Tag Archives: Tradition

From “Members Only” to a “Can of Worms”

As for those who were held in high esteem—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism—they added nothing to my message.
Galatians 2:6 (NIV)

Imagine an exclusive country club that has been in existence in a community for hundreds of years. The club, created by the town’s wealthy and politically powerful founder had always been owned and run by the eldest child in direct generational descendant of the town’s founder. For generations the club has always been “Members Only” and only the “who’s who” of the community leaders, political leaders, business leaders, and established local families were allowed to join. Only they could afford the dues and abide by the upscale dress codes and the strictly taught and practiced rituals of the club’s exhaustive book of social etiquette.

Then, the current owner dies. In her last will and testament she states that the Club will now be open to anyone who wants to join, not only members of the local community, but anyone from any community in the entire region. She leaves an endowment that pays for virtually anyone to belong and states that nothing should hinder any persons full acceptance and membership. From that point on, all members of the club will participate in its ownership and have the opportunity for club leadership.

Almost immediately, residents across a ten county area from every social strata, race, gender and cultural background rush to join the club. The existing club members who have only known the club to be one thing, are quickly thrown into a panic. While trying to maintain an air of acceptance and openness, they insist that all of the “new” members must maintain the traditional dress code (clothes none of the “new” members can afford) and the strict rituals of social, club etiquette (that none of the “new” members ever learned, nor do they necessarily care about).

The Board of Directors and its membership committee, packed with long-term, upstanding club members agree to embrace the owners wishes to welcome everyone into the club, but insist that the new members must hold to all of the long-held traditions of the country club even if it’s a terrible burden to them and offers no real benefit.

One influential member from one of the oldest, most well-established blue-blood families in the club’s history stands and confronts the Board and membership committee. The owner’s last will and testament said that “nothing should hinder any persons full acceptance and membership.” To expect new members to buy expensive dinner clothes and hold to social rituals they’d never learned was the exact kind of hinderance that the owner was referring to in her will. He demands that they drop their requirement of historic dress codes and social etiquette rituals.

Can you feel the tension of this situation?

Welcome to the first century Jesus movement.

It’s hard in today’s world to understand just how huge a rift the risen and ascended Jesus created among early believers from different backgrounds. The Jewish believers came from a deep historical and cultural tradition that was a core part of their identity. In many ways it was like a private, “members only” club. When Jesus made it clear that His followers would embrace persons of every tribe, nation, culture and tongue He opened up the proverbial can of worms. It deeply rattled those who had lived their whole lives in a system of exclusivity.

As Paul continues to write his letter to the Galatians, the subtext of his words drips with tension. Paul is a life-long, blue-blood member of the formerly exclusive club. Peter, James and the rest of the Twelve are in Jerusalem trying to balance the enraged emotions and daily struggle of traditional, Jewish believers trying to embrace the new reality. Paul, the maverick, has gone all-in on the side of the non-Jewish Gentiles. This is the conflict threatening the faith of the early believers.

Paul is convinced that the believers must let go of the ancient Jewish traditions and rituals of their members only club as it relates to non-Jewish believers for whom these traditions and rituals are totally foreign and meaningless. He sees Peter and the other leaders as equivocating and trying to accommodate the powerful, established Jewish members of the new paradigm. Paul is pissed off, and is not going to shy away from a confrontation on the subject.

This morning I’m reminded that the struggles we experience in this time and place are not new. I’m reminded that learning to work together, embrace one another, love one another, and accept one another despite our differences is always going to be a messy human endeavor. My job, as I see it, is to follow and abide by the law of love that Jesus modeled and called me to obey. Following Jesus should always lighten the load, not increase the burden.

featured photo courtesy of Chuck Moravec via Flickr

The Book, and the Journey

While they were bringing out the money that had been brought into the house of the Lord, the priest Hilkiah found the book of the law of the Lord given through Moses.
2 Chronicles 34:14 (NRSVCE)

I was just 14 years old when I decided to become a follower of Jesus. The first thing I did after making that decision was to begin reading the Living Bible that I’d received for my confirmation a few years before with it’s puke green, imitation leather cover. I’d learned about the Bible all my life. I’d read verses from it, but I’d never really read it. Somehow I knew as I launched out on my faith journey that I had to read the Book for real.

