Tag Archives: Tradition

Lord Protectors of Orthodoxy and Tradition

Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere.
Luke 20:20 (NIV)

It’s been years, but I can still see their faces. The look on most of those faces is a scowl. Along my journey, I have been a member and have taught in many different churches of diverse denominational bents. I have found these individuals in almost every one of them.

They are the thought police, the guardians of tradition, and the Lord Protectors of the Orthodox Realm. They wear the mantel of righteousness, believing themselves responsible to strictly observe and question anything they perceive to seep outside the rigid box in which they hold their tradition and orthodoxy. They often believe themselves to be spiritual heirs of the first century Berean Jews who are described as follows:

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.

Acts 17:11 (NIV)

My experience, however, leads me to believe that “noble character” is not an apt description for most of these individuals. They don’t receive my message with eagerness and open examination but with skepticism and censure. I have come to believe that their motivation is often fear and or pride cloaked in religiosity. Their minds and spirits are not open but closed. The fruit of their words and actions is rarely love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, or gentleness. I have observed that the root of their words and actions lie in the soil of fear, pride, self-righteousness, and anger. The fruit of their words and actions is conflict, quarrels, division, and dissension.

The faces of these individuals came to mind today as I read Luke’s account of the final week of Jesus’ earthly journey. We find Jesus in Jerusalem teaching in the Temple courts. He is drawing large crowds. He is the talk of the town. And, the orthodox power system of that Temple is angry and afraid. Jesus threatens their lucrative religious racket that has amassed their wealth. Jesus threatens their power and social standing with the people whom they control through religious rule-keeping, condemnation, judgment, and shame. Their tradition is holding onto power and they are bent on taking Jesus down.

So these teachers of the law and religious authorities send people to question, to trap, and to report anything the upstart Nazarene says which might be used to make a case against Him. They are already trying to find a way to send Jesus to the Roman Governor, for under Roman occupation it is Pontius Pilate alone who can sentence one to death, and they want Jesus dead.

Don’t hear what I’m not saying. As a follower of Jesus, I firmly believe that I must be responsible to consider, weigh, and test the things said, written, and taught in the name of Jesus. At the same time, I am called upon to be both shrewd and gentle. I have been commanded to follow the law of love in all things. I have been told to reserve judgment for the One true Judge. I am not judge, jury, and executioner of orthodox justice with a Junior Holy Spirit badge pinned to my chest. What a sad way to live and be. It doesn’t seem like the “full life” Jesus wanted His followers to experience and live out.

Back to the faces and the individuals. I have learned along the way to always try responding thoughtfully, gently, and with self-control. If they are open to a sincere and kind conversation to explore and discuss, then wonderful! However, when a thoughtful and gentle reply is fruitless (and it typically is), then I endeavor to press forward on the path to which God has led me. I keep loving, keep praying, keep reading, keep seeking, keep asking, keep knocking, and I focus on the only things in my control: my intentions, thoughts, words, and actions. And, I pay as little attention to my scowling critics as is humanly possible.

Sometimes, the most loving thing I can do is to walk away.

Have you missed the previous chapter-a-day posts from this journey through the Gospel of Luke? Click on this image and it will take you to a quick index of the other posts!

Finding God Inside and Outside the Box

Jesus went on to say, “To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other:
“‘We played the pipe for you,
    and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
    and you did not cry.’

Luke 7:31-32 (NIV)

Recently I was having a conversation with a leader in my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. He shared with me that it is quite common for locals to come to him, give witness to immoral, hypocritical, and evil words and actions done by members of our gathering, and then proceed to state that if this is the way followers of Jesus behave, then they want nothing to do with it.

Welcome to humanity.

Along my life journey, I have encountered individuals who would in no way fit inside the box of the particular brand of Christianity in which I find myself. In fact, they would eschew any notion of wearing that label. That said, I can see in these individuals’ lives and actions that they understand and embrace the things of God far more than many who live and operate inside the box and proudly advertise our brand on the bumpers of their cars.

