Tag Archives: Devotion

Judgment, Fruit Inspection, and Mixing Metaphors

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”
Matthew 7:15-20 (NIV)

For over 25 years I have been in the business of the behavioral analysis of human interactions (e.g. “Your call may be monitored for training and quality assurance purposes“). One time the Quality Assurance (QA) manager of a client told me that she gave an agent a score of “0” on her call. There were about 30 behavioral criteria analyzed in a given call so that the score reflected a generally accurate picture of what the customer did and didn’t experience in the interaction. To get a “0” an agent would almost have to pick up the phone and immediately stroke out, but even then the agent would be credited for not rushing the caller off the phone. Getting a zero is practically impossible if the agent had blood pressure and a pulse.

As I asked a few questions I soon discovered that the manager didn’t particularly like the agent who took the call she scored “0.” I suspect there were other employment or personality issues between the two. When the agent did something the manager didn’t like on the call, the manager took the opportunity to exercise her power and dismiss the agent and her performance as utterly worthless.

In today’s chapter Jesus continues His famous Sermon on the Mount with a direct command not to be judgmental of others. He goes on to illustrate what he means by describing those who will find a “speck” of something wrong about someone else which they use to justify their judgment, grudge or dismissive attitude towards that person. The judgmental person is, of course, ignoring the glaring 2x4s of their own personal flaws as they do this.

Later in the chapter Jesus is speaks specifically about “false prophets.” In Jesus day there were all sorts of religious teachers, cult leaders, and false prophets making all sorts of religious claims. One of the things we fail to realize is that teachers and preachers claiming to be the Messiah were quite common in Jesus’ day. Just like televangelists and cult leaders in our current era, it was a lucrative gig to convince the crowds you’re the Messiah.

Jesus then gives a word picture to help his listeners be discerning and objective in their Quality Assurance assessment of these “false prophets.” Look at the fruit of their teaching and ministry. Is it the things of God? Goodness? Humility? Generosity? Repentance? Reconciliation? Changed lives? Or is it the things of this world? Wealth? Arrogance? Pride? Power? Control? Hatred? Look at the outcomes and results of these prophets and teachers. That’s the way to know if they are servants of God or servants of themselves.

Along my life’s journey I’ve run into many of my fellow followers of Jesus who will proudly and loudly proclaim: “I’m not supposed to judge other people, but I am called to be a fruit inspector!” These individuals then quickly find a “speck” on the “fruit” of another person’s life and feel perfectly justified in claiming the power and authority to dismiss or condemn the whole tree for quality issues. They use Jesus’ call to be “fruit inspectors” of false prophets to justify their judgement of anyone and everyone’s “specks.”

This morning I’m thinking about the ways we mix up Jesus’ metaphors and twist His teaching to justify the very things he commands us not to do. Even as I write this I’ve got my own 2x4s staring me square in the face. I’m praying for mercy this morning, and confessing my own critical and judgmental attitude towards others. God’s Message tells us that the “fruit” of God’s Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control. In order to consistently produce a good crop there is regular regimen of cultivating, watering, tending, and pruning. I’ve been following Jesus a long time, but I constantly have some pruning to do.

Lord, have mercy on me.

 

Devoted to a Bread Maker

Their land is filled with silver and gold,
    and there is no end to their treasures;
their land is filled with horses,
    and there is no end to their chariots.
Their land is filled with idols;
    they bow down to the work of their hands,
    to what their own fingers have made.
Isaiah 2:7-8 (NRSV)

Last night Wendy and I were on the couch watching the Cubs game when we were surprised by the doorbell. There was a small group of high school youth from one of our area churches who were on a “bigger or better” scavenger hunt. They had with them a stuffed snowman they had procured from a previous, unsuspecting neighbor.  “Do you have anything that’s bigger or better than this that you’d trade for it?” the young people asked.

Our basement storage room (which is quite sizable) is filled with things we are not using and may not even remember we have. So is the garage attic, and the back of the garage. The answer to the young people’s question should really be: “Yes! How many options would you like us to give you among the infinite number of boxes, totes an bins full of things we own but don’t use?”

