Tag Archives: Systems

“Ins” and “Outs”

"Ins" and "Outs" (CaD Matt 8) Wayfarer

When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.”
Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”

Matthew 8:5-7 (NIV)

I’ve been preparing a message I’m going to be giving among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers this Sunday. A year or two ago I happened to do a little personal study on the subject of fundamentalism. I was prompted to do some research because I noticed certain parallels of thought and behavior among a particular civic group that reminded me of things I saw in some of the Christian fundamentalist groups I experienced earlier in my spiritual journey.

My research came up with six elements that mark fundamentalist groups, elements that I would argue create a toxic cocktail no matter where they are found. All major religions have fundamentalist sects that bear these elements. As I studied and meditated on them, I came to realize that the elements of toxic fundamentalism can really be found in almost any human system including political, institutional, corporate, or even in families. As I was studying the assigned text for this Sunday’s message, I realized that Jesus’ religious critics displayed all six elements within the stories.

One of the elements of fundamentalist systems is that they maintain strict “in-group” and “out-group” distinctions. You must toe the line in thought, words, and behavior to be considered “in” with us, but the slightest misstep or evidence that you’ve run afoul of the rules or belief system and you are “out.”

The Hebrew religious system from which Jesus came was a fundamentalist form of Judaism. They had strict “in-group” and “out-group” distinctions. The religious power brokers wouldn’t associate with fellow Hebrews who were on the “outs” because they didn’t toe the line. And the Roman occupying force in Judea was really on the outs with the good religious authorities as well as almost all Hebrews who considered them the enemy.

In today’s chapter, Jesus has just finished his message on the hill, in which He told His listeners to love the enemy. He returns toward their base of operation and he is met by a Roman Centurion (enemy, occupier, a persecutor of His people, religiously dirty “gentile,” and pagan!). The Centurion asks Jesus to heal his servant. Jesus immediately asks if He should come to the Centurion’s house.

Entering the house of a Roman was strictly against fundamentalist rules. The Romans were the “outs” of all “outs.” Years later, in Acts 10, Peter will face the same fundamentalist religious dilemma of being invited to a Centurion’s home. Jesus doesn’t even hesitate: “Would you like me to come with you?”

In the quiet this morning, I was struck by Jesus’ words to His followers after healing the servant remotely and sending the Centurion on his way:

“I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Jesus points out that people will be surprised who they see at heaven’s feast. Some of those who were on the “outs” on earth will be present while some of the “ins” on earth will not.

So who do I consider on the “outs” with me and my belief system? Who would I refrain from accepting an invitation to their home? Who is so worthless in my eyes and I don’t even want to be near them? I think the roots of fundamentalisms are found in my own sinful nature. Jesus not only came to forgive me of my sin but also to call me to live contrary to it. Which means tearing down my own personal “in-group” and “out-group” distinctions.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Lessons in the Layers

Lessons in the Layers (CaD Gen 44) Wayfarer

[Judah said to Joseph ] “Now then, please let your servant remain here as my lord’s slave in place of the boy, and let the boy return with his brothers. How can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? No! Do not let me see the misery that would come on my father.”
Genesis 44:33-34 (NIV)

During my family roots investigation that I’ve discussed in the last couple of posts, I was blessed to discover and correspond with my cousin, John, in the Netherlands. John and I are third-generation cousins. When my great-grandfather sailed for America he left his younger brother, John’s great-grandfather, behind. When Wendy and I traveled to London back in 2009, John joined us and we spent a very enjoyable day together.

Late that day, the three of us were sharing a pint together in a London Pub. I expressed my curiosity about what would make my great-grandfather leave everything, including his entire family, and make a new life in America by himself. I remember John not being surprised by this. He shared that getting angry and walking away was not uncommon in our family.