In today’s chapter, Dr. Luke shares two stories that highlight the reality of non-religious people who “get” the things of God and religious people who don’t. It has always been a part of humanity, and Jesus encountered it regularly.

In the first encounter, Jesus is blown away by the faith of an ungodly, foreign leader whom most (if not all) of His followers would label their enemy. Jesus never even sees or meets this Roman Centurion in person. His exchange is completely done by intermediaries. First, Jesus is petitioned by leaders of his own religious box to heal a Roman Centurion’s servant. This, in and of itself, was way out of the ordinary. The Jews hated the Romans who militarily occupied their homeland, and the average Roman soldier treated the local Jewish population with natural distrust and contempt. The Jews and Romans were bitter enemies. When the Jewish leaders to speak highly of this Centurion’s kindness and generosity to Jesus’ people, it captured Jesus’ attention.

On the way to meet with the Centurion, Jesus is met by servants of the Centurion. In the Jewish tradition of the day, it would be unlawful for Jesus to enter the Centurion’s house. The Centurion knew this and humbly sends his servants to give a message to Jesus. The Roman’s message was to tell Jesus that He doesn’t have to take the risk religiously “dirtying” Himself by entering the Centurion’s home and the social criticism Jesus would receive from His own people by doing so. He trusted that if Jesus simply gave the word, his servant would be healed.

In the second story, Jesus is having dinner with one of the good, upstanding leaders of his own religious box. A woman enters and approaches Jesus. In that town, this was that woman. Everyone knew who she was by her reputation. It doesn’t take much imagination to fill in the blanks: wanton, loose, used, cheap, pitiful, tragic. Not only did she not belong inside any kind of religious box, but no one inside the box wanted her there. But, like the foreign Centurion, this local social skank gets who Jesus is, and what God is doing through Him. She falls at Jesus’ feet blesses Him with all that she has: her contrite tears, her loving kisses, and some perfume.

Jesus immediately perceives the religious contempt of his host toward the local woman. This upstanding church elder had likely known who this woman was for her entire life and had probably ignored her and held her in self-righteous contempt. Jesus makes it clear to His host that she gets the things of God more than he.

In the midst of these stories, Jesus describes religious people:

They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other:
“‘We played the pipe for you,
    and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
    and you did not cry.’

In other words, we who are religious tend to expect everyone to fit inside our religious boxes and do what we prescribe. Inside of our religious boxes, we expect people to look like us, speak our lingo fluently, know our traditions, and behave in a way we deem acceptable.

Of course, the look, the lingo, the traditions, and the expected behaviors may have little or nothing to do with truly getting the things that God actually cares about.

I am reminded this morning that Jesus faithfully lived and operated inside the religious box of His people. He went to the Temple. He taught in the synagogues. He dined, socialized, and befriended the religious leaders. He followed the religious customs and traditions. Jesus’ example tells me that the things of God can be surely found, learned, and embraced inside of my religious box.

But Jesus’ example in today’s chapter also reminds me of this truth: There will always be individuals inside my religious box who don’t get the things of God, and there will always be individuals outside of my religious box who do.

Have you missed the previous chapter-a-day posts from this journey through the Gospel of Luke? Click on this image and it will take you to a quick index of the other posts!

Connect, Disconnect, Reconnect

The whole company that had returned from exile built temporary shelters and lived in them. From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy was very great.
Nehemiah 8:17 (NIV)

As a child growing up, I attended a protestant church that practiced what I would call a very “high church” worship. I was part of a children’s choir. We wore robes with embellishments that corresponded to the season of the church calendar, as did the minister. There was a lot of pomp and grand tradition complete with a pipe organ and stained-glass windows. The service contained many prescribed liturgical practices, responsive readings, and the like. As a child, it was at first all I knew and I found meaning in it all. As I got older, however, it all seemed a bit boring and empty. There grew within me a huge disconnect between my spirit and all the rote repetition of those high-church liturgical practices.