Then, as Wendy scoured the basement storage and I scoured the garage, the more nagging question became a reality. “What thing, of all this junk I don’t use and forget I even own, am I willing to part with?” It is so intriguing to find how much value we place, not on the object itself, but on the possession of it.

We offered the excited group of young people an old bread maker I found sitting in the garage, and Wendy put our new stuffed snowman with our stack of Christmas decorations. Everyone enjoyed a laugh and we wished the young people well on their scavenger hunt. I wonder what they ended up with.

I thought about last night’s experience as I listened to the prophet Isaiah (I listened to this morning’s chapter being read as I returned from a breakfast appointment this morning) describe the neighboring nations. He described their wealth, their riches and their possessions. They made cast idols and then bowed down “to the work of their hands.”

If find that we in 21st century western culture are quick to be dismissive at the thought of idolatry as described by the ancient prophets. People bowing down to a golden calf or a statue of some animal seems so silly. But, I’m not sure I’m really willing to see the point. What is “worship” but the act of being devoted to something? And what is “devotion” but the giving of time, attention and energy to something?

“…they bow down to the work of their hands.”

How much time, energy ad attention do I devote to the acquisition, maintenance, upkeep, renovation, and storage of “the work of our hands?” Perhaps I am devoted to things made by human hands. Perhaps what was called “idolatry” in 700 B.C., I simply call “success” in a consumerist culture.

This morning I am rolling my own eyes at myself, and the discomfort I feel with the questions I’m asking myself. I don’t like asking myself, “Am I willing to part with this old bread maker sitting in my garage which hasn’t been used in years?” and acknowledging that there’s a small voice in my soul that balks at giving it up. At the same time, I am feeling really good about giving it up and having it out of my garage. Perhaps it’s a mustard seed of change.

Lord, have mercy on this poor soul that bows down to things made with hands.

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Loving Devotion and Life-less Obligation

I have been on a pseudo-sabbatical from my daily chapter-a-day posts for the past month. I took the opportunity of late summer vacations both to the lake and to Kauai to rest from my normal routines, though when I rest from regular routines I have a penchant for developing new ones.. I’ve felt prompted, of late, to wade into the writings of the prophet Isaiah, which I’ve blogged through only once back in the spring of 2010. It’s rather daunting journey, merely for the length of it (66 chapters!). Like all lengthy journeys it affords both tedious plodding and memorable, breathtaking moments. Here we go.

One of the keys to reading the poetic verse and visions of the ancient prophets (nearly all of the prophetic writings of what we refer to as the Old Testament are penned as Hebrew poetry) are 1) the cultural and historic context of the time in which the author was writing and 2) the person and circumstance of the prophet himself.

Isaiah lived in the capital city of Jerusalem during a period of “the kings.” The twelve tribes of Israel had been united under the reigns of Saul, David, and Solomon, but then split in two during the reign of Solomon’s son. The southern kingdom was made up of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin and had its capital in Judah. Judah was loyal to the house and line of David. The northern kingdom (Israel) was made up of the rest of the tribes and claimed Bethel as its capital and religious center. Israel’s monarchy was continually a free-for-all which made for a lot of political intrigue.

Like all great books, the beginning introduces the overarching themes. In today’s opening chapter Isaiah sets the scene in Jerusalem where Solomon’s temple was the center of Israel’s sacrificial system. Over the last few months I blogged through the book of Leviticus, in which set the sacrificial system into being as established through Moses. The dutiful, religious people of Judah continue to carry out their rituals, festivals and sacrifices. But, there’s a problem.

Isaiah gets right to the crux of the matter. The people were carrying out their religious duties, but had forsaken the heart of their relationship with God. They were like a spouse who manages the daily household routines of marital and family obligation while their heart wanders in desire for others. God wanted their obedient actions to be motivated out of love and desire, not rote obligation void of love and devotion.

I have confessed to being a person of routines, and this morning I am thinking about the religious routines in my own life. My daily quiet time and blog post are a routine. Attending church services on Sunday is a routine. Giving financially to my local church and other ministries is a routine. But, are these coming from a heart-felt love and devotion to God, or are they merely Life-less robotic religious behaviors? Do my actions point God toward a living love and desire within my heart or, like the people of Isaiah’s day, have my religious behaviors become absorbed by the rotting stench of my hypocrisy?

