Mangered: Todei or Tomarrow

Bonus!  We only have audio of the teaching today - check out the podcast.  We did enjoy the San Francisco Brass Company - enjoy their version of Joy to the World.

Alien abduction.  We visited our kids last weekend to hear them perform in two concerts – one on a Thursday evening, the other the following Monday evening.  That left us an entire weekend to fill.  My family has a deep fondness for Disneyland, so we spent Saturday and Sunday reliving old memories while we created new ones.  Pretty early on, however, we were shocked by our daughter Laiken’s behavior.  When we rode Thunder Mountain Railroad, she informed us that she would be riding along with the rest of us.  Laiken, historically, has never wanted to ride coasters.  I’m pretty sure Lynne and I fostered her fear by pushing her to try it too early.  So, for her to offer herself to this sacrifice without coercion, bribery, or guilt-tripping made us wonder, who are you and what have you done with our daughter? 

We all have identifying characteristics that make us who we are and signal to others that its really us.  I bet you have some things unique to your person, but I am certain there are things about you that betray your heritage – where you’ve come from.  Skin tone.  Surname.  Language.  Accent.  Music preferences.  Fashion.  How you decorate your home.  What you do for Christmas.  What are some of those things for you that are very specific to just you?  What about things that reach back to your heritage?

Todei or Tomarrow:  The Divinity/Dust Tension.  We know there are things that tip us off to who we are and where we’ve come from.  What’s your take on Jesus?  I grew up in church.  Given that both of my grandpas and my father were pastors, you can imagine that I grew up well versed in the faith.  I knew the Christmas story from day one of my life.  Mary, always translated as a betrothed virgin, was told she would become pregnant with the Messiah via the Holy Spirit of God so that the child would be extra holy.  Joseph, after hearing she was pregnant and having trouble believing her explanation, was going to end the relationship as graciously as possible until he got a vision from God confirming her story.  The wedding was still on, but he didn’t get to know Mary, as it were, until after Jesus was born.  Then they had a bunch more kids. 

This story always served to create a certain amount of awe in me.  How mysterious!  God breaking into our dusty existence on planet earth to come in the flesh, to create a unique person who would save the world from the hopelessness and despair caused by living under the curse of sin.  The context that was generally provided for me – and the prevailing message that still commands the most airtime today – is that the old sacrificial system wasn’t adequate, and something needed to be done.  So, Jesus was gifted to humanity to become a final sacrifice to claim for the forgiveness of sins, in order that humanity might gain God’s favor now and, most importantly, after we die.  Sacrifice meant death.  Jesus came primarily to die in a particular way to satisfy God’s need for justice.  As it was communicated to me, Jesus’ birth was clearly foretold in the Jewish scriptures, and everything lined up in his coming.  God pulled off one incredible miracle out of love for the whole world.  A great gift.  The first century context that was steeped in the sacrificial system of appeasing the gods would readily get their brains around it.  And it was easy enough to simply adopt the same way of thinking because so much of the arguments for Jesus in the early church letters referenced this way of thinking.  Merry Christmas!  The whole thing is a beautiful package for humanity to open year after year.

It is really important to immerse yourself in the first century sacrificial system context to fully appreciate how the message of Jesus’ life and, more importantly, his death were understood.  Embrace it as fully as possible to appreciate what this facet of Good News was communicating to the original audience.  This enables us to join the untold hundreds of millions of people who have gone before us who celebrated Jesus’ birth from that vantage point.  Join them in the celebration.

I mention this because for many people, the entire birth narrative, when placed under a broader academic microscope, reveals some challenges to traditional, less critically-informed orientations to the story.  For instance,

·       The prophecy about the virgin birth actually was about a young woman who lived centuries before Jesus was born.  She was no virgin; she was married.  The Hebrew word in the original prophecy doesn’t give us “virgin”, but “young woman.” 

·       The two birth narratives (one in Matthew, the other in Luke), do not jibe – the geography doesn’t line up right – one or both of the stories is factually off.  Attempts have been made to reconcile it, but they are not particularly satisfactory.