Along my journey, I’ve observed that certain themes are recurring in family systems. It could be sin that occurs in repeated generations or behavioral or relational patterns that repeat themselves. I remember one family member observing that when her husband left her she was the exact same age as her mother when her father left. I have found these types of patterns fascinating and meaningful in gaining both understanding and wisdom.

I continued to see these patterns in today’s chapter. Joseph deceives the brothers who wanted to kill him, then chose to sell him into slavery. This is just like his father, Jacob, deceiving his own father, Isaac. It’s just like Jacob’s Uncle Laban deceiving him. It’s just like Isaac and Abraham deceiving their hosts into thinking their wives were their sisters. It’s just like Joseph’s brothers deceiving their father into thinking Joseph had been eaten by a wild animal. It’s a pattern in the family system.

Yesterday I discussed that Judah, the fourth-born son of Jacob/Israel, has now ascended to the role of the leader, the position of the first-born. This is also a recurring theme as both his grandfather (Isaac) and father (Jacob) were second-born sons who ascended to the blessing and position of the first-born. This is a theme that will reoccur throughout the Great Story as an object lesson of God’s message: “My ways are not your ways.”

Faced with the prospect of fulfilling their father’s worst fears, Judah steps up to plead for Benjamin’s life and offers himself as a substitutionary slave in place of his little brother. Fascinating that it was Judah who saved Joseph’s life by pleading with his brothers not to kill Joseph but sell him into slavery back in chapter 37. Judah’s conscience is weighed down by what they did to Joseph and their father. He will do anything not to repeat the robbing of their father of his beloved son. He’s been down this road before. He doesn’t want to repeat the pattern.

Toxic patterns of thought, behavior, and relationship wreak havoc within a family system. These were the kinds of things I wanted to discover, process, and address in my own journey as I dug into the layers of stories, foibles, and flaws in my family’s root system. Did it succeed? One could easily argue not if perfection is the standard. Yet, I’ve observed that the pursuit and/or expectation of perfection is a toxic thought pattern in-and-of-itself. I did, however, discover invaluable lessons in the layers. It has been successful in imparting wisdom, allowing me to recognize certain patterns in other areas of life, and informing both my choices and how I manage relationships. I know that blind spots remain, but I doggedly pursue sight with each layer of blindness that’s revealed in my journey.

Perhaps the most important layer of lessons has been about grace. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob/Israel, Judah, and Joseph all had their faults and blind spots. They, too, were part of a very flawed, very human family system. It still didn’t disqualify them from being used by God in their leading roles within the opening chapters of the Great Story. So, I’ve learned (and am learning) to have grace with those flawed ancestors and family members in my own family system as I pray they and my descendants will have grace with me. It’s also teaching me that God’s amazing grace extends to, and through, very flawed human beings, and that includes me.

Featured image: Joseph Converses with Judah by Tissot. Public Domain.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Dysfunctional

Dysfunctional (CaD Gen 27) Wayfarer

Isaac asked his son, “How did you find it so quickly, my son?”
“The Lord your God gave me success,” he replied.

Genesis 27:20 (NIV)

Death and funerals tend to bring out all of the fun in family dysfunction. I remember officiating one funeral in which siblings and their families stayed in opposite rooms in their parents’ home and I had to bounce back and forth like a ping-pong ball to make the service arrangements because they wouldn’t speak to one another or be in the same room. I’ve done multiple funerals in which it was doubtful that a child or children would even show up. I’ve witnessed the fallout from parental favoritism, parental disfavor, deception, hatred, mishandled inheritance, and the relational scars of unreconciled issues or arguments that are decades old.

Family systems are mysterious and complex. Parents, children, personalities, power, favor, honor, and inheritance can make for highly dysfunctional systemic cocktails.

