Tag Archives: Religion

Valuing “Others”

…do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you.
Romans 11:18 (NIV)

Last week on my flight home from a business trip I encountered a group of Greek Orthodox students led by their priest. Their priest, with his impressively long black beard, was wearing traditional vestments including a long black robe, skullcap, and large wooden cross painted with the likeness of the crucified Jesus. Standing out like a sore thumb, the priest was joking in Greek with his students as they waited for the plane. They all seemed to be having a good time.

I remember thinking to myself how much I would enjoy sitting down and having a conversation with the priest. A follower of Jesus, his branch of Christianity is much different than the one in which I was raised and in which I live and worship. I don’t think that should not alienate us from one another. Quite the opposite, we have much to learn from one another and our differences.

I am transported in memory this morning to a class I attended at a conservative Bible college for one semester after high school. My professor boastfully played a video tape of a debate he’d participated in on local television with a scholar from another denomination. Much like the Presidential debates we’ve been subject to of late, my prof was proud and confident while spouting his views. He took snide, insulting jabs at his mainline “opponent” and the debate escalated until it nearly ended up in blows. The professor smiled and laughed as he watched. He wanted us to see how his theology had, at least in his mind, won the day against his denominational rival. I remember feeling sick. Is this how Jesus wants us to think, feel, and act with a person who is, himself, a sincere follower of Jesus?

In today’s chapter, Paul makes it clear to the followers of Jesus in Rome that they are not to consider themselves superior to other branches of God’s family tree. And, in this word picture he’s not referring to other branches of Christianity but to the Jewish branches rooted in the same trunk. I think the spirit of Paul’s teaching was embodied (coincidentally, in the city of Rome) this past week when Pope Francis paid a visit to the the main Jewish synagogue there much in the same way as he’s visited our Orthodox branch (see featured image). If we as followers of Jesus are to not to consider ourselves superior to the Jewish branches of God’s family tree, how could my old college professor justify his antagonizing treatment of our fellow Jesus follower, no matter what his theology?

I  am thinking this morning of the diverse cross section of humanity I am privileged to know, to have known, and to consider friends. I am a a non-denominationalist at heart, but I know or have known friends who are Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, Methodist, Muslim, Quaker, Baptist, Episcopal, Sikh, Hindu, Athiest, Agnostic, Presbyterian, and those are just a few off the top of my head. Despite our differences, my life is better and more full having known each one of them. I am reminded of Paul’s command to the followers of Jesus in Philippi:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves…

“Others” is not qualified, by the way. It is universal.

More Fashionable Fig Leaves

Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law.Romans 3:20a (NIV)

We have been talking about the topic shame among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. It’s been a fascinating discussion and I’ve been amazed at all that is getting stirred up. Positive change doesn’t happen amidst complacency. Yesterday the observation was made that our shame can motivate all sorts of indulgent behaviors that act as spiritual drugs to numb out the core pain in our hearts. Many become addictions. All are ultimately destructive, but some are more socially acceptable than others.

God’s Message teaches that everyone sins and falls short. Along life’s road I’ve discovered that some sins are prettier than others. Sometimes sin starts out as good, even godly, behavior. But when a good behavior becomes indulgent, when it is motivated by self-serving need to cover up and keep up appearances, then it ceases to be good.

Hard work provides a living; being a workaholic starves relationships.

Eating is necessary for life; Gluttony hastens death.

Provision meets basic needs; materialism feeds unhealthy wants.

Organization gives life order; obsessive/compulsive behavior leads to chaos.

Morality brings peace to community; Self-righteousness brings division and conflict.

For most of my life I’ve observed that the institutional church has focused on the ugly sins (drugs, alcohol, sexual excess, crime, violence, et al) while largely ignoring the pretty ones. One of the things I most admire (and try to emulate) in Jesus was that he acted opposite of the institutional church. He had all sorts of grace, love and mercy for those mired in ugly sins while not excusing their behavior. His harshest words were for those who had indulged in pretty sins while claiming to be righteous.

Today I’m thinking about one of the core truths of Jesus’ message: That no one enters the Kingdom of God having earned their admittance. No matter how pretty our lives may appear. We’re all, every one of us, spiritually naked. Some of us simply wear more fashionable fig leaves.

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Today…Choose

Today you have obtained the Lord’s agreement: to be your God; and for you to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes, his commandments, and his ordinances, and to obey him.
Deuteronomy 26:17 (NRSV)

It was a cold February night in 1981, but I still remember it vividly. I had been born and raised in a Christian home. My parents took me to Sunday School and each summer I went to Vacation Bible School. Just a year or so before I had gone through confirmation class and was confirmed as a member of the church at the age of 13.

