Tag Archives: Religion

Marvel Movies, Meta-Communication and the Sermon on the Mount

“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
Matthew 5:48 (MSG)

Wendy and I went on a date earlier this week to see Logan, the latest movie from the increasingly prolific Marvel franchise. We generally enjoy what Marvel puts out, but Logan took the usually entertaining action story to a new level. It even made Wendy cry. All week long Wendy has been muttering, “Oh my gosh. A Marvel movie made me cry.

And, that was what made Logan a different action film. All week long Wendy and I have been discussing why we found Logan to be a different kind of action film. We’ve been trying to step back and understand what the writers did to reach our emotions as well as our adrenal glands.

From the very beginning the writers revealed our heroes Wolverine, Charles Xavier, and Caliban in weakness, neediness, fear and frailty. This catches us off guard. We’re so used to seeing them in their confidence delivering pithy action movie lines as braggadocio. Add to our threatened, all-too-human heroes a cute, emotionally torn little girl and innocent children on the run for their lives. Mix in antagonists who, rather than silly comic book evil, seem like the truly evil people who actually appear in our morning headlines and you have a “comic book” movie that takes things to a different level than we’ve experienced before. (Attention parents: The “R” rating also means the producers took the violent action, language and one needless second of nudity to a new level as well).

As an amateur writer and professional communicator I’ve learned to look at and analyze communication from a contextual perspective. Most of us get mired in the details of what is being communicated. I tend to pull back and look at the larger picture. Scholars call it meta-communication.

In this morning’s chapter we wade into one of the most famous messages ever delivered. It’s called Jesus “Sermon on the Mount.” Even for non-religious types who have never darkened the door of a church or cracked open a Bible,  the words and metaphors Jesus delivered in this message have become part of our everyday vocabulary:

  • Turn the other cheek
  • Light of the world
  • City on a hill
  • Salt of the earth

As I read today’s chapter I could easily get mired in the abundance of inspired teaching. Virtually every line and verse could be its own blog post. But, I found myself unconsciously doing what I do with Marvel movies. I stepped back to look at the bigger picture of how Jesus was communicating at a broader level.

Jesus starts out with an attention grabber. He lists those who are “blessed” in God’s economy and the list looks nothing like we expect it to look. We tend to think of those who are rich, strong, powerful, healthy, educated, famous, connected, athletic, and popular as “blessed.” Jesus’ list starts with “poor” and goes on to list the grieving, meek, merciful, pure, peacemakers and persecuted.

Having grabbed our attention by saying what we didn’t expect to hear, Jesus goes on to tell His listeners that we are the vehicle through which God’s kingdom will advance in this world. We are the light. We are the preservative. He doesn’t qualify it. He doesn’t limit it. He doesn’t add a litmus test. Every one of his listeners is included. This is in stark contrast to our commonly held belief that God’s work is reserved for ministers, pastors, seminary graduates, religious types, “good” people and those who don’t struggle, sin and avoid church like the plague.

So this is a different kind of message than the “toe the line and follow all the rules or you’re going to hell stuff.” Does this mean that all the rules don’t matter anymore? Does Jesus mean that those ten commands I’m so bad at and all that other stuff are obsolete and out the window?

Jesus anticipates this question and answers it with an affirmative, “No way.” But he then ups the ante and changes the discussion. We tend to think of religion in a set of behavioral rules and judgmental “don’ts” that we humans use as our self-righteous measuring stick. Jesus changes the conversation. It’s not about avoiding the legalistic “don’ts” but demonstrating the heart motivated “dos” that He is calling us to:

Not “don’t murder, but “do treat people with love and respect.”

Not “treat others the way they treated me” but “treat others the way you would have like to have been treated.”

Not get revenge, but choose to forgive and give people another chance.

Not “hate my enemies” but “show my enemies real love, patience, kindness, and self-control.”

Like going to a Marvel movie and experiencing something I didn’t expect, this morning I’m struck at how very different Jesus message really is. It reveals that the ways of God run in opposite directions than the ways of this world. God’s kingdom operates far differently than we are lulled into thinking by the flaws in what we may have been taught and our earth-bound paradigms . The economy of God’s kingdom works on a completely different set of principles than what we’re used to grappling with in the day-to-day marketplace of this world. What Jesus is communicating is different. If I get mired in the minutiae of my preconceived notions and foundational prejudices, I just might miss what He’s really saying.

He’s calling me to be different, too.

Featured image courtesy of 75933558@N00 via Flickr

 

Firing a Warning Shot Across Religion’s Bow

But when [John the Baptist] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Matthew 3:7-10

As Jesus appeared on the scene, the political landscape in the land of Palestine was a complex one. The Roman Empire occupied the territory and the occupational forces maintained law and order. Rome maintained regional civil ruler which gave the residents of the area a local authority. Herod the Great died a few years after he slaughtered all the baby boys of Bethlehem, and his rule was divided between his sons. If you were Jewish, however, your life and religion was subject to the authority of the High Priest and religious leaders who managed the Temple in Jerusalem. It operated much like a city-state under Roman authority. The temple had its own currency (thus the need for the money changers that Jesus would throw out) and economy.

Both Rome and Herod knew that the Jewish people held allegiance to their religion above any civil ruler. They’d been living under one foreign power or another for over 500 years. Medes, Persians, Greeks, and Romans had all occupied their land. The Jewish people had no allegiance to any of them. They High Priest and religious leaders ruled their people through their intricate system of laws and held the power of salvation by cutting people off from making their sacrifices or deeming their sacrifices unacceptable. Religion had become a powerful racket.