So, today’s chapter isn’t all that surprising to me. Isaac has always favored his son Esau, the firstborn twin. Esau is an alpha male with all the unchecked emotions that often go with it. He’s a rugged outdoorsman and skilled hunter. Jacob is a mirror image of this. A mama’s boy, quiet, quick-minded, and shrewd. Esau has married two Hittite women who have upset the system and have become the bane of Rebekah’s existence. Perhaps this is part of her motivation for urging Jacob’s deceptive theft of his older brother’s position as the head of the clan. Perhaps she believes that Esau will be a foolish, temperamental leader who will make life miserable for everyone. Whatever the motivation, Jacob lives up to his name (which means deceiver). He pretends to be his brother, deceives his father, and receives the blessing that rightfully belonged to Esau. Jacob will succeed his father as head of the family and administrate his inheritance.

What struck me as I read the chapter this morning is that Jacob, when addressing his father, refers to God as “the Lord your God.” At this point in the story, Jacob doesn’t appear to have a personal relationship with the God of his grandfather and father. He’s at arm’s length, and perhaps this helps explain his willingness to deceive his own father and dishonor his own brother.

Along my journey, I found that those who have not actually read or digested the Great Story often have the notion that the “biblical heroes” were righteous, upstanding examples of godliness to the point of not being human. Nothing could be further from the truth. I offer Jacob as Exhibit A. He was flawed human being in a dysfunctional family system and his faith journey and life journey are a struggle, a wrestling match with God and others. Even as he progresses in his own personal journey, he will forced to deal with the fallout of his own dysfunctional family choices. Jacob is a work-in-progress.

In the quiet this morning, I take some solace in this. I have my own issues and dysfunctional blind spots. Even after forty years as a Jesus follower, I’m still a work-in-progress. So is everyone else. Again, if you want to apply the rules of Cancel Culture to me, then go ahead and close the browser and don’t look back. I’m just glad that God shows Himself to be One who mercifully wraps His grace around my human failures and redeems my tragic flaws in transforming me throughout my own story.

Last night Wendy read me a post by a word artist we love and support. Her words feel like they were a divine appointment this morning. Here’s a partial:

“You do not have to be who you have been
You can think differently, feel differently —
Don’t let anyone nail you to
a selfhood that no longer belongs to you.”

She goes on to offer a breathing prayer:

Inhale:
I am not who I once was.
Exhale:
I am known and forgiven.”

By Cole Arthur Riley. You can find her on Patreon and on Instagram @blackliturgies.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Blinded by the Light

Blinded by the Light (CaD John 9) Wayfarer

Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”
John 9:39 (NIV)

The world has changed dramatically in the 40 years I’ve been a follower of Jesus. When I began my journey as a teenager, I observed and experienced that Judeo-Christian thought was a dominant world-view in culture. Even those who chose not to believe typically respected the tradition and basic tenets. Fundamentalist movements like the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition sought political power to legalize their morals and beliefs back in those days.

A generation later, I observe that the cultural pendulum has swung to the other side. I confess that Christians and the institutions of Christian religion are largely to blame. Child abuse swept under the rug, televangelists conning peopIe out of their money to build earthly empires of ego, abandoning our call to care for the poor and needy while satiating our edifice complexes, ignoring racism in our midst, and high-profile sex scandals of mega-church celebrity pastors have all eroded public trust and respect. People are leaving churches in droves. Churches are closing. In Canada, churches are being burned to the ground and no one seems to notice or care. Fundamentalism on the opposite side of the spectrum now seeks to legalize their morals and world-view.

As an amateur historian, I often think about what I make of it all and where it will all lead.

Today’s chapter has become one of my favorite stories in all of the Great Story from Genesis to Revelation. After yesterday’s showdown with the religious leaders, we learn that they have done what institutions always do with people who are a threat to their power and control: they outlaw Jesus and anyone who follows Him. If you believe that Jesus is who He says He is then you’ll be cancelled, socially outcast, and thrown out of the synagogue.

