allowed in this space, and that happened only once a year. It was exclusive. It was special. It was a sacred space that constantly reminded the Hebrew people of the clear divide between them and the divine.

Granted, all of the instructions for the design of this temple tent in today’s chapter are not the most inspiring thing to read. Nevertheless, I find a really cool and inspiring lesson buried in the blueprint. As with yesterday’s chapter, the lesson is hidden in the understanding of the maturing relationship between God and humanity.

An often overlooked detail recorded in Luke’s biography of Jesus is something that happened the moment Jesus died on the cross. Luke records:

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last.

I find the curtain separating the Hebrews from God’s Holy Presence was like a parent telling their young child that there are some things that are simply off-limits. When Jesus died and rose from the dead, it was a spiritual rite of passage for humanity. The off-limits curtain was torn. The Spirit of God would be poured out for any and all. Now, the focus shifted from sacred space being a 16’x48’x15′ inner sanctum fixed in Jerusalem to the possibility that sacred space could be anywhere at any time.

Along my journey, I have sat in small corporate conference rooms while clients have shared with me some of the most intimate things. In that moment, it was sacred space. I was once in a humble Junior High camp chapel in rural Iowa when Holy Spirit poured out like at Pentecost. In that moment it was a sacred space. I have communed with God and received the Spirit’s guidance driving in the car, taking a shower, and while mowing the lawn. A Volkswagen, a bathroom, and a yard were sacred spaces. Perhaps most commonly, I have experienced sacred space around the dinner table just as I shared in yesterday’s post.

I have observed that for many in the generations before me this fundamental spiritual paradigm shift was never understood. For the majority of believers I observed in my childhood and youth, the bricks-and-mortar church building and inner sanctum of the church building’s sanctuary were treated like modern versions of the Tabernacle. After Jesus’ death tore the curtain and made it possible for sacred space to be any place at any time, it seems to me that the institutional church sewed the curtain back together and hung it back up in their Cathedrals.

I believe, however, that we are moving into a time when followers of Jesus are tearing the curtain once more and rediscovering the fullness of what Jesus meant when He told his followers, “I will destroy this temple and raise it in three days.”

A rite of passage for all of humanity. From bricks-and-mortar to flesh-and-blood.

“Old things pass away. Behold, new things come.”

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

Tent to Temple to Table

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And have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them.
Exodus 25:8 (NRSVCE)

Our children posted a rather hilarious video of Milo over the weekend. At first, we couldn’t figure out what he was doing shaking his bum towards daddy’s legs. As we listened to the audio it became more clear that Milo was making like the Stegosaurus on his shirt and shaking his spiky “tail” to protect himself from the predator, played by daddy, whom I presume was cast in the role of a T-Rex. Yesterday, on our Father’s Day FaceTime, we got to witness Milo reprise his role for us a shake his little dino-booty for Papa and Yaya’s enjoyment.

It’s a very natural thing for us to make word pictures and games for our children and grandchildren to introduce them to concepts, thoughts, and ideas that are still a little beyond their cognitive reach. Even with spiritual things we do this. Advent calendars with numbered doors help children mark the anticipation of celebrating Jesus’ birth. Christmas gifts remind us of the gifts the Magi brought the Christ child. Wendy often recalls the Nativity play she and her cousins and siblings performed each year with bathrobes and hastily collected props which helped to teach the story behind the season.

In leaving Egypt and striking out for the Promised Land, Moses and the twelve Hebrew tribes are a fledgling nation. Yahweh was introduced to Moses in the burning bush. Moses introduced the Tribes to Yahweh through interceding with Pharaoh on their behalf and delivering them from Egyptian slavery. Yahweh has already provided food in the form of Manna and led them to the mountain. In today’s chapter, God begins the process of providing a system of worship that will continue to develop a relationship of knowing and being known.

As I described in my podcast, Time (Part 1), we are still at the toddler stage of human history and development. The Ark of the Covenant (yes, the one from Raiders of the Lost Ark) and the plan for a giant traveling Tent to house God’s presence, are all tangible word pictures that their cognitive human brains could fathom revealing and expressing intangible spiritual truths about God.