I became a follower of Jesus in my teens and quickly left the church of my childhood. I connected with a different church that had what I would characterize as a freer and more laid-back worship style. It felt more personal to me.

The ironic thing is, as I have continued on in my spiritual journey I have found myself reconnecting with some of the types of liturgical tradition I abandoned in my childhood. When I was a child they were empty of meaning for me, but as I have returned to them I have found them to have all sorts of rich meaning for me at this particular waypoint of life.

In today’s chapter, Ezra reads the law of Moses (the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Number, and Deuteronomy) out loud to all of the assembled exiles who had returned to Jerusalem and repaired the walls of the city. This is some 400-500 years before Jesus. The vast majority of the people were illiterate and had lived all or most of their lives in Babylon. Many had likely never heard the law of Moses read before.

In the Hebrew tradition, the law of Moses prescribed various feasts and festivals throughout the seasons of the year. The “Feast of Tabernacles” (a Tabernacle is like a tent or temporary shelter) happened in the fall and commemorated the Hebrew people camping out as they left slavery in Egypt and returned to the land of Canaan. When the Ezra and the people read about this festival, they realized that they should be celebrating it right then. So, they did.

Ezra and the people of Jerusalem reconnected to a tradition that had been lost and forgotten for centuries, and it was filled with all sorts of meaning for them.

Along my life journey, I have observed that this happens to us a lot as human beings. Traditions and rituals get abandoned and fade away as they lose meaning and connection for those of us repeating them. At some point down life’s road, we rediscover them at a point in our spiritual journey when they meaningfully connect and become spiritually filling. What was old becomes new, what was lost to us as meaningless and boring we find to have all sorts of meaning.

In the quiet this morning I am revisiting the many spiritual traditions that I have experienced in my journey. I’ve experienced a plethora of traditions from the liturgical high-church of my childhood to the Evangelical show. I have sat in the silence of a Quaker meeting house, been in the frenzy of a Charismatic revival meeting, and the energetic worship of a black Baptist church. I long ago abandoned any notion of any tradition being “right” or “wrong.” They are all simply different traditions that have something to teach me. Some connect with my spirit in ways others do not, but each tradition and ritual has something to teach me at different waypoints of my spiritual journey if I’m open and willing to learn them.

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Consecrated

I said to them, “You as well as these articles are consecrated to the Lord.”
Ezra 8:28 (NIV)

Growing up in my mother’s house, there was a set of decorative, fine china and silverware that was reserved for the most special of occasions. Typically it was a holiday feast or special event with extended family that brought out the precious place settings on the table.

Perhaps the notion of fine china still exists in homes today, though my personal experience is that society, in general, has become much more functional with our tableware. That’s the way it is in our house. Everyday china is used every day but it is embellished with special decoration or accessories for special occasions. Still, there is a small set of wine glasses handed down to Wendy from her family that  I almost always use whenever we happen to celebrate the Lord’s Supper around our table. It just feels right to use a glass that is connected to family, history, and generations for such a purpose.

Consecration is a word we don’t use very often anymore. It means to be set apart or dedicated for special purpose. It’s like fine china reserved for the most special of occasions or a wine glass that’s only used for the purpose of Communion.

In today’s chapter, Ezra and the Hebrew exiles are preparing for their journey from captivity back to their home in Jerusalem. They are bringing with them special items that had been consecrated for use in the religious system of sacrifices and offerings in the Temple. These items were plundered by the Babylonians when Jerusalem was besieged and Solomon’s Temple was destroyed and plundered. These consecrated items along with gold and silver dedicated to the restoration of the Temple were carefully accounted for and given to individuals who were responsible for their safekeeping and protection during the journey.

Ezra makes an interesting statement to these individuals who were given responsibility for guarding the consecrated items. He tells them they are each consecrated just like the item in their possession.