Fundamentalist movements of every kind have all of the same tactics. They maintain strict “in-group” and “out-group” distinctions. Forty years ago I watched fundamentalist churches publicly shaming and kicking out homosexuals, women who got pregnant out of wedlock, and men with long hair in the fundamentalist bible college I attended for one semester. Today, woke fundamentalists are cancelling and shaming anyone who doesn’t mark lock-step with their world-view. Different group, different beliefs, but the same fundamentalist playbook.

While the religious leaders are busy threatening people with cancellation, Jesus heals a man who had been born blind. He heals him on the sabbath day of rest which is only going to push the buttons of His opponents. It was already a point of contention between them and Jesus addressed it head-on during his public teaching earlier that week:

Jesus said to them, “I did one miracle, and you are all amazed. Yet, because Moses gave you circumcision (though actually it did not come from Moses, but from the patriarchs), you circumcise a boy on the Sabbath. Now if a boy can be circumcised on the Sabbath so that the law of Moses may not be broken, why are you angry with me for healing a man’s whole body on the Sabbath? Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.”
John 7:21-24 (NIV)

The religious leaders launch an investigation, because that’s also in the institutional playbook. It becomes obvious that the investigation is not about getting to the truth, but maintaining control and finding reason to officially discredit Jesus. They call in the man’s parents as part of the investigation. Afraid of being cancelled, they plead ignorance and pass the buck back to their son. They then summon the man a second time, but they only seem interested in entrenching themselves and doubling down on the official institutional narrative.

Jesus, meanwhile, introduces Himself to the former blind man who becomes a believer because, well, he was blind and now he can see.

Jesus then makes a fascinating statement: “I have come into the world so that the blind will see, and those who see will become blind.” How fascinating, to think that the Light of the World causes some to see while causing others to be blind. I’m not always sure what to make of that, though I have certainly observed it. Along my spiritual journey I’ve known many people who, like me, claim the same testimony as the blind man in today’s chapter after experiencing Jesus’ amazing grace: “I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind, but now I see.” I’ve also known many people who have never experienced it and tell me I’m the one who am blinded by my faith. And, that’s fine. They have their own journey. I’m walking mine.

In the quiet this morning, I’m reminded of why I try to maintain a healthy skepticism of human institutions of every kind, especially those who operate by the fundamentalist playbook. I’m also reminded of the Jesus I’m following; Not the plastic caricature that the institutional church has painted over the centuries to maintain power and control, but the wayfaring nobody from backwater Nazareth who threatened earthly institutional religious and political power with simple, divine love for blind beggars, children, women caught in adultery, racially oppressed divorced women, blue-collar fishermen, lepers, and me (a broken, adulterous, divorced, sinful nobody from small town Iowa). I see in Him, the One I want to be.

And so, I press on and follow.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

“Some Other Mettle”

"Some Other Mettle" (CaD Ps 146) Wayfarer

Do not put your trust in princes,
    in human beings, who cannot save.

Psalm 146:3 (NIV)

Many years ago, our little town had a local Shakespeare Company that would produce a play each summer in the local park. Wendy and I were cast in Much Ado About Nothing, a comedy about a man and woman who despise one another and how this couple falls in love. Wendy was cast as the female lead, Beatrice, who in the beginning of the play waxes cynical about romance. When asked if she will every marry, she replies, “Not till God make men of some other mettle than earth.”

That line came to mind this morning as I meditated on today’s chapter, Psalm 146, in which the lyrics warn those listening to the song to avoid putting trust in human beings.

Along my life journey, I have observed that human systems almost always end up serving those who control them, unless those who control them have the rare quality of being both humble enough to eschew personal gain in order to serve everyone in the system and having the authority to ensure it stays that way.

Thus Beatrice waxes cynical to find a man who will serve her, honor her, and treat her as an equal partner rather than as a possession and chattel as human systems treated wives through most of human history.

Thus families become dysfunctional and unhealthy systems that end up hurting the ones they are supposed to protect and prepare for perpetuating healthy marriages and families for the next generation.

Thus organizations intended to serve the good of many become rackets that line the pride and pockets of the few in power at the top of the org chart.