Along my spiritual journey, I’ve observed that as humanity has matured so has God’s relationship with us. Jesus pushed our spiritual understanding of God. “You have heard it said,” he would begin before adding, “but I say….” I have come to believe that Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection were like the “age of accountability” in which we talk about when children become responsible adults. Jesus came to grow us up spiritually and to mature our understanding of what it means to become participants in the divine dance within the circle of love with Father, Son, and Spirit. On a grand scale, God is doing with humanity what Paul experienced in the microcosm of his own life:

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.

1 Corinthians 13:11

I have also observed, however, that human beings have a way of getting stuck in our development. Many adults I know are living life mired in adolescent patterns of thought and behavior. Many church institutions are, likewise, mired in childish religious practices designed to control human social behavior, but they do very little to fulfill Jesus’ mission of bringing God’s Kingdom to earth. Again, Paul was dealing with this same thing when he wrote to Jesus’ followers in Corinth:

And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh.

1 Corinthians 3:1-3a

There is a great example of this from today’s chapter. God provided the Ark of the Covenant, and a traveling tent called the Tabernacle, as a word picture of His presence and dwelling with the wandering Hebrew people. It was a physical sign that God was with them. Once settled in the Promised land, the temple that Solomon built in Jerusalem became the central physical location of God’s presence. When Jesus came, however, He blew up the childish notion of the God of Creation residing in one place. Jesus matured our understanding of God’s very nature and the nature of God’s presence. With the pouring out of God’s Spirit to indwell every believer, Jesus transformed our understanding of God’s dwelling and presence. “Wherever two or three are gathered,” Jesus said, “I am among them.” The place of worship transitioned from the Temple to the dining room table. After the resurrection, Jesus was revealed during dinner in Emmaus, making shore-lunch for the disciples along the Sea of Galilee, and at the dinner table behind locked doors where the disciples were hiding.

Wendy and I have this quote from Brian Zahnd hanging on the fridge in our kitchen:

“The risen Christ did not appear at the temple but at meal tables. The center of God’s activity had shifted – it was no longer the temple but the table that was the holiest of all. The church would do well to think of itself, not so much as a kind of temple, but as a kind of table. This represents a fundamental shift. Consider the difference between the temple and the table. Temple is exclusive; Table is inclusive. Temple is hierarchical; Table is egalitarian. Temple is authoritarian; Table is affirming. Temple is uptight and status conscious; Table is relaxed and ‘family-style.’ Temple is rigorous enforcement of purity codes that prohibit the unclean; Table is a welcome home party celebrating the return of sinners. The temple was temporal. The table is eternal. We thought God was a diety in a temple. It turns out God is a father at a table.”

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking about the ancient Hebrew people struggling to mature their understanding from a polytheistic society with over 1500 dieties to the one God who is trying to introduce Himself to them in ways they can understand. I am reminded of the ways Jesus tried to mature our understanding of God even further. I find myself confessing all of the ways through all of the years of my spiritual journey that I have refused to mature in some of the most basic things Jesus was teaching.

As Wendy and I sit down together to share a meal together this week, my desire is to acknowledge Jesus’ presence. To make our time of conversation, laughter, and daily bread a time of communion with God’s Spirit. I think that’s a good spiritual action step.

Bon a petite, my friend. May you find God’s Spirit at your table this week.

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

Two Kinds of Fitness

…train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.
1 Timothy 4:8 (NIV)

It was last year’s annual physical that motivated me that I needed to do something to improve my physical fitness. I was having some heart concerns and my doctor put me on meds and told me to “get moving.” As I’ve mentioned in these posts, I began going to a local CrossFit class. It’s been just about a year now, and, while my work and travel schedule regularly interrupt my routine, I’m still going at it. Early on, one of my instructors asked me if I had a goal. Without hesitation I answered, “Yes. To keep showing up!

Last week I once again had my annual physical, and I was anxious to get my results. My blood work revealed that I still have to watch what I eat and be cognizant of my cholesterol levels. The big difference was my heart rate and blood pressure. My resting heart rate was very low and my blood pressure was down. My doc told me to go off of the meds for a few weeks and see how I do. So far, so good!

This came to mind as I read today’s chapter. Paul tells Timothy to “train yourself to be godly,” adding that physical training is valuable, but godliness is profitable for all things. This, of course, got me to thinking about the meaning of godliness which I believe our contemporary culture would ascribe some notion of moral purity and a puritanical life.

