Tag Archives: Status

Lessons in a List of Names

These searched for their family records, but they could not find them and so were excluded from the priesthood as unclean.
Ezra 2:62 (NIV)

The small community in which Wendy and I live was established in 1847 by a group of several hundred immigrants from the Netherlands. They followed their pastor to “the new world” to experience the freedom of religion that was found in America, along with the opportunities that the American frontier offered.

In our town’s Historical Villiage there is an entire wall that lists all of the original families who made the dangerous voyage. It was dangerous. Many died at sea or on the trek by foot across the still untamed American prairie.

There were relatively few families of any significant means among the original colonists, but for those that were there was a clear distinction between them and the poor and “common.” Today, I can look down the list. Most of the names I recognize. The families prospered and grew. They found the opportunities they were looking for. Most of them still have descendants living in the community.

I thought about that wall in the historical village as I read today’s chapter. I find that chapters like today’s are quickly dismissed and glossed over by most casual readers, but in context, they hold lessons to be learned.

In the Hebrew religion and culture, your family determined a lot about your life. They considered the land as “God’s” possession and they were merely tenants. When Moses led the people out of Egypt and they entered the “promised land” the land was divided by tribes. Religious offices were also determined by tribe and family. Only descendants of Aaron could be priests and only descendants of Levi could oversee the temple and official religious duties. Your family of origin determined much of life for the returning exiles.

A couple of things to note in the chapter. There is an entire list of men who are not numbered by family, but by their towns. They had no family distinction or genealogy to be listed among the families or tribes. They were “commoners” like many of the people who settled our community. Also, there were those who could not prove their claims as they had no family records. They were religiously excluded until a process could be set up to settle their claims. Then there’s the curious story of Barzillai who had married a daughter of Barzillai and took his wife’s family name rather than his wife becoming part of her husband’s tribe; A very uncommon situation in those days.

This morning I’m thinking about family, about history, and about the opportunities that I enjoy on this life journey that did not exist for most people in all of human history. My great-grandfather came alone to a new world. He was a young, poor, uneducated commoner with some carpentry skills. He started a hardware store and a family. How much do I owe to his daring to cross the ocean and half a continent to make a new life for himself and his descendants? How much do I owe to a country where one is not bound by a family name or trade, but free to pursue any path you desire?

One of the offerings that the ancient Hebrews would bring to the Temple that they returned to Jerusalem to rebuild, was a “Thanksgiving Offering.” This morning in the quiet of my hotel room I find my spirit offering a word, a song, a heart of gratitude to God for the incredible blessings afforded me that I daily take for granted.

 

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.

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.

Haunted by a Seemingly Simple Question

When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”
John 5:6 (NRSV)

As I journey again and again through God’s Message, there are certain words, phrases, and stories that haunt me. Every time I encounter them they impact my spirit in a profound way. I can’t escape them. They come to mind at random times. And, despite the perpetual impact I always sense that the full truth of them continue to elude me.

In today’s chapter, it’s the simple question Jesus asks of a paralytic who, for 38 years, had lain on his mat next to a pool that was rumored to have healing powers.

“Do you want to get well?”

Really, Jesus? Really? Seriously? Are you kidding me? I make my family carry me here every day for 38 years hoping for a miracle. I sit here every day. This is my life. And, you want to know if I want to get well. What a silly question.

But it’s not silly at all. I have learned along life’s road, and from my own experience, that my true motives are often hidden beneath carefully crafted appearances. I say I want healing, but the truth is I am content in my sickness. I complain about our sicknesses, weaknesses, and shortcomings , but I’ve become so used to living with them that I’m secretly afraid of life without them. I complain about my paralysis, but if actually do learn to walk my family is going to expect me to actually get a job. Hm.

Being a victim comes with addictive perks that we don’t really talk about.

“Do you want to get well?”

There’s a lot more to that question than it seems. There are layers of questions in those six words. Many of them are uncomfortable questions I’m not sure I want asked. Today, I’m once again haunted by a seemingly simple question Jesus asked.

Razing the Walls of Social Convention

2012 12 23 VH Family GatheringWhen you meet together, you are not really interested in the Lord’s Supper. For some of you hurry to eat your own meal without sharing with others. As a result, some go hungry while others get drunk. 1 Corinthians 11:20-21 (NLT)

This week has been a veritable plethora of Christmas gatherings and feasts. On Sunday, we enjoyed a huge multi-generational family gathering here at VW Manor. Our cozy little brick house was packed with family of all ages, from two to 85.

It’s always interesting to see what happens socially at large gatherings whether its family or community. Some people hang tight with certain people seem to avoid others. Some people are social butterflies while others are wallflowers. I spent a good part of the afternoon Sunday with the younger generation at the dining room table while most of the adults kept to themselves in the living room. It was fun to hang out with and talk to younger family members I don’t see or often speak with, especially as many of them are making the transition from young people to adults. It was great conversation and I enjoyed my time with them.

In today’s chapter, Paul was addressing similar social situations that were negatively affecting the local church potluck in Corinth. The early gathering of believers had a tradition called “love feasts.” All believers would gather and share a meal together, then end with serving the “Lord’s Supper” a which ceremoniously imitates the eating of bread (metaphor for Jesus’ broken body) and drinking of wine (metaphor for Jesus’ shed blood) which Jesus instituted the night before he was crucified. In the early church there was a huge social disparity at these Love Feasts. There were rich and poor, slaves and free peoples, Greeks and Romans and Jews.

Because of the diversity of peoples in the church, social tensions arose as people gathered in their cliques. The  wealthier believers brought good food and hoarded it for themselves, eating quickly while less fortunate believers waited for what amounted to the leftovers. In many cases, by the time everyone had eaten and the church was ready to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, some had consumed too much wine and were visibly inebriated.

People are people. As much as some things change, human nature doesn’t change all that much over time. I see shadows of the same social struggles at a church potluck or a family gathering today as the situation we read about in Paul’s letter. Today, I’m thinking about the gatherings yet to come this holiday season and social gatherings in which I regularly participate. I don’t want to passively regress into comfortable social conventions, but let love motivate me to tear down walls between peoples, generations, and social groups.

Chapter-a-Day 1 Chronicles 6

Adoption papers. The sons of Levi were…. 1 Chronicles 1:1 (MSG)

Reading through what seems like endless genealogical records in the beginning of Chronicles, I begin to appreciate how important lineage was to Israel in the Old Testament. The family you were born into determined all sorts of things from status, to where you lived, to what you did for a living and your responsibilities in temple worship.

I don't think I fully appreciate what it's like to have your life and social status completely determined by the family into which you happened to be born. Being born in a country and a time in which you're raised believing you can do anything and succeed at anything you choose to do if you put your heart and mind to it, it's hard to fathom being constrained by my family name.

One of the awesome things that Jesus did through his life, death and resurrection was to shatter this legalistic system in which your family was of utmost importance. Ephesians 1:5 says "In love [God]predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will." Through Jesus, being born into the right family with the right genes and the right name becomes a moot point. When we place our faith in Jesus, we're adopted into the family that really matters.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and barbaradoduk