Thus businesses established with eloquent vision and mission statements about valuing employees and exceptional service to customers end up cutting jobs and providing the least acceptable levels of service in order to eek out a few more pennies of dividend for shareholders.

Thus governments (of every type and “ism”) end up with those at the top offices rigging the system for themselves and their cronies while paying lip service to helping those living hand-to-mouth on a day-by-day basis.

I know this sounds cynical, yet I feel for where Beatrice is coming from. And, I have to confess that as a follower of Jesus I find myself in the quiet this morning hearing the words of Jesus and the teachings that call me to act against the grain of the systems of this world:

“Whoever wants to be ‘great’ and lead others but become the servant of all.”

“Husbands, love your wives sacrificially, even as Jesus showed us what love is by sacrificing Himself to save us.”

“Fathers, don’t exasperate your children.”

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone.”

Do you have individuals who work for you? Then treat them the way you want to be treated, the way that Jesus has treated you, and the way Jesus has called you to do. From a sincere heart, respect them, treat them honorably, and compensate them for the good they do.”

In find it fascinating that Jesus arguably never directly addressed those who were in control of systems of human power. The only one He did address was the Hebrew religious system who were supposed to recognize Him, but killed Him to protect their power, privilege, and profits. When given the opportunity to address the political powers of His day, King Herod and the Roman Empire, he largely kept His mouth shut.

In the quiet this morning, my mind wanders back to Beatrice and her mail foil, Benedict. Through the course of the play they have a change of heart, and you can guess where that leads. All good stories are a reflection of the Great Story, and therein I see a reflection of what Jesus was about. Jesus was not about creating or changing humans systems of power in order to, top-down, force God’s will over individuals. That’s nothing more than using the world’s playbook against itself, and I only have to look at the headlines to see how that’s working out. Jesus’ taught that the Kingdom of God paradigm is to change the hearts of individuals in order to motivate love and service to others, that in turn creates change within human systems of power from the bottom-up. It’s what He demonstrated on the cross, when the sacrifice of One served to effect change in the many, who effected change in many more.

I hear Wendy in the kitchen making my blueberry spinach smoothie, and it’s time to wrap-up my time of quiet this morning. As I do, I find myself taking a personal inventory of life and spirit. As a husband, as a father, as a grandfather, as an employer, and as a organizational leader in my community, am I reflecting the character of humility, servant-heartedness, honor, respect, and generosity to which Jesus has called me? Immediately, things come to mind to which I need to add to my task list. I better get started.

Have a great day, my friend.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.


Body

Body (CaD Ps 133) Wayfarer

How good and pleasant it is
    when God’s people live together in unity!

Psalm 133:1 (NIV)

Over the past few years, I’ve had the honor of leading a team of teachers in my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. They are a diverse and gifted group of people, representing paid staff members and volunteers of different ages, denominational backgrounds, gender, vocations, educational levels, and personalities.

Almost every week, I assign the group a message to watch on the internet. We’ve watched teachers and preachers from the National Cathedral to small rural towns. We’ve watched teachers of different styles, traditions, denominations, backgrounds, and abilities. We gather for lunch once a month to discuss what we’ve heard, observed, and learned from the different teachers and preachers we’ve watched. It’s been a really interesting experience.

In the first century, the followers of Jesus used the metaphor of a body to describe all believers. My experience of leading our local teaching team has given me a deeper appreciation for, and awareness of, just how beautiful and powerful that word picture is. The body is made up of eleven different systems. The systems do their thing and have various parts that provide particular functions unrelated to other systems, yet without them providing that function the health of the entire body suffers.