A short time later I had an after school job and my boss asked if I’d like to do a Bible study together. I jumped at the chance. Every Tuesday morning at 6:00 a.m. we met together in his office. One of the first things he had me do was memorize Joshua 1:8:

This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success. (FYI, I typed this from memory. It’s still in there!)

That first memorized verse set the course for me spiritually. I have been journeying through God’s Message ever since. The Book is the source material of faith. I have read it through in a year. I’ve read it in different translations and paraphrases. I have studied it academically. I have studied it alone and in groups. I have memorized parts of it. I keep plumbing the depths, discovering new layers, and finding new meaning as I make my way through it again and again from altogether different waypoints in my own Life journey. (And, I continue to read it with those few brave souls who follow along here a chapter a day!)

In today’s chapter we are nearing the end of the Chronicler’s historical summary of the Kings of Judah. Mannaseh had reigned for fifty-five years and the nation had fallen back into its idolatrous ways. Now young Josiah becomes King and leads the people in a revival back to the God of their ancestors. First, he gets rid of all the idols in the land, then he begins a restoration campaign of the Temple of Solomon. This was not a quick process. The restoration of the Temple began 18 years into Josiah’s reign. During the restoration they discovered the Book of the Law (what we would know today as Genesis through Deuteronomy). In other words, the source material of the Hebrew faith had been lost and forgotten for years. They didn’t even know where it was, let alone did they remember what was in it!

How long had they been stumbling along without the source material of their faith? What were they relying on to inform them, encourage them, and instruct them? Oral tradition? The memory of old priests? How did they know they were living in accordance with God’s Law if they didn’t even have a copy of the Law to reference? The discovery of the Book of the Law was huge, as we’ll find out in the final few chapters of Chronicles.

This morning I’m thinking about my never-ending journey through the Book and the Great Story. How different my journey would be without this Source of wisdom, history, instruction, inspiration, encouragement, admonishment, and insight. I’m so thankful I took Joshua 1:8 to heart. I’m so grateful that I’ve not had to fly blind in my faith journey, that I’ve had the Book as my Source material.

Thanks for reading along with me.

Order and Freedom

But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.
1 Corinthians 14:40 (NIV)

Along my spiritual journey I have been a part of worship with many different traditions. I was raised in a very liturgical Methodist church, meaning that every part of the service was very structured around ancient traditions. There was a lot of repetition and it was largely the same service every week with minor differences to account for different seasons of the traditional church year. I get how repetitive religious practices lose all power of their metaphorical meaning when a) no one remembers why we’re doing it in the first place and b) there’s no Spirit connection between the repetitive words/actions and the spirits of those worshipping.

At the other end of the spectrum I spent some time in the Quaker tradition (also known as the Society of Friends) which developed out of reacting to all the liturgical structure of the traditional church. In a traditional Quaker service (even their anti-liturgy style becomes its own form of “tradition”) there is little or no structure. Everyone sits in a circle and is quiet (they call it “centering”) until someone feels moved by the Spirit to speak or to sing or to do whatever. Anyone can do so and can say pretty much whatever it is they want to say. The original intent was that everyone would wait for Holy Spirit to prompt them and to be loving and mindful of everyone else in the group. It’s a beautiful idea, but eventually things were so unstructured that there were problems with things in many Quaker churches becoming what would be described by some as a chaotic free-for-all.

I have come to understand that we as human beings like and need a certain amount of structure and order. I think this is part of us being made “in the image” of our Creator. If you stop to think about it, everything in creation has a certain detailed structure and order to it. This is the way God made it. Even the seemingly chaotic tangle of bare tree branches is actually an orderly visual fractal. At the same time, you can get so lost in the order that you, as we say, “lose the forest for the trees.” I’ve come to believe that corporate worship is another example of truth being found at the point of tension between the extremes.