Dealing with that stain and stench is another major theme of Isaiah’s poetic visions, which he establishes in today’s chapter:

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
    remove the evil of your doings
    from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
    learn to do good;
seek justice,
    rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
    plead for the widow.

Come now, let us argue it out,
    says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
    they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
    they shall become like wool.

 

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A Worthwhile Reminder

Nothing that a person owns that has been devoted to destruction for the Lord, be it human or animal, or inherited landholding, may be sold or redeemed; every devoted thing is most holy to the Lord.
Leviticus 27:28 (NRSV)

Today we wind down our journey through the ancient laws of Leviticus. The final chapter is the ancient Hebrews’ rules as it related to charitable giving above and beyond the regular sacrifices already covered. The ancient Hebrews could dedicate items, even servants or children, to God’s work at the tabernacle (the giant tent which served as nomadic temple) and later the temple that took its place.

For example, in the first chapter of 1 Samuel, Hannah gives birth to little Samuel and dedicates the boy to the Lord. She gives Samuel to the temple for the work of the Lord. In ancient days this would have been a precious gift, not only from an emotional point-of-view, but also from a financial standpoint. The culture of that day attached great worth to boys as they would grow to become warriors, hunters, merchants, and providers. Hannah could have considered Samuel to be security for her retirement, a son who would care for her and provide for her in her old age. Yet she gave her “one and only son” to God.

So, let’s say that a few years later Hannah’s husband kicks the bucket and leaves her destitute. She has second thoughts about giving Samuel to the work of the temple and returns with “givers remorse.” She asks for the boy back. According to the code of Levitical law in today’s chapter, such a “redemption” could be made. Depending on Samuel’s age at the time of redemption, Hannah would have to pay the redemption fee. In many cases, depending on what gift was being redeemed, a 20 percent redemption tax was added.

Then there were items that could never be redeemed. If a foreign idol had been taken as plunder during a battle of conquest, that idol was “devoted to destruction” and had to be destroyed. The person who plundered it had to give it to the priests to be destroyed and couldn’t redeem it. That’s why, in the story of Joshua, a man named Achan got into such trouble. He took plundered idols for himself and didn’t give them over for destruction. That was “against the law” and Achan paid the penalty for it.

This morning my mind is mulling over many things. I’m kind of glad this journey through Leviticus is over. It’s definitely not “feel good” devotional material that pumps my heart full of inspiration at the start of the day. I confess I’m ready to move on. At the same time, I’m thankful for the layers of depth that Leviticus provides to other events and sections of God’s Message. The stories of Samuel, and of Achan, have new layers of understanding for me now.

As I think about summing things up, Leviticus reminds me that God is a God of order, despite our human penchant for making a chaotic mess of life and creation. Leviticus beckons me to seek the Creator’s natural order when life and relationships are in chaos. And, for me, that’s a worthwhile reminder.

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Inflection Points

Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law. Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” The Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for this is a holy day. Do not grieve.” Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them. Nehemiah 8:9-12

Along life’s journey I’ve grown increasingly fascinated with words. Words, in and of themselves, are creative expression. At the root level they are metaphors. A series of squiggles on a page that correspond to a series of vowels and consonants which mean something to any who can read or understand the language. Words come in and out of fashion. Words you never heard before suddenly become “buzzwords.”

Over the past couple of years, I’ve heard the words “inflection point” used a lot in business. It’s become a bit of a buzzword in some circles. It’s a great little term from the world of calculus. It describes the point at which a curve moves from being concave (downward) to convex (upward), or vice versa. Businesses have adopted the term to describe the point at which a trend (in sales, for example) stops rising and starts declining, or vice versa. The inflection point is the point of change. It’s a change of direction.

I think the term “inflection point” has strong spiritual connotations, as well. God’s Message repeatedly calls people to make a sudden change of direction. Turn from darkness towards the Light. Turn from evil ways and embrace that which is good. Turn away from hatred and pursue Love. Turn from sin and pursue God. Spiritual journeys are all about inflection points.