The Greek word Paul used, which is translated into English as “godliness” is the word eusebia which comes from two words meaning “well” and the other meaning “venerate” or “pay homage.” The lexicon gave this definition of the word: “someone’s inner response to the things of God, which shows itself in reverence.” In other words, godliness isn’t pointing toward some set list of moral purity, but rather it’s spiritual cardiac training. It’s the spiritual heart response to the things of God. I couldn’t help but think of David of whom God called “a man after my own heart” despite having a less than stellar morality scorecard.

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking about working out today, which I have to force myself to do when I’m away from home and can’t get to CrossFit. I’m also thinking about what it means to “train” in my “inner response to the things of God.” What am I doing to keep my spiritual heart healthy? What am I putting in? Am I being aware of the Spirit connection to everything in my life? Am I taking time to rest my soul, to spiritually breathe? Am I making time for conversation with God and for contemplation of spiritual things? Am I concerning myself at all with the effect that my daily physical, relational, and moral choices are having on my spiritual heart?

As I enter this week, I’m mindful of the importance of training both my body and my spirit, that I can stay holistically healthy.

Pomp and Circumstance

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
Philippians 4:12-13 (NIV)

We are all suckers for a Pinterest-worthy phrase. The Bible is full of them. The stuff of inspirational bookmarks, posters, desktop backgrounds, and cheap commercial trinkets sold at your local Christian bookstore.

As I’ve journeyed through God’s Message for almost 40 years, I’ve observed that it’s quite common for that inspirational, scriptural quote to be taken completely out of context. Text that is actually profound, mysterious, and/or challenging with eternal, Level Four spiritual meaning is screen printed, replicated and dragged down to self-centric, ego-pleasing, Level One interpretations. I’m not pointing fingers, by the way. I’m as guilty as anyone.

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

I’m sure there are many young followers of Jesus who are receiving graduation gifts from well-meaning grandparents with that phrase printed on a greeting card, key-chain, or bookmark. On the surface, it seems to flow right along with all the pomp and circumstance of your boiler-plate commencement address:

“Chase after your dreams.”

“You can be anything you want to be.”

“Make your mark on this world.”

“The world is yours for the taking.”

“All your dreams can come true if you work hard enough.”

I noticed as I read the chapter this morning that preceding Paul’s inspirational statement is a rather sobering message:

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.”

Paul, who was stoned and left for dead outside the city of Lystra. Paul, who was shipwrecked three times in the Mediterranean and once spent twenty-four hours floating on debris in the open ocean hoping to make it to shore. Paul, who was bitten by a viper. Paul, who five times was given 39 lashes (because 40 was considered lethal). Paul, who traveled some 10,000 miles largely by foot. Paul, who was beaten with rods three times, went hungry and found himself cold, naked, and alone. Paul, who was writing those words from prison.

I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”

The secret of being content in any circumstance is the “all things” Paul was referencing with his inspirational phrase. He wasn’t talking about grabbing the world by the tail, achieving his personal dreams, and moving up in the world. He was talking about being perfectly content being cold, naked, hungry, bloody, bruised and shackled in a first-century dungeon. Ironically, that is not the stuff of inspirational commencement addresses.

Along my life journey, I’ve observed that it is discontent that often fuels personal dreams, aspirations, ambition, economics, and the American dream. Paul’s faith taught him contentment in the midst of unimaginable suffering. I struggle to be content with my iPhone 8 when the iPhone X hits the market.

And there’s the disconnect.

This morning I find myself challenged to restore the meaning of the words “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” to its profound, mysterious, spiritual meaning in my own heart and life.  Being content no matter my current situation and circumstances. I confess that it’s easier said than done for me, and I’ve got a long way to go in learning the secret Paul discovered. Which is why this is a journey.

Time to press on. Have a good day, my friend.

 

Spiritual Vision and Hearing Loss

Hear this, you foolish and senseless people,
    who have eyes but do not see,
    who have ears but do not hear….
Jeremiah 5:21 (NIV)

The other night Wendy and I finished watching the third season of Grantchester produced as part of BBC’s Masterpiece Mysteries. I’m four books into James Runcie’s tales from which the television series sprung (a book review to be published on this blog one of these days). It has been interesting to both read the books and to watch the series which was adapted for the screen by Daisy Coulam. The storylines are quite different between the books and the television series.

The protagonist is an Anglican priest named Sidney Chambers who solves mysteries with the crusty, unbelieving local police Inspector, Geordie Keating. As the third season winds down Sidney finds himself having a crisis of faith that is rooted in his institutional church’s inability to see beyond rigid religiosity and demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit in any real human way.