·       Essentially Jesus, at face value, was a demigod.  This held no place in Jewish theology at that time or since.  That idea was prevalent in other cultures and theologies, but not Judaism.  The idea that God would deliver the long-awaited Messiah through a means that ran completely counter to such a core Jewish understanding is unthinkable.  This isn’t a mere scriptural interpretation issue.  This is a radical shift of theology that would not likely happen or be embraced by a Jewish audience.

·       Now that we are far removed (in our culture, anyway) from a sacrificial system of faith, the very idea that God would create Jesus simply to become the perfect, blemish free Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world via a horrific, torturous death to satisfy God’s need for retribution is more than ugly.  It’s abhorrent.  This is not an attractive image of God.  Who would want to do life with that kind of tyrant?

·       In a book offering two differing views of the central character of Christmas (The Meaning of Jesus, 170), N.T. Wright, one of the most revered-by-conservatives Jesus scholars admitted that if we never had the birth narratives in our Bible, it would not impact his faith.  The virginal birth was not really the point to latch onto.  Whoa!

Because of the above concerns (and more), a lot of people opt for Santa Claus over Jesus.  The story itself appears to be so vulnerable that it cannot hold weight.  So they walk away from that celebration of Christmas and instead focus on expressing love to people in various ways, including giving gifts.  “Drop the divinity thing,” skeptics say under their breath, “it makes you look naïve.”  Holding onto the demigod idea is great for movies, but not for real life.  How can we relate to a demigod, really?

Dropping Jesus’ divinity may be going too far, however.  Perhaps there is another way to think about it that is deeply relevant to us today, a way that allows the manger to stay in our celebration.

At the very beginning of the Bible we have the book of Genesis, a story of beginnings that lays out a Jewish understanding of the nature of God and the world.  At the very beginning of the book, two stories written by two different author groups provide two renderings of how humanity came to be.  The first story simply says that God created male and female in Gods’ image, and that in contrast to all of the good things God created before humanity, these image-bearing creatures were very good. God is seen as a proud parent.  The second, more primitive creation story imagines God creating man from dust, like a potter with clay.  Once made, God “breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostril’s, and the man became a living person” (Genesis 2:7 NLT).  First, dirt.  Then, breath.  Dust brought to life by divinity.  Deity and marrow.  This is how the Jewish culture understood human beings: dusty yet divine; divinity and dust; walking incarnation.  All of humanity has this origin.  By extension, we remain a mixture of divinity and dust.  Centuries into the Jewish nation’s story when things weren’t going well at all, a prophet is given a vision of a valley of dry bones.  God asks the prophet, “Can these bones live?”  The prophet Ezekiel is invited to call the breath of God into play.  Once the breath-wind of God comes, what was mere dust before comes to life (Ezekiel 37).  A mix of divinity and dust.

As I said before, we need to let the birth narratives be what they were for the original audience with all of its complications intact.  But in terms of relating to the story now, and relating to Jesus more specifically, what if we look upon Jesus, the Son of Man (as he preferred to be called – “everyman”), as divinely infused dust (John 3)?  What if that is a better way to think about divinity?  What would that or our understanding of Jesus?  What would that mean for our understanding of ourselves and every other human being on the planet?

Some might go all John Denver and take this to mean that our divine-dustiness implies that we are gods, and that one day we will get out own planets to rule.  That’s certainly alluring, I suppose, but appears to be a bit arrogant as well.  Being created, infused, and animated by God doesn’t make the created the creator.  That might sound good to some, but it flies in the face of Jewish thought as much as the demigod idea does.

A perhaps healthier way to really think about our dusty divinity is with great humility, which requires tremendous vulnerability.  We’re all pretty clear, I think, on our dustiness.  We see plenty of examples of our dirt in the world around us and up close and personal.  To think that we have divinity in our DNA, that perhaps we are animated by the same Life force we call God can change how we think about ourselves.  We’re not just dirt clods.  We are people of tremendous possibility and potential and power.  We need not be defined any longer by the dirt of our past because we are infused with the divine.  At least in part, I think this was Jesus’ growing understanding of himself and others.  It’s why he was so strong, so full of the Spirit to heal and teach and call out dusty expressions of faith.  It’s also why I think he looked upon the outcast with great affection and attention – he saw in them what nobody else could (including themselves): the breath of God.  Divinity in the mix of dust.