In today’s chapter, the walls of Jerusalem have been rebuilt. The gates are back in place. As a way of celebrating, Ezra brings out the scrolls with the law of Moses. It’s likely that the words of the law of Moses had not been widely read or heard publicly since Jerusalem and Solomon’s temple had been destroyed some 150 years earlier. Many who lived in Jerusalem may never have heard it. Perhaps no one in their families had heard it since the days of their great-great grandparents.

The reading of God’s story and the law of Moses becomes a spiritual inflection point. The people realize how far they have spiritually wandered away from God’s path. They weep. They grieve. Their hearts turn towards God.

I love the response of the Levites to the people. “Don’t grieve. Feast. This is a moment of joy!” I can’t help but think of the prodigal son returning to his father in humility and shame, and the father’s contrasting expression of joy. That’s the way spiritual inflection points work. They are a moment when grief and turn to joy.

This morning I’m thinking about all of the different metaphorical ways the term “inflection point” applies to life. I’m thinking about the inflection points I’ve experienced, both positively and negatively. Fiscal inflection points, relational inflection points, vocational inflection points, and spiritual inflection points. I’m meditating on the inflection points that still need to occur in my spiritual journey. Followers of Jesus often talk about their conversion as the inflection point of their life. While I certainly look back on that moment as monumental, I’ve found that following Jesus is a never ending series of inflection points. I don’t mature or progress unless I experience them.

Inflection point. Good words.

The Significance of One Word

For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.
Ezra 7:10 (NIV)

One of the things I’ve learned in the process of writing scripts is that words are not chosen idly. When writing what a character says, the writer is trying to capture and communicate that character’s voice. With an eye to what the story is trying to communicate as a whole, the author often chooses a word very carefully for a foreshadowing or subtle thematic effect. Actors, myself included, are notorious for playing fast and loose with the script (e.g. “I know it’s not word perfect, but I got the gist of it!“). Writing has made me a better actor as it’s made me pay more attention to the script and to be more honoring of the words the playwright crafted.

So it is that over the years I’ve increasingly found that when I’m reading God’s Message in the morning I experience a word jumping off the page at me. I try to pay careful attention when this happens because it generally leads me down important paths of thought and meditation. This morning it was the word devoted that jumped off the page at me.

Devotion is not just about duty or obedience. Devotion carries with it a component of the heart. There is a yearning and desire that comes with devotion. I thought what a great legacy Ezra left behind to be known as a person who devoted himself to studying, living, and teaching the earliest chapters of God’s Message.

This morning I find myself asking the question, “to what or whom am I devoted?”

Tom is devoted to _________________________.

When others observe my life, if they are asked to fill in the blank, what would they say? Am I devoted to things that matter? Things that make a positive difference in the lives of others? Things that are eternal? Or, am I devoted to silly things that are temporal and of no consequence? To what or whom am I devoted

A Son, Not a Servant

But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.
Galatians 4:4-7 (NIV)

I was blessed to grow up in a strong, nuclear family. The whole concept of adoption was fairly foreign to me. It was through a college roommate that I was first exposed to the realities of adoption. Married to Wendy, I have gained a greater understanding and respect for those families who have walked the path of adoption.

Wendy was adopted, twice. Her family includes five adopted siblings when you count her father adopting her. Family pictures with Wendy’s family are awesome. It’s a motley crew, to be sure. It has been great for me to be a part of their family. It has opened up for me a whole new area of understanding.

In today’s chapter, Paul uses the metaphor of adoption to discuss the spiritual relationship we have with God. Jesus established the metaphor after His resurrection. Before His death He referred to the disciples as “friends,” but when the ladies met the risen Christ Jesus told them, “go and tell my brothers that I am ascending to our Father.” The implication was clear, when we follow Jesus and receive Him into our hearts we are spiritually adopted as a child of God. We become co-heirs with Jesus.

An adopted child is not a servant. An adopted child is not “less than” his or her siblings.  An adopted child does not continually earn his or her membership in the family. And still, many of us who follow Jesus act as if we are in the employ of God rather than the fully adopted children of God. We work, we strain, we worry about our performance review. That’s not love, that’s indentured servitude.

Today, I’m thankful for my adoption into God’s family. It’s high time I stopped clinging to the idea that I’m in God’s employ and started embracing the reality that I am God’s heir.