Peter, writing to Jesus’ followers spread out through the Roman Empire, says something similar:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
1 Peter 2:9

Just as Ezra’s exiles were themselves consecrated for carrying special items of worship in the Temple, followers of Jesus are consecrated, “holy” and “special possessions.” Indwelled by God’s Spirit, we carry in and with us the Spirit of God and the Word of God. Along my spiritual journey, I’ve found that believers are slow to accept or embrace this spiritual reality. Perhaps it’s because we don’t want to embrace the responsibility of it. Peter, in the very next paragraph of his letter, goes on to admonish the exiled believers to conduct themselves accordingly with their consecration:

Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
1 Peter 2:11-12

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking about special meals. I’ve enjoyed some wonderful, formal meals with the works: full place settings, fine china, special silver, and cloth napkins. I enjoy those special occasions. I’ve also, however, experienced some special meals that were just as special and meaningful in which the table setting and bill of fare was nothing extraordinary. It was the “consecrated” individuals sitting around that table that made all the difference.

I head into a new work week and a new month this morning reminded that Jesus Himself acknowledged that God had “set Him apart” and “sent into the world.” Jesus was consecrated for God’s purpose, and He knew it. It motivated what He did and said. I confess that I often lose sight of the reality that God has said He “consecrated” me. I forget that Jesus said “As the Father sent me (consecrated, with purpose), so I am sending you (consecrated, with purpose).” I wonder how different this week and month will go if I embrace and embody this reality?

My Lessons from Diverse Experiences

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

Along my journey I have experienced worship in diverse traditions and settings. I grew up in a mainline Protestant tradition that could be described as “high church.” I grew up wearing a formal choir robe and marching in a long, formal, choral processional into the sanctuary accompanied by a pipe organ. There was a dictated pattern and order to every service even to the point of the minister standing in different positions to deliver different parts of the liturgy and message.

From that launching point I’ve worshipped in rather raucous Pentecostal services, in cold medieval cathedrals, in squirrelly Junior High church camp chapels, in fundamentalist Baptist churches with their own take on legalistic liturgy, in a third world, tin-shack hut you would scarcely call a church, in stadium revivals, and, well, you get my point.

In my early adult years I spent some time in the Quaker tradition, which is 180 degrees from the experience of my youth. The Quakers attempt to recapture the spirit of the early gatherings of the Jesus Movement like what Paul is addressing in his letter to the believers in Corinth. It’s a small, egalitarian setting. Everyone is welcome to participate. They spend time in silence to “center” themselves and wait for Holy Spirit move. People stand and speak as the Spirit prompts them with a word, or a song, or a prayer. It was a fascinating experience from which I learned some valuable lessons.

In today’s chapter, Paul is addressing what was a pressing issue within the context of the corporate gatherings of Jesus’ followers when there was no real tradition, very little organization, a loose authority structure, and everything that was happening was new and different than anyone had experienced. With lack of structure, authority, and order things can quickly get out of control. That was happening among the Corinthian believers. Paul is writing to try and to encourage some order.

There are three broad lessons that I’ve learned from the diversity of my worship experiences in different traditions.

First, if my spirit is open I can learn from every experience. The metaphor and pageantry of high church liturgy is beautiful and layered with meaning once you begin to see it. The Quaker tradition taught me the power of quiet, and that Holy Spirit can and does speak through the most unlikely of vessels in extraordinary ways. It’s so easy to fall into “either-or” thinking when it comes to different worship traditions. I have benefitted from the “both and” approach, entering every worship experience with an open and seeking heart and mind.

Second, there are opportunities and threats in every established tradition. I found the liturgical provides me the opportunity of structure, order, and a comfort that comes with repetition and discipline. The threat is that it can easily become rote words and religious actions void of the Spirit or any personal connection. Likewise, the contrasting organic style of the Quaker tradition gave me the opportunity to experience learning from diverse individuals and recognizing how God can move and speak through everyone. The threat I found is that discerning between flesh and Spirit is always a bit messy, and individuals sometimes speak their own personal desires and opinions cloaked in “God told me” language.