But, all of that had largely been going through the religious motions. It had been doing what my parents told me to do. It had been doing that which was expected of me. What happened on that February night had been unexpected, at least to me.

On that I night, I heard God in my spirit ask me to make my own choice and my own commitment to follow. It was spiritual and intimate and profound. It was powerful in a way that changed the map of my life journey, and that of others, in incalculable ways.

As I read today’s chapter, I found it fascinating that at the end of all the laws and regulations God brought the people to make a choice and a commitment to enter into an agreement. “Today,” God said. “Make a choice. Make a commitment.” It’s one thing to hang around God in a noncommittal sense and go along with familial or societal expectations of going to church or loosely identifying with religion. It’s another thing altogether to go all in; to make a choice to follow Jesus, and obey.

Today, I’m reminded of a choice and a commitment that I, myself, made nearly 35 years ago which, to this day, intimately shapes my life journey moment-by-moment, day-by-day, week-by-week, year-by-year, decade-by-decade. Today, I’m reminded of the words to the simple song that was playing on a cold February night in 1981:

I have decided to follow Jesus.
No turning back.

No turning back.

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Hangin’ with the Homeys

“But now, our God, what can we say after this? For we have forsaken the commands you gave through your servants the prophets when you said: ‘The land you are entering to possess is a land polluted by the corruption of its peoples. By their detestable practices they have filled it with their impurity from one end to the other. Therefore, do not give your daughters in marriage to their sons or take their daughters for your sons. Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them at any time, that you may be strong and eat the good things of the land and leave it to your children as an everlasting inheritance.’”
Ezra 9:10-12 (NIV)

I grew up in a great neighborhood on the northwest side of Des Moines. The neighborhood was packed full of young families, not only on our block but on the surrounding streets. There were a lot of kids running around the area, but you tended to hang with your homeys on the street you lived. You’d stick close to the kids on your own block. They were the nearest to you, you knew them well, and more importantly your parents knew their parents.

On occasion, kids from another street would migrate over to play and hang out. I can remember the rare occasion when my mom would tell me that certain kids were “bad news” and she didn’t want me hanging out with them. In fact, I was to steer clear of that kid altogether. Looking back, I know exactly why mom gave me the order and it was a wise thing to do. Some of those kids were, in fact, bad news.

In the melting pot of modern America, reading a chapter like today’s regarding the strict commands the Hebrews had not to intermarry with neighboring peoples can feel strange and prejudiced. “Pureblood” wasn’t an idea J.K. Rowling dreamed up for the Harry Potter series. The truth of the matter is that history is full of examples of peoples and socio-economic groups desperately trying to remain homogeneous; Sometimes rabidly so.

Ancient Egyptian royalty, who believed themselves divine, would sometimes only marry their own immediate family members to keep the bloodline pure. European royalty, who would only marry their children to other royals, became so intertwined that to this day the royal families of Europe are all related to one another. Living in a small Iowa town settled by a handful of Dutch families, I experience the same thing at any community social event as people constantly play a game we call “Dutch Bingo” discovering how community members are related to one another (and, they usually are).

I found it interesting, however, that as I read today’s chapter Ezra pointed to the motivation God had for telling them not to intermarry. Just like my mother back in the ‘hood, Father God knew that some of these other tribes were bad news. In many cases, the area religions were glorified excuses for sexual indulgence and got into some really nasty stuff including child sacrifice. The command not to intermarry was not some elitist attempt to keep bloodlines pure but about cultural and spiritual self-protection.

This morning I am once again reminded that reading ancient sections of the Great Story is often difficult in light of the immense changes of culture and civilization over time. As an adult, my parents would never tell me who I can and can’t hang out with, but as a child they knew that hanging with the homeys from our block was a wise thing and that I needed help in discerning that some kids were bad news. So it is that I believe God’s relationship with humanity changes as civilization matures and as the relationship itself has changed between God and humanity through the person and work of Jesus.

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featured photo: adwriter via Flickr

“I Do Not Think That Means What You Think It Means”

 

You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.
Galatians 5:4 (NIV)

I’ve always been a movie lover. There are movies that I can watch over and over and over again and each time I do I seem to catch little things I’d never seen or heard before.  Lines from the film seem to enter conversation. For Wendy and me, one of those movies is Princess Bride. A favorite line of our is when Inigo Montoya tells Vizzini, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.’

