Tag Archives: Religion

We Love Our Rules

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say: No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God.
Leviticus 21:16-17 (NRSV)

One of the things that I must continually remind myself as I read through the ancient laws of Moses: They didn’t work.

The rules did provide a moral and religious framework for guiding Hebrew society. One could argue that the ideals presented in the chapters we’re reading provided an idealistic goal for Hebrew society to shoot for. The rest of history, however, proves that they continually fell short of the mark. The books of history are a record of the Israelites perpetually doing the things they knew they shouldn’t do. That’s why there are so many books of prophets, because God would always have to call them back to repentance.

One of the cornerstones of theology for followers of Jesus is this very fact. You can’t work to earn salvation because no person perfectly executes the perfection God requires. No human being can reach moral perfection of their own human effort. We are broken people who perpetually do things we know we shouldn’t do and refuse to do things we know we should. All of these rules for moral and spiritual perfection taught us how we couldn’t do it on our own, in and of ourselves. We need a savior.

This morning I’m thinking about the ways I have seen and experienced the institutional church and religious organizations trying to lay Levitical-type legalistic rules over the grace of Jesus’ sacrifice. “You are saved by grace through faith,” we often say and then continue with: “and you must do this and that and not do that or this because it says so in God’s law.” I find it fascinating that God provides forgiveness and salvation freely to anyone who will simply accept it, regardless of our moral standing, and we still want to run back to embrace the religious rules we’ve never been able to keep in the first place.

Silly and Sad Places

I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair. I made them take an oath in God’s name….”
Nehemiah 13:25a (NIV)

Along my journey I have, on occasion, found myself amidst those who are legalists as in their faith. In my youth there was a time when I embraced a narrow, legalistic view of faith and life. I learned a lot of valuable life lessons from the experience.

I spent one semester attending a legalistic Bible college. Everything was controlled and dictated by the administration. There were rules about how to could and couldn’t dress. There were rules about how you could and couldn’t wear your hair. There were rules about what you could and couldn’t and drink. There were rules about words, rules about relationships, rules about beliefs, rules about time, rules and there were rules about rules. Behind all there rules were ominous administrators and faculty members constantly and vigilantly on the lookout for rule breakers who would be swiftly punished and branded. As an off-campus commuting student I was immediately branded as suspect as I spent so much time out of the school’s strict control. I found it a silly and sad place.

Life for a legalist exists inside a black and white world defined by a list of religious “dos” and moral “don’ts.” It’s a maddening existence in which the things which are strictly forbidden become even more tempting. The stakes on controlling behavior continually rise. Eventually the rules become more perverse than the behaviors they’re trying to avoid.

That’s what I observe in today’s chapter. Nehemiah tackled a huge project in the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem and the restoration of the temple. Bricks and mortar are one thing. Now he’s tackling a much messier task of trying to modify and control human behavior. He’s trying to make people tow the line with regard to Judaic religious laws. When you get to the point that you’re cursing people, beating people, pulling out their hair, and forcing them to take oaths then you’ve definitely joined the legalistic elite. Nehemiah even has a perverse sense of earning some kind of spiritual merit badge for being God’s behavior police. Four times he repeats his mantra of “Remember me God.”

This morning I find myself thinking about Paul, who came out of the same legalistic Jewish tradition as Nehemiah. In fact, Paul at one time acted much like Nehemiah. When Paul encountered Jesus he had been on his way to the city of Damascus. It was there he desired to arrest, convict, imprison and (he hoped) sentence to death those rule breaking Jews who were following Jesus. He’d already successfully put one of Jesus’ rule breaking followers to death. Jesus changed all that, and within a few years Paul was leading the charge in embracing non-Jewish Gentiles and directing followers of Jesus away from strict Jewish tradition.

I am so glad that my days of legalism are behind me. I’m thankful that, somewhat like Paul,  my path led away from silly and sad places where legalism reigns and sucks the Life out of you. This morning I’m grateful to have journeyed to a place where freedom and grace give rise to Life-giving good things.

A Spirit of the Law Kinda Guy

Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.”
John 9:16a (NRSV)

In the creation poem at the beginning of the Great Story lies an interesting detail. The universe is created in six days, and then the Artist takes a day off and rests. The ancient Hebrew word for this day of rest, transliterated into English, is “Sabbath.” When God eventually hands down the Top Ten Rules for society to Moses, this day of rest makes its way on the list.

The spirit of the law is easy to understand. We all need rest. A margin in life that roughly measures .143. Take a break. Stop the labor. Take a deep breath. Take a nap. Recharge. Refresh your mind and spirit by doing something different than you’ve done all week. Connect with God. Connect with loved ones. Laugh. Love. Converse. Feast. Worship. Ponder. Re-Create the Creator’s example.

Along this life journey I have observed that it is part of the human condition to take a rule of Spirit and strain it into human legal code, interpreted into volumes of contractual minutiae. And, that’s exactly  what happened over time with God’s rule of rest. A rule designed to foster Life and health became a religious quagmire of black and white thinking. Life-giving rest gave way to Life-sucking religious rules.

I find it fascinating that the more the religious leaders complained about Jesus healing people on the Sabbath day, the more He seemed to do it. It had been one of the sticking points that they had with Jesus since the beginning of His ministry. Jesus continued to “break the law” by healing people on the Sabbath which went against Volume 3, Chapter 9, Paragraph 2, Section (B), Sub-section (c), Line 4 of their multi-volume legal code on keeping the Sabbath. And so, Jesus kept sticking it in their eye by healing people on the Sabbath again and again. I offer you the blind man in today’s chapter as exhibit A.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. I live in a community that was founded on, and is steeped in, religious Christianity. For generations our community had its own multi-volume set of legal code on Sabbath keeping. In our local fellowship of Jesus’ followers it was referenced just this past Sunday. As I said, it seems to be part of the human condition.