Along my chapter-a-day journey through Paul’s letter to the believers in Corinth, I find there is no doubt that their local gathering was rapidly moving along the disordered chaos side of the spectrum. Paul points this out multiple times. There had been a breakdown to the point that Paul even says their weekly gatherings to worship were doing “more harm than good” (11:17).

In context, I find today’s chapter to be about Paul trying to reestablish some order and structure to the chaos in Corinthian worship. He’s trying to pull them back from their chaotic free-for-alls. Paul hints that they’d come to resemble a pagan food orgy (11:20-22), and the chapter reads like an instruction manual for bring some semblance of structure and order to the Corinthian gatherings. He sums it up by saying “everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.

This morning I’m thinking about differences, even in our human personalities. Some of us tend toward the side of “free spirit” in which we go with the flow. As such, it’s easy for us to get little accomplished and to create chaos around ourselves that becomes counterproductive. Some of us tend toward the side of detail and order. As such, it’s easy for us to major on the minors and to create rigidity that becomes counterproductive.

In the quiet this morning I once again find myself seeking balance: freedom with ordered structure; order with room for movement of Spirit and expression.

Hats, Fasting, and a Couple of Important Questions

“Ask all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted?”
Zechariah 7: 5 (NIV)

Yesterday I had the privilege of leading our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. I was kicking off a series of messages on Paul’s letter to the believers in Corinth. And so, I’ve been mired in studying the letter and the situation in Corinth around 55 A.D.  One of the themes that bubbles to the surface over and over again are instructions that Paul gave which are rooted in contemporary Corinthian culture. Other instructions are universal to human culture in all times.

I find myself asking, “What instructions were for the Corinthian believers at that time (that don’t fit our current realities)? What instructions may speak to me in 2018 (that the Corinthians couldn’t fathom almost 2000 years ago)? What instruction are ours (they apply to anyone, at any time, in any culture)?”

For example, one set of instructions is about covering your head. In first century Corinth there were layers of meaning in the cultural and religious aspects of whether you covered your head and when. Some of it came from Jewish law and tradition (which the Greek believers probably thought silly) and some of it was the practical differentiation of woman broadcasting in publicly that she was not one of Aphrodite’s temple priestess-prostitutes.

The truth of the matter is that until a generation or so ago, the tradition of women covering their heads in church and men removing their caps/hats was still a big thing culturally. The local Costume Shop has hundreds and hundreds of gorgeous women’s hats with cute little veils that locals have donated over the years (see featured photo). There was a time just a few decades ago when a woman would not go to church without a hat on. Today, in our culture, if a woman does so it’s simply a fashionable novelty.

Likewise, my dad and I have a good-natured, on-going feud when we’re gathered for family meals and it’s time to pray and eat. My dad gives me grief if I have a cap on. I have never been able to discern a good reason for having to remove my hat when the family is  informally ordering a pizza and watching the game. I joke with my dad that it’s actually more sanitary if I keep my cap on. He always wins the argument on his authority and my respect, but I’ve still never heard a good reason.

The bottom-line question is: “Why (or why not) are we doing this?”

That was the exact question God had for the prophet Zechariah. Zechariah and company inquired of the Lord whether they should continue to observe traditional months of fasting. God replied, “Why are you fasting?” God then goes on to point out that what Zac and the boys are not doing are things like being just, showing compassion to people who are different, looking out for the needs of orphans, widows, and the oppressed. The implied question God is asking as I read between the lines is this: “Why would I care if you self-righteously starve yourself in some public display of your religiosity when you’re missing the heart of what I desire from you — to love others as you love yourself?”

Good question, and a good question for those of us who claim to follow Jesus and have wrapped ourselves in religious traditions of all kinds over the years.

“What does God care about? What, therefore, should I really care about? What in my religious practices, rituals, and cultural rules do I make a higher priority than the things God truly cares about?