I’ve observed that the different members of our teaching team, each with his or her own communication style, personality, and waypoint on life’s journey, resonate deeply with different constituencies within our local “body” but less so with others. I find this to be natural and healthy for the “body” which benefits by learning from and appreciating different voices and perspectives. I’ve come to meditate quite a bit about unity.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 133, was another one of the songs that ancient Hebrew pilgrims sang as they and thousands of their fellow tribe made the trek to seasonal festivals in Jerusalem. It’s a short little ditty celebrating national unity that would have resonated with the travelers as they encountered fellow citizens making the same trek alongside them.

Along my life journey, I’ve come to understand that unity does not mean sameness. In fact, it doesn’t mean agreement. I am grieved by the level of discord, dissension, conflict, and “cancellation” in our culture of late. I was raised to be respectful of differences in people and appreciative of the opportunity to learn from those differences. As a follower of Jesus, those beliefs have been strengthened and reinforced in me by Jesus’ teaching that calls me to humbly be gracious; To love, forgive, and serve others, especially those whom I might otherwise consider my “enemy.”

Increasingly, I’ve come to realize that spiritually speaking, I am a very minute part of a massive, complex “body” made up of different systems, organs, limbs, and cells. There are parts of the body I don’t touch, and will never interact with. There are parts of the body with completely different functions than mine. There are other systems of the body I don’t fully understand and with whom I observe we are totally different in almost every way. Nevertheless, we are part of a “whole” that may well be beyond my human comprehension.

In yesterday’s post I wrote about things I control and things that I don’t. I can’t control others who choose to live in anger, stir conflict, and sow division and dishonor with anyone who looks, thinks, believes and/or lives differently. It’s unhealthy for the whole, and yet I can only control the part I play in my little part of that whole.

And so, I head out on another day of the journey, choosing to do the best I can to live in love, stir understanding, and sow peace with those I meet along the road on this pilgrimage called life.

Things I Don’t Control

Things I Don't Control (CaD Ps 132) Wayfarer

For the sake of your servant David,
    do not reject your anointed one.

Psalm 132:10 (NIV)

Wendy and I are almost through the first season of Poldark, originally a 2015 Masterpiece Theater production. It’s been thoroughly enjoyable. The series is set in the late 18th century and tells the story of a headstrong and struggling English nobleman who returns from the American Revolution to find his father dead, his family estate in shambles, the love of his life engaged to his cousin, and the family business on the edge of bankruptcy.

The themes of the show include the clash between nobility and peasant, the long-held tradition of the entitlement of the first-born son, and the legacy of both family systems and family names.

Over the past year of Covid-19 with all its tension over masks, mandates, and lockdowns, one of the conversations I found fascinating was the individualistic spirit in Americans. From our break from mother England to today, we don’t like being told what to do. Along my life journey, I’ve come to believe that we don’t have a full realization of, nor appreciation for, just how deep the “rugged individualism” that fueled our country runs in our veins. In the entire history of human civilization, human rights and the freedom of self-determination are relatively new concepts. For thousands of years, an individual’s lot-in-life was pretty much fully established the moment they were born. It was completely dependent on your family, your gender, and your birth order.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 132, is a case-in-point. This ancient Hebrew song was used at the coronation of monarchs ascending to the throne of King David. Some scholars believe it was initially written to honor King David at the dedication ceremony of the Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. David’s family line was firmly established as the royal line of Judah, the prophets also pointed to the coming Messiah being from the same lineage, and the lyrics of today’s chapter would have been a clear reminder to the people not to forget it.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself meditating on the concept of determination. Growing up, I and my peers were told that we could be anything we wanted to be in life if we were willing to work hard, study hard, and pursue our dreams. Once again, I’m reminded that this very notion would have been ludicrous for the vast majority of human beings who ever lived. And yet, while I would argue that there are, in general, greater opportunities for self-determination than in any other time in human history, there are still those determining influences of life that I don’t control.