As a follower of Jesus, I find myself increasingly inclined to follow Jesus’ example. I once was more of a letter of the law kind of guy. Maybe, with age, my eyes are tired of trying to read all the fine print and keep it straight. Or, maybe I’m actually still growing in Spirit. I like to think it’s the latter. I’ve become more of a Spirit of the law kind of guy with regard to rules of Spirit. (Plus, I kinda like occasionally sticking it in the eye of religious legalists)

 

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featured image by mrtindc via Flickr

 

The Great Debate

Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.”
John 8:58 (NRSV)

In yesterday’s post, I got to thinking about the events John describes in the context of our own contemporary presidential election in the United States. I’d like to extend the metaphor today because you can’t truly understand the context of the events in today’s chapter without understanding that there is an on-going political debate taking place. The issues being debated are the very two questions with which I ended yesterday’s post:

  1. Who is Jesus?
  2. What do we do with Him?

It’s also important to understand that the party officials, the Jewish religious leaders, were all lawyers. They acted much like Supreme Court justices interpreting our Constitution, only they were legal experts interpreting the Law of Moses (all the religious rules and regulations in the Books of Exodus, Leviticus, et al). These lawyers were also in political, social, and economic control of the Jewish people under Roman occupation, and of the Temple. These legal, religious, political officials were threatened by Jesus for a number of reasons.

First, Jesus was highly critical of these political, religious lawyers (in today’s debate Jesus calls them children of the Devil). Second, Jesus’ teaching and actions were a tectonic paradigm shift that cut against the grain of the ruling party’s conservative, narrow interpretation of what God desires and expects of His followers. This threatened their thought control over the populace. Finally (and getting to the real crux of the matter), Jesus was also extremely popular and it was creating social unrest that threatened these lawyers political and social control. Their power, authority, and economic cash cow was threatened (think of it like one of our political parties who might lose their control over Congress).

And so, as Jesus is in the Temple teaching, these legal/political/religious party officials send waves of lawyers to debate Jesus on a variety of issues. Their goal is to trap Jesus into saying something that would give them authority, according to their almighty law, to arrest and kill the young troublemaker from Nazareth.

First, they send a woman caught in adultery who, by law, should be stoned to death for her crime. The legal team, however, seemed to forget that the law calls for both the woman and her adulterous lover to be condemned. Jesus, however, refuses to debate the jots and tittles of the legal issues. He simply highlights the accusers own sin and hypocrisy, publicly shaming them into abandoning their blood fury.

The next legal team questions  the claims Jesus has been making about Himself on the grounds that the law requires two witnesses. Jesus counters that God, the Father, is His second witness. He adds that if the lawyers would get their heads out of the law and sought to  know the Father (author of the law), they would understand this.

Finally, the lawyers ask Jesus point-blank who He is. Jesus once again offers cryptic answers to the direct question, stating that they will know for sure “when you have lifted up the Son of Man” (a prophetic foreshadowing of Jesus’ own crucifixion).

The audience is impressed with Jesus’ dismantling of the lawyers’ arguments. The debate is going Jesus’ way, and many of the Jews in the audience decide to switch their party affiliation and join Jesus’ camp.

The debate now shifts and Jesus goes on the offensive. Like all good politicians, the ruling legal officials liked to align themselves with the beloved, historical pillars of the party. They were known for calling themselves “children of Abraham” and draping the mantel of Abraham’s legacy around their shoulders. Jesus questions their hypocrisy, asking why they have been in their smoke filled back rooms plotting to kill Him.

The debate quickly spirals into back and forth name-calling (sound familiar?). The lawyers hold fast to their “Children of Abraham” branding. Jesus counters by accusing them of being murderers. The lawyers raise their own Abraham claim and double down, claiming that God is their father. Jesus counters that the devil is, in fact, their father because, like the devil, the evidence proves they are all liars and murderers. The lawyers, now really pissed off, counter by calling Jesus a demon and then throw in a racial epithet by throwing out rumors (from the internet, no doubt) that Jesus is a actually a half-breed Samaritan.

Jesus then shifts the debate once more, this time claiming that He personally knows their beloved Abraham (to wit: “I knew Abraham. Abraham is a friend of mine. You, sir, are no child of Abraham.”), and that Abraham rejoiced to see Jesus’ take up His campaign. The legal team scoffs. This is ludicrous and insane. Abraham lived over a thousands years ago. How could Jesus actually know Abraham?

Jesus ends the debate with the most headline grabbing, jaw-dropping, topic trending statement of all. Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am.” Only, in the Hebrew language Jesus used the word that is transliterated into English: “Yaweh.” Yahweh is the name God gave to Moses on the mountain when Moses asked who He was (See Exodus chapter 3). Yaweh was the unutterable, sacred, holy name of God. To the Jews, Yaweh was forever to be considered “He-who-must-not-be-named.” In saying “Yaweh” Jesus both directly claimed that He was God and gave his political opponents their legal grounds to pounce. And, pounce they did. The lawyers suddenly became executioners. They immediately picked up the stones (perhaps the dropped stones intended for the adulterous woman) to carry out swift justice.

Today, I am reminded that I am reading the testimony of a member of Jesus’ own inner circle, John, who was a first-hand original source witness of this debate. I am struck by the fact that Jesus seemed to foreknow the way these events were going to play out, and ultimately contributed to their outcome. I am, once again, reminded that Jesus claimed to be God. If Jesus wasn’t lying, and if He wasn’t crazy, then I’m left to accept that He was exactly who He claimed to be. And, I’m left to make up my own mind about the second issue of the debate: What am I going to do with Him?

 

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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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