I think Jesus realized that this great potential would remain unrealized potential is he didn’t cultivate it.  Jesus was clear, I think, that he needed to recognize his vulnerability as a human being, that we tend toward pride and apathy pretty easily.  I believe he was a lifelong learner and meditator because he knew that left to his own dustiness, he would miss the divinity.  He cultivated the divine in his dust.

This, by the way, is one massive reason why we do things like come to church, discuss stuff in community, read the Bible and related works, and meditate: to form our minds more in divinity than dust.  You may today feel some inner peace at the notion that you don’t have to think of yourself as a dirt clod anymore.  But inner peace is just the beginning.  Hope after death is just the beginning.  Forgiveness of sin is just the beginning.  You have inherent divine potential because divinity courses through your veins and fills your lungs with every breath.  Left alone, it won’t do much for you or anybody else.  Cultivated, however, it can change your world and the entire world toward the better.

You want world peace?  You want to see things change for the better?  You want to see your family system health up?  You want to see your work environment shift toward health?  You want to see everything, absolutely everything impacted by grace?  Cultivate what is already within you.

How do you approach this?  Paul gives us a clue in a letter to the church in Philippi:

Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn't think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn't claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that: a crucifixion. – Philippians 2:5-8 (Message)

May you cultivate the divine within your dust.  May you be mangered in the way Jesus was, deeply humbled by what was taking place within him, so much so that he spent his life working out what it meant.  May you see the world redeemed as you do.

Mangered: The Foundation of Christmas

Today kicks off the beginning of a new Christmas series, "Mangered".  We will be looking at a range of things that I think contributed to Jesus growing into the person he came to be.  I am wondering if we learn from him if we might grow into the person we are here to be?

Today we get help from an outside expert on one of the key issues underlying Jesus' ethos: vulnerability.  I believe vulnerability is the foundation of Christmas - it's what makes the story so compelling, so sticky, and so applicable to us today.  World-renown social researcher Brene Brown offers the bulk of the teaching this week in a TED Talk she gave on this very subject..  Enjoy!

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Sweet Water, the U-Turn, and about 4 ½

Today, a twist.  In an attempt to help you experience a fuller, deeper thanksgiving, I’m inviting you to do some reading, reflecting, responding, and for kicks, a few videos to help you feel thankful.

Sweet Water.  Take a moment and read Luke 7:36-50.  The story is pretty straightforward, as is the point Jesus was making.  Jesus made the woman feel completely valued, welcome, respected, safe, whole.  God does this for everybody, including you.  Is there anybody in your life that has acted Jesus-like in that regard, someone who has accepted you “warts and all”?  It would probably be inappropriate to weep on their feet, wash them with your hair, and anoint them with oil, but when was the last time you thanked them in some way for being such a loving, friendly support in your life? Take a few minutes to think about that.  Then cap off this moment by enjoying this peach from the vault, Thank You For Being A Friend by Andrew Gold.

U-turn.  Take a moment and read Luke 17:11-19.  The basic point of the story is obvious: one of ten healed lepers had presence of mind enough to take a moment for gratitude.  There are a couple of things worth remembering that allow the story to shine all the more.  First, recall that lepers -  folks who suffered not just from leprosy but many skin diseases/conditions – were forced to live in encampments away from the rest of society for fear of the disease spreading.  Those in the colony undoubtedly felt ostracized (because they were).  The lone “thanksgiver” was extra-ostracized, which probably added to his sense of gratitude.  He was a Samaritan, part of an entire group of people loathed by the Jewish people as a whole back in the day.  The fact that he took time to say thanks was impressive and startling in contrast to the others.  Do you think you would have made a U-Turn that day if you were healed?  How about in your life now – when do you find it easy to give thanks? When is it difficult?  Why not take a moment and look at your week ahead.  When could you carve out space each day to pause and give gratitude – a time that does not come easily or naturally?  If you do this exercise, I’ll bet you a doughnut your week will be better than if you hadn’t.  To help you consider unexpected reasons for gratitude, enjoy Alanis Morissette’s Thank You.  Yes, she is naked.  Why do you suppose she made that artistic choice?  I would like to say that I am grateful for well-placed hair and blurred images!