Third, no matter the corporate worship setting or experience, ultimately I am responsible for my own spiritual journey and my own divine dance in every corporate worship experience. I am responsible for my attitudes going into corporate worship. I am responsible to be humble, loving, and gracious in the midst of it. I am responsible to observe, to learn, to ask, seek, and knock. I am am responsible to be grateful for the opportunity, forgiving of that which may possibly offend me, and humble enough to admit there may be things which I don’t fully understand.

Non-Essential Liberty

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.
1 Corinthians 8:9 (NIV)

The local gathering of Jesus’ followers to which Wendy and I belong has been growing steadily in the years since I began regularly joining for worship and serving in the community. What has been interesting is that the growth is largely coming from other local and regional churches and gatherings who have been slowly fading and even shutting down. The result is that among our community of believers we have a growing, yet increasingly diverse, population who bring with them a host of different traditions, beliefs, customs, and worship practices.

What I’ve observed among the leadership and staff of our community is that the attitude has not been a black and white “This is our way and we don’t do it your way” type of attitude. Rather, I’ve observed an open attitude asking “What can we learn from the richness of all these other traditions?” The result has been a fascinating and unique experience. A traditionally “mainline” church operating in the gifts of the Holy Spirit typically found in gatherings labeled “Charismatic” or “Pentecostal.” A contemporary-style worship service that incorporates pieces of ancient liturgy and generally follows the ancient church calendar. A gathering that most casual observers would label “modern evangelical” and yet during the week many in our community pray the ancient, Divine Hours. During Lent you’ll find members of our community journeying through the Stations of the Cross. The whole thing has been less “either, or” and more “both, and.”

As I read today’s chapter this morning it struck me that Paul wrote to a fledgling gathering of believers in Corinth who were experiencing their own melting pot of diverse backgrounds and belief systems. The Christian faith came out of a typically rigid, black-and-white religious system of Judaism. Yet in Corinth there would have been believers who had come from pagan backgrounds and  knew nothing of Judaic traditions or beliefs. There would have been intellectual Greeks who were mostly steeped in philosophy and had little practical understanding of any religion. The result was a clash among the local gathering of Corinthian believers. Good Jews were horrified at the notion that the meat on their table may have been once sacrificed in a pagan temple. The former pagans and those who weren’t raised in the Jewish tradition couldn’t quite understand why, on Earth, it was that big of a deal.

Paul’s wisdom was the adoption of a “both, and” spirit rooted in Jesus’ law of love. Those who rolled their eyes at fellow believers from Jewish tradition (who couldn’t handle the idea of meat sacrificed to idols) were to respect their brothers and sisters who were. If the Abrahams are coming over for dinner do the hospitable thing and keep it kosher. Those of Jewish tradition were to respect that not everyone was raised in their life-long, black-and-white religious traditions. It’s not the same for them. Take off the Jr. Holy Spirit badge. Let it go. Take one for the team. Love one another in the diversity of our consciences and convictions.

I believe St. Augustine nicely summed up what Paul was getting at a few centuries later: “In essentials unity. In non-essentials liberty. In all things charity (i.e. love).” Whether or not you care that your rib-eye had been butchered in the Temple of Apollo is a matter of individual conscience. It’s a non-essential. Love and respect those believers in your midst who come from different backgrounds and may not believe the same way you do.

This morning I’m grateful for the diverse group of believers with whom Wendy and I regularly worship. From the “frozen chosen” believers from mainline backgrounds to the former Roman Catholics and all the different forms of baggage they carry to the Charismatics who spiritually bring in da noise and da funk. I admittedly don’t always understand, nor fully appreciate where they’re all coming from. We just shrug our shoulders, keep an open mind and spirit, and love, love, love, love, love. When it comes to stuff like this I always want to live, learn, love, and operate in “non-essential liberty.”

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