Among the teachings of Jesus that fueled the Jesus Movement of the first century was that everyone was welcome at the dining table where believers sat, listened, prayed, feasted, and “communed.” Men, women, slaves, slave owners, rich, poor, societies’ big shots, and social lepers. As Paul put it in his letter to the followers of Jesus in Galatia:

In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ. Also, since you are Christ’s family, then you are Abraham’s famous “descendant,” heirs according to the covenant promises.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking about the things in this life that I can control, and the things that I can’t. When Jesus said to those seated around Him, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” I believe that He was telling his followers that I don’t have to be enslaved to systems that formed me. When Paul said that for the believer “old things pass away” I believe that among the things that pass away are beliefs, patterns of thought, and behaviors that were instilled in me by the systems into which I was born and in which I was raised. I observe that the spiritual transformation I’ve experienced on my spiritual journey as a follower of Jesus has not only changed me, but it has led me to leverage the fruit of God’s Spirit to help transform the human systems I’m a part of for the better.

Of Traditions

Of Traditions (CaD Ps 124) Wayfarer

Our help is in the name of the Lord,
    the Maker of heaven and earth.

Psalm 124:8 (NIV)

Here’s a little trivia for you: The now almost requisite playing of the Star-Spangled Banner at sporting events dates to 1918 at the first game of the World Series between the Cubs and the Red Sox. The series almost didn’t happen that year because so many Americans were across the Atlantic fighting in World War I. Fred Thomas, the Red Sox’ Third Baseman, and furloughed U.S. sailor got up during the seventh inning stretch and sang a moving rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. At that point, it wasn’t even the national anthem (that happened in 1931). It was so moving that it became a seventh-inning-stretch staple. During WWII, technology allowed for the anthem to be played by recording and it was moved from the seventh inning stretch to before the ball game. Other sports followed.

Obviously, the anthem has been a point of tension in recent years. It’s just interesting to me to realize that there were many decades of professional baseball when that the tradition didn’t exist. I find it fascinating how traditions can become so important to us as human beings, whether those traditions are religious, civic, social or familial. Messing with traditions can create major disruption in any human system.

I thought about the national anthem as I read today’s chapter, Psalm 124. The lyrics of this Hebrew pilgrim’s song read like a community anthem reminding the traveler of God’s blessing on their nation and deliverance from many enemies. The lyrics basically read like a national anthem for the Hebrew nation, and thinking of it being a tradition for Hebrew pilgrims to sing it while on pilgrimage to Jerusalem makes me think that it’s not that much different than the Star-Spangled Banner before every ballgame, or singing God Bless America at the ball game on Sunday.

When the songwriter of Psalm 124 penned “the flood would have engulfed us” the imagery was that of a dry river bed that fills up suddenly during seasonal rains and creates devastating flash floods. It’s a metaphor for the warfare and pillaging attacks that happened seasonally, just like the rains.

The song is structured for the first stanza to be sung by an individual leader, describing what would have happened had God not been with them. The second stanza is sung by all the people, praising God for deliverance from their nation’s enemies.

I find myself meditating on traditions in the quiet this morning. Wendy and I even talked about the season of Lent which our local gathering of Jesus’ followers is in the midst of celebrating. Lent is a tradition of followers of Jesus that goes back as early as 325 AD. There is nothing written in the Great Story in regard to it and there’s no requirement to celebrate it in any way. It’s simply a tradition that annually connects followers to Jesus’ story. That’s the way I’ve personally always approached Lent and every human tradition for that matter.

I’ve observed along my life journey that traditions can be a great way to remind a group of human beings about any number of things we find important from gratitude, to sacrifice, to history, and to matters of Spirit. I’ve also observed that when traditions themselves become sacred to the human beings within the system, then the meaning of the tradition can often be lost. The reason behind the tradition sometimes loses focus or potency as the tradition itself becomes the focus of the human system that holds it. I have experienced that the breaking of certain traditions has been a spiritually healthy thing for me personally. I have also found that rediscovering lost traditions, that may have needed to go away for a time, can be equally as healthy to my spiritual journey.

Living in Gray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salem, Systems, Settle, Spriggs, Spec

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