Among the community of Jesus’ followers the phrase “fallen from grace” is often used to refer to those who at one time were followers, but seemed to leave the path of faith to follow after sinful appetites. Other believers will say that this person has “fallen from grace.” In fact, these are the only circumstances in which I hear this phrase used. To quote Inigo Montoya, “You keep using those words. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Paul does not use “fallen from grace” to describe those who have left the faith to pursue sinful appetites! He uses the phrase to describe those who have left the path of simple faith and have pursued legalistic religiosity. In Galatia, those whom Paul described who had “fallen from grace” were those who were telling non-Jewish believers that they had to follow all the Jewish legal, religious rules.

This is a huge distinction. Walking the journey of faith is a balancing act from which you can stumble and fall in either way. Certainly you can stumble and pursue unhealthy appetites. That’s why Paul says a a few lines later: “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.” But you can also stumble and “fall from grace” by pursuing a path of rigid, religious rules in which you judge a person’s faith by how they measure up to your religious yard stick.

To quote another famous movie line that creeps into my conversation on a regular basis: “Daniel-san. Must learn balance.

The Path to Crazy

For only crazy people would think they could complete by their own efforts what was begun by God.
Galatians 3:3 (MSG)

While in college, I had two other guys with whom I began to share my life journey. We met on Saturday mornings in the Great Room of Volkman Hall right after PeeWee’s Playhouse. It was the first time in my life that I’d met regularly and intentionally with other guys just to talk about our respective life journeys. We waded into, what was for us at the time, the deep weeds of life. We shared openly about our hurts and confessed our sins to each other. For me, it was monumental.

When college was over, the three of us each took our own paths in divergent directions. One of the guys I have continued to keep up with through periodic phone calls and Facebook. As I read the chapter this morning, I struck me that the other friend went the of the “crazy” Galatians.

The third member of our trio contacted me a few years after college. He’d found his way to a group who taught him that only by following their rigid religious rules could anyone truly call themselves a follower of Jesus. He accused me of not measuring up, of not truly being a follower. It sounded insane; The kind of insanity Paul was confronting among the Galatians. Having once followed by simply believing, my friend was now convinced that only by following a strict set of doctrinal beliefs and behavioral rules could he be “holy” and acceptable to God.

Today, I’m offering sincere prayers for the other two members of my college trio. I have such good memories of Saturday mornings with my Judson College homies wrapped in blankets, listening for Pee Wee’s secret word, and moose slippers. It was an important stretch of life’s journey for me and I will forever be grateful for that time and these two companions. I trust that whatever crazy Galatians-like path my one friend followed, God has been faithful in helping him find his way back to the simplicity of Jesus’ message: faith, grace, love, and forgiveness.

Unshackled

This matter arose because some false believers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. Galatians 2:4 (NIV)

As an actor, I was trained to dig into a character’s motivation and what makes him or her tick. Why do they act the way they do? What is it that he or she wants? What drives him or her to do that? The result is that Wendy and I find ourselves constantly observing people and discussing what it is that seems to motivate them. It’s not about being critical, in fact it’s just the opposite. Rather than observing a person’s behavior and immediately judging the person based merely on our reaction to his or her behavior, we try to genuinely gain a better understanding of why that person behaves the way they do.

Wendy and I were just talking over the weekend about a person we have observed who seemingly chooses to be shackled to their legalistic, religious rules. Our discussion led to  that people who choose to be enslaved to legalistic, religious rules are motivated out of a fear of what others will think. It would seem that they are so worried about appearing good, pure, upstanding, holy that they will tie themselves up in knots to keep up the appearance of propriety (and will try to force their loved ones to do the same). The result? Uptight, joyless people enslaved to rules and perceptions.

This is exactly what Paul was touching on in today’s chapter. Experiencing the spiritual freedom to follow Jesus’ teaching without jumping through the legalistic hoops of Judaism, Paul now had to confront the uptight, joyless legalists who wished to put, and all other believers, him back in shackles. “No thanks,” I hear Paul saying and my own soul echoes the sentiment. I walked the path of legalism for several years and it twisted my soul to the point that love, joy, and peace were wrung out of my life – the very things that matter most.

To the legalistic, religious, rule following Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

The discussion Wendy and I had led us to feel sorry for our shackled friend. “We need to pray for them to experience real freedom,” Wendy said. Indeed. And, so we are.