About 4 ½.  If you grew up going to Sunday School, you will remember this story about the vertically-challenged Zacchaeus found in Luke 19:1-10.  His short stature makes for a memorable story, but what is really striking is his expression of gratitude at being befriended by Jesus.  He stated he was paying restitution for ripping people off through his tax-collecting (cf. Exodus 22:1), which is appropriate, but he was also giving half his wealth to the poor as an offering.  In a broad sense, Zacchaeus chose to give back to people who had given to him.  Who has given to you that you might offer some expression of thanks?  What might “4X” mean in terms of the scale of your tangible thanksgiving?  In light of all that you have in comparison with the majority of our fellow earth dwellers, what “half” would you be willing to gift to the poor this week?  Half your Starbucks spending?  Half your lunch money?  Get the point and do something generous for the poor.  If you don’t already have a place in mind to donate, CrossWalk’s missions are awesome, and very cost-effective.  As you decide how you can be generous toward the poor, enjoy this song which Zacchaeus would have liked as a remembrance of the day that changed his life for good: Thank You, by Dido.

May your Thanksgiving usher you right into the season of joy and giving that is now upon us.

Participation Ribbon Faith

Gaylord Focker was a champion in his father’s eyes.  So much so that he created the Wall of Gaylord to celebrate his son’s achievements.  Unfortunately, some of those achievements were essentially participation ribbons - "awards" for basically just showing up but not really doing anything worthy of merit.

Toward the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells three parables all speaking to the same theme (chapter 25).  Parables were teaching devices used with expertise by Jesus.  They were nearly always provocative.  Disturbing, in fact, so that you couldn’t hear the parable and simply walk away forgetting about it.  Not Hallmark movie stories here.  He would often take shots at those who abused their power or privilege directly or otherwise.  Some people hate parables, asking me, “Why didn’t he just tell us what he wanted us to “get” and be done with it?  Why confuse us with these strange stories?”  Your frustration is exactly why Jesus used parables.  If you want faith to work, it takes some work.  You’re transforming your life, after all!  If it was easy, it would not likely be transformation.

In each parable Jesus presents two groups of people: those who got it right and those who didn’t.  Those who got it right were rewarded with exactly what they were motivated by in the first place – honoring the object of their affection resulted in greater exposer, access and intimacy with the object.  Those who did not get it right were similarly rewarded with what they had garnered – they were estranged from the central character, keeping a distance – which is exactly what they got as their reward.

When we read parables like this, we need to remember that there are three audiences involved, with each hearing the parable differently than the others.  Jesus likely told the parables many times in many places over the course of his ministry.  Each of those original audiences got the basic message that genuine faith involves faithful living.  But they likely interpreted the groom, the Master, and the King as God, as they waited in expectation of the time when God would remove the Roman Empire from their land and put them back in control of their homeland.  Matthew wrote the Gospel sometime between 80-100 C.E.  His audience also got the faith-involves-faithful-living message, but they were awaiting Jesus’ return.  The third audience is us.  Hopefully we can get the faith/faithfulness message, but I think for many, the waiting for the return of Jesus and threat of judgment is an anachronistic distraction that trips us up.  We’ve got to address it.

The Jewish people developed the idea of divine judgment in the afterlife after hundreds of years of no apparent justice coming from God.  In their collective minds, the absence of God’s powerful hand simply meant God was going to handle it upon death, or upon the end of the world.  Christians tied this idea in with the return of Christ, where people would be judged appropriately.  Decades before Matthew wrote, Paul encouraged people to keep waiting – Jesus would be back any moment.  Maybe Tuesday.  But it could be Tuesday many years down the road.  But he’s coming, so don’t lose hope.  Because when that day arrives, the faithful will be rewarded, justice will be served, and everybody will get what they deserve.