As I have been fond of saying over the years, all good stories are reflections of the Great Story. The theme of spiritual blindness and deafness is woven throughout God’s Message. In the days of Jeremiah the prophet it was the people of Judah who were afflicted with spiritual blindness and spiritual hearing loss, as we read in today’s chapter.

By the time Jesus came on the scene some 600 years later, it was the institutional religious establishment who suffered from the affliction. Jesus was constantly accused and criticized, not by the “sinners” and common people with whom He associated and ministered, but by the institutional priests, teachers, and lawyers who incessantly criticized Him and found fault with Jesus’ teaching and lifestyle:

“To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:

“‘We played the pipe for you,
    and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
    and you did not mourn.’

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’

The upstanding, committed religious people who should have been the first to recognize what God was doing were the very ones who suffered from spiritual vision and hearing loss.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, as the saying goes. Or, as the Teacher of Ecclesiastes reminds us, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Along my journey I have found that spiritual vision and hearing loss is more acutely present within the walls of the religious establishment than without.

Wendy and I watched the character of Sidney Chambers struggle through his crisis of faith and grapple honestly with the blind, deaf church. I felt for him. I know that struggle. Many memorable episodes from my own journey bubbled to the surface. I confess, it pissed me off.

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded to accept that dealing with those who suffer spiritual vision and hearing loss will ebb and flow along the journey, but will never really end. It is a part of the Story. My role is to continually and increasingly channel the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control to which institutional religion is so often blind and deaf.

Spiritual Bankruptcy

If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.

If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing.

If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.
1 Corinthians 13:1-7 (MSG)

It is possible to be religious, but not loving.
It is possible to be righteous, but not loving.
It is possible to be generous, but not loving.
It is possible to be doctrinally sound, but not loving.
It is possible to be right, but not loving.
It is possible to be politically correct, but not loving.
It is possible to be a defender of truth, but not love your enemy.
It is possible to know all scripture, but not love those who mock you.
It is possible to have spotless church attendance, but not love.
It is possible to have spiritual discipline, but not love.
It is possible to have success, but not love.
It is possible to have a million followers, but not love.
It is possible to have good intentions, but not love.

Jesus said there were two basic laws:
1) Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
2) Love your neighbor as you love yourself.

When pressed to define who He meant by “neighbor,” Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan. In the story, the person who had love was a foreigner and an immigrant. The person who had love carried scars from being the victim of racial prejudice, injustice and systemic social, political, and economic ostracization. The person who had love held heretical doctrinal beliefs. The person who had love stood condemned by the prevailing  institutional religion of which Jesus was a part. But, the hated, heretical, outcast foreigner had love, and Jesus’ story made clear that love was the one thing that mattered to God.

On this life journey I’ve taken a good  hard look at myself, and the prevailing institutional religion of which I am a part.

We still haven’t learned the simple and most basic lesson Jesus ever taught. All of my spirituality, righteousness, and religion is bankrupt without love.

Lord, help me love.

featured image is a detail from the St. John’s Bible

Spiritual Misperceptions from Growing Up in Church

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
Hebrews 4:15-16 (NIV)

I grew up in a relatively small neighborhood church. It was a Methodist church that maintained a fairly traditional, liturgical approach to faith and worship. There was an altar at the front of the sanctuary that was respected as a special, holy place. There was a huge, loud pipe organ. The minister always wore long black robes on Sundays. The choirs also wore long robes and marched down the aisle behind the minister to their hallowed place in the choir loft. As a child watching and participating in this pageantry each week, there were some things that I quickly came to assume about spiritual matters:

First, our minister was different. He (and growing up it was always a he) dressed differently both in the church service and during the week. I was expected to behave differently (as in, better than normal) whenever I was around him. I even noticed that adults behaved differently when they were around him. I came to the conclusion that he was spiritually better than me. He was certainly closer to God than me and had a particular spiritual authority no one else seemed to have. He certainly had a pipeline to God the rest of us didn’t have. You don’t mess up or behave badly around him.

Having observed this social and behavioral distinction between the Rev and the rest of us, I came to believe that there is a certain spiritual caste system in life. There was religious nobility (ministers) and everyday commoners (like me and my family). The social system within our church fed this notion fairly rigidly. Even when I joined the youth choir I had to dress myself up in fine robes each week to approach the altar (always behind the minister, our proper place), sit in the choir loft, and participate in singing of the anthem. If I was to participate in the divine then I needed to dress differently (better and more religious) and be on my best behavior (goofing off on the choir loft during the service was a damnable offense). To participate in the ritual of communion I had to be 13, take a year’s worth of classes, and pass the confirmation class test which got me to a higher spiritual level in the system.