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.

Mysteries Within Mysteries

Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, [Jesus] became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek.
Hebrews 5:8-10 (NIV)

The further I have progressed on this life journey the more I have come to understand that I must embrace mystery if I am going to progress spiritually in certain places. This flies in the face of a system of reason in which I was raised and educated. Our culture is one that places what I have come to understand as an undue premium on knowing. Theories are stated as certainties quite frequently whether they come from the institutions of religion, education, politics, or science. I find that our culture has lost sight of the value of embracing the knowledge of knowing that we do not know or cannot know.

I have found that the desire to try to replace mystery with false certainty is a fool’s errand. I see this repeated over and over again in history. It leads down all sorts of silly and hurtful paths. Minor issues become major battlegrounds, honest exploration is sacrificed on the altar of exclusionary social litmus tests, and institutions make all sorts of embarrassing mistakes (sometimes with deadly consequences). Embracing mystery, on the other hand, has pushed my heart and mind to new avenues of possibility, exploration, discovery and faith. I love how Catholic mystic Richard Rohr puts it: “Mystery is not something we can not understand. Mystery is something we can endlessly understand.”

The letter to Hebrew believers has always been shrouded in mystery, not the least of which is the identity of the author. Two centuries after it was penned we are still not certain who wrote the letter. My fundamentalist Bible professors taught me that I must believe it was Paul who wrote it. Textual critics in education laugh at such a claim, telling me it certainly couldn’t be Paul. Arguments have been made for a host of first century figures (i.e. Luke, Apollos, Barnabas). More recently, some scholars have argued that it was most certainly a woman, Priscilla, who was among Jesus larger circle of 70 disciples and travelled with Paul. I find this possibility fascinating and stimulating. It has led me to discover more about this amazing woman through whom God did amazing things. I know, however, at least one of my fundamentalist professors would have said it most certainly wasn’t Priscilla and would certainly have marginalized and subtly punished me educationally had I steadfastly held to the possibility in his class.

I do not know who wrote the letter to the Hebrew believers, and that’s perfectly fine for me. It is a mystery that has much for me to discover in its exploration of possibility.

In today’s chapter we encounter yet another mystery in the revelation of Christ as eternal High Priest. The Hebrew believers who first received this letter would have intimate knowledge about how the Hebrew priestly system worked as prescribed by the Law of Moses. Only descendants of Aaron (Moses’ right-hand man) were to be priests, and the High Priest could only come from those genetic ranks. According to the prophets, however, the Messiah was to come from the tribe of Judah and the house of David as Jesus did. Remember Christmas? Mary gives birth to Jesus in Bethlehem, the “City of David.” Joseph and Mary had to go to Bethlehem for the census because they were both descendants of David in the tribe of Judah.

But now the mysterious author of Hebrews lays out a claim that Christ is our eternal “High Priest,” the cosmic conduit between God and man. But the Hebrew readers would know that Jesus was not from the line of Aaron, so how could He be High Priest? The author reveals Jesus as High Priest “in the order of Melchizedek.” In Genesis 14:18 Abram (who would soon be known as Abraham) meets a mysterious King of Salem named Melchizedek who was “priest of God Most High.” He serves Abram bread and wine (remind you of anything?) and blesses Abram. Abram in return presents the priest Melchizedek an offering of a tenth of everything.

That’s all we know about Melchizedek. This mysterious person was “priest of God Most High” before Abram was Abraham, before Israel was a people, before the Law of Moses was given, before the Hebrew priesthood was defined as descendants of Aaron. It’s a mystery, and the author of Hebrews attaches the mystery of Christ the cosmic High Priest to the lineage to the mysterious Melchizedek who appears within the Hebrew tradition but outside the system of Moses.

This morning I’m once again perplexed, stimulated, and inspired by the mystery of Melchizedek, of Jesus, and of Hebrews. As I humbly embrace the mystery I push deeper into that which can be endlessly understood and so take another step forward on the path of faith and Spirit.

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.