John the Baptist was a prophet, an outsider, and a troublemaker for the status quo. People flocked to the wasteland outside of Jerusalem to hear him preach a message that resonated with those marginalized by the Righteous Racket of the Temple’s power brokers. John told people to change their hearts, to repent of their sins, and he washed them in the waters of the Jordan rather than insisting they go pay exorbitant currency exchange rates to purchase “official” temple goods for sacrifice at the Temple. In other words, the more popular he became, the more he cut into Temple profits and represented a potential for uprising that threatened the power of the Sanhedrin’s powerful syndicate.

So, the High Priest sends envoys to check out this vagabond upstart. John wastes no time. He fires a prophetic shot across their bow. One is coming who will change everything. Tectonic plates in the spiritual realm are going to shift and the Temple’s racket will be no more. The first shot in a conflict is fired which will ultimately lead those same religious racketeers to pay 30 pieces of silver for Jesus’ betrayal and they will stop at nothing until He is executed.

Yet, just like Herod the Great in yesterday’s chapter, in God’s economy those who stop at nothing to cling to power will ultimately find it slipping from their grasp. The Jesus they executed would not stay in the grave, and His followers would “turn the world upside down” within a generation. At the end of that same generation the Romans would destroy the Temple in Jerusalem, and with it they would torch all of the Jewish genealogical records. If you can’t substantiate who is from which tribe then you can’t determine who the Levites are, or who descended from Aaron and qualified as a priest. The Temple and its sacrificial system were no more.

Come gather around people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
And if your breath to you is worth saving
Then you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changing

featured photo courtesy WallyG via Flickr

External Ritual Sans Spiritual Reality

‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
    ‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
    and you have not noticed?’

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
    and exploit all your workers.”
Isaiah 58:3 (NIV)

When people think about what it means to be religious, the mind is quickly filled with mental pictures of what religious-types do. Taking an hour or two each week to attend services, praying over meals or certain hours of the day, reading the Bible (and perhaps, blogging about it :-)), lighting candles, burning incense, and all the other rituals and trappings that commonly seem to accompany the religions of the world.

As someone who could easily be labeled a religious person for most of my earthly journey, I can tell you that there are metaphorical reasons for most of the rituals and trappings. Metaphor is the language of God, and it’s the best we have for trying to embody that which is beyond our finite ability to fully comprehend and communicate. God gives us many and diverse metaphors to express His person: wind, fire, water, gate, bread, lamb, lion, and etc.. God also provided tangible external metaphors and spiritual exercises to connect us with the spiritual internal realities He wants us to experience in oneness with Him: bread, wine, water, rest, sacrifice, prayer, fasting, and etc..

The problems comes, however, when the external ritualistic metaphors are carried out without the requisite spiritual realities being experienced. What was supposed to connect us is disconnected. Ritual and religion without repentance, redemption, and righteousness becomes empty and even dangerous.

In today’s chapter God speaks through the ancient prophet Isaiah to address this very disconnection. The people of Isaiah’s day had ritualistically gone without food and covered themselves in the clothes of mourning and repentance hoping for God to respond with blessing. God, however, points out that while they are acting out religious ritual in public, in private they have been self-centered, exploitive, greedy,  unjust, and selfish. There is a fundamental core disconnect between true, internal, spiritual oneness with God, and external, rote religious ritual. When that happens, religion becomes all of the ugly and profane things it has been guilty of across time.

This morning I’m reminded that if my spirit is not connected to Holy Spirit in ways that tangibly increase my love for, and actions towards, others (especially those who are different, down-trodden, beat-down, and in need), then all of my church going, hand-raising, worship singing, communion taking, prayer whispering, Bible reading, (and blog posting) is empty and worthless.

Lord, have mercy… please.

Changing Rules & Healthy Development

So then, the word of the Lord to them will become:
    Do this, do that,
    a rule for this, a rule for that;
    a little here, a little there—
so that as they go they will fall backward;
    they will be injured and snared and captured.
Isaiah 28:13 (NIV)

When our daughters were young children there were a lot of rules that had to be made, repeatedly communicated, and enforced. Children, by their very nature, lack of development and require these rules for their safety, instruction, and healthy development.

There came a time in their development, however, when the rules alone were insufficient. The girls’ growth and natural development as  human beings allowed them to think, reason, and act with greater and greater complexity and autonomy. The black and white world of a parent’s rules were trumped by their ability to think and act as individuals.

As a parent, I recognized that my role had to change. Instead of authoritarian rule maker I had to introduce reasoned instruction to my role as father. It was no longer wise or practical to use my parental authority as a battering ram of family law. While I had a license for policing, judging, and punishing my children at will, the black and white approach that worked so well on young children was inadequate for the task of dealing with teenagers and young adults.

In today’s chapter, Isaiah prophetically finds a similar situation with  the religious leaders of his day. As the shepherds of Israel they found it easier to parent their flocks by making endless black and white rules to control behavior rather than wade into the admittedly more difficult pedagogy, understanding, and demonstration of love, wisdom, mercy, and forgiveness.

The more things change the more they stay the same. Jesus faced off against the same human tendency toward legalism when he angrily told off the religious leaders of his day (cf. Matthew 23). Today, we still have religious leaders and their followers who reduce the power of divine love to the spiritually impotent authority of fundamentalist legalism.

I was by no means a perfect parent, and our daughters are quite capable of providing you with evidence of that. Nevertheless, I am enjoying watching each daughter, now in their mid-twenties, finding and developing their very own unique and life-giving relationship with God. This was not the result of rules and parental penal authority. I did my best to be an example and to show them the way, but I couldn’t legislate them into maturity and spiritual openness.

This morning I’m thinking about the many ways we live in a world where humans love to paint everyone into a black and white world. It’s quite useful for categorization and alienation, but I have found it useless at developing the things that God requires (in either grown children or adults):

to act justly
to love mercy
to walk humbly with God.

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featured image: doctorow via Flickr

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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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.