Over time, this distinction between the spiritual pageantry of Sunday and the every day life in my neighborhood with my family led me to believe that there was a certain compartmentalization in life between the sacred and the secular. Sure my family said our rote prayers before meals and before bed, but every day life was where you gave a passing nod to the divine and prayed for the Vikings to win the Super Bowl. [The Vikings always lost the big game, of course, teaching me that our minister had, indeed, a better standing with God…he was a Steelers and Cowboys fan.] The real spiritual stuff was always on Sunday morning, for which we cleaned ourselves up and made ourselves presentable.

In today’s chapter the author of this letter to Hebrew believers begins a discussion of Jesus as “High Priest.” Having been raised in the Protestant tradition, I find myself a few steps removed from an experiential concept of “priest.” The priesthood became a theological line of separation between Protestants and Roman Catholics in the Reformation. Nevertheless, as I’ve progressed in my faith journey I’ve found it an important concept to contemplate and unpack because it goes right to the heart of some of the gross, spiritual misconceptions that even the Protestant church gave me growing up.

Even in the opening of the discussion in which we are introduced to Jesus as High Priest, He is not introduced to us on a higher spiritual plane confined to the holy altar of some Tabernacle on Sunday morning. Jesus is introduced as one who empathizes and has experienced our every day struggles and temptations. Jesus the High Priest is God with us, in our working and playing and eating and drinking. Instead of cleaning ourselves up and approaching God with fearful respect and awkward religiosity, Jesus calls us to approach with confidence, just as we are. Rather than approaching to earn some kind of merit badge in the religious pecking order, we are approaching to receive a generous gift of unmerited  mercy and grace.

This morning as I enjoy my coffee looking out over the lake, I am reflecting on the core misperceptions the church gave me about God as a child. It strikes me that these natural surroundings at the lake are a holier and more spiritual place than the altar of my old neighborhood church. In this “thin place” this morning I’m confidently approaching Jesus and asking for some increased clarity regarding my childhood misperceptions and how they might still be affecting me in unhealthy ways. I am asking God to reveal to me in the days ahead, in the following chapters, the important distinctions between the very human concepts of Jesus as High Priest that I am tied to by my human experience and religious traditions, and the true High Priest revealed in these chapters.

On-Again-Off-Again Spirituality

…yet you have not returned to me,”
declares the Lord.
Amos 4:11c

Along life’s journey I’ve noticed that we as humans think most about God when times are tough. When life is easy and things are humming along pretty well in our lives, we tend to shove spiritual matters to the back burner. There’s a certain spiritual sobriety that occurs when tragedy strikes and things suddenly get tough. It’s when we’re anxious and afraid that the spiritual becomes important to us.

In today’s chapter, the ancient prophet Amos recounts a whole string of tragedies and difficulties that God’s people had experienced in recent years. He names them one by one. It’s a top ten list of fear and anxiety producing events, yet with each recounting Amos ends with the same refrain:

…yet you have not returned to me,”  vs. 6

…yet you have not returned to me,” vs. 8

…yet you have not returned to me,” vs. 9

…yet you have not returned to me,” vs. 10

…yet you have not returned to me,” vs. 11

This morning I’m recalling a friend back in college whose friendship waxed and waned with the on-again-off-again relationship with his girlfriend. If they broke up and he was feeling lonely then he was my best friend in the world and wanted to hang out all the time. If he and his girlfriend got back together again I wouldn’t hear from him or see him until the next break-up. It only took a few cycles of this before I got really tired of the hot-cold treatment I received as a friend.

I wonder sometimes if that’s the way God feels with us. This morning I’m pondering the spiritual ebb and flow that often accompanies the ebb and flow of life circumstances. If I fall into the pattern of being spiritually connected when times are hard, but ignoring God when times are good, then I’m not really any different from my friend in college.

I want my relationship with God to be rock steady, no matter what I’m going through in life. If times are good then I want to be connected to share my gratitude and share the blessings. If times are bad then I want to be connected to share my fears and anxieties.

God doesn’t have to worry about me returning if I never leave.