I wonder if Paul would have maintained the same perspective if he could have known that we’d be sitting here 2,000 years later with no return in sight, and such global atrocities that made the Romans look like amateurs – surely there have been moments where God would have been moved to act?  But no.  Perhaps we need a new way of thinking about such things that honors the heart of what our Jewish and early Christian ancestors were yearning for that does not require Jesus to literally ride the clouds back to earth from the heavens.  If that imagery works well for you, keep it.  But for others – myself included – I wonder if there is another way to think.  Because the idea of a loving God that morphs into a vicious, actually unjust judge doesn’t add up.  The tension eclipses the charge to be faithful, and also irreparably alters the motivation for faithful living in the process.  If the threat of eternal torture looms, we will be driven in part by fear, and we will use the same to move them to action.  You can say love, love, love all you want.  When you bring out the whip or sword or gun or nuke, nobody hears love anymore.

Grace and accountability are not mutually exclusive, however.  In fact, they are dependent on each other.  I think the characters in these stories who got it right, who naturally lived faithfully as an inevitable expression of their faith, got it right because of grace.  I believe they learned that the nature of God really is love in its fullest sense, described so beautifully by Paul (1 Cor. 13) and so modeled by Jesus.  I believe they let that love take root and grow deep within them.  When we are engrossed in love, it is so easy for us to be loving.  Sometimes the way of love is foreign to us, but when we see it and move in that direction, we discover that love fills in where fear and uncertainty were once present.  I think about acts of love that take us out of our comfort zones, like serving people who are not like us, or forgiving someone who wounded us, or treating enemies humanely.  These don’t come naturally.  Sometimes we need to be shown the way.  They feel like a high price to pay, but the reward is love, because God is in those acts and spaces.  The motive of their behavior is love, and so is the reward.  Makes total sense.

The characters who didn’t “get it” however, the ones who knew enough to do better but didn’t, who thought they knew faith but were unfaithful, I suspect had not really caught on to the love thing.  The disconnect is startling in contrast to the others.  They’re not really making sure they’ll go to the party.  They don’t really care about what was entrusted to them.  They aren’t really seeing or caring about the most vulnerable around them.  In short, their behavior is the antithesis of love.  They are out of touch and out of love in every possible way, so that when the judgment comes, it’s really just another day – they are no closer or further apart from the Groom, Master, or King than they were before.

The Apostle Paul gave an interesting metaphor for this where he envisions that day of judgment as a refining fire when all of our chaff is burned away and we are left only with that which can survive the flames.  Those who live faithfully long for the chaff to burn away and I think are thrilled to discover that their lovely living has produced gemstones upon gemstones – all to reflect the beauty of God.  Those who don’t really get it and therefore don’t live faithfully find everything burned off except the only thing that can’t be – their very soul.  Undeveloped, unadorned, but survived by the skin of its teeth.  Diamonds survived the firestorm.  Participation ribbons did not.

My advice to you is to not get hung up on the judgment aspect of the story.  That wasn’t really the point, anyway.  The point is to live faithfully because it matters.  Living faithfully matters to the Groom who wants the celebration to be the best for his beloved, and it won’t be the same without you.  Living faithfully matters to the Master because he wants to expand his portfolio so that he can continue on doing even greater things and your good work helps make that possible. Living faithfully matters to the King, too, because the vulnerable are his subject, too, and need care.  While it is not the motive, living faithfully matters to you, too, because you are rewarded with closer proximity, access, and intimacy with the Groom, the Master, and the King.

You have been invited to the wedding!  You have been entrusted with the portfolio!  You have been given the great honor of serving the King disguised as the hungry, thirsty, homeless, cold, sick and imprisoned!  Beauty longs to be built within you as you build it into your attitude and behavior.  So love in ways that you know are truly loving.  And learn to love in news ways because God loves you endlessly in ways we can only begin to imagine.  His mercies are new every morning.  New, fresh, different than the day before.  May your expressions of love be the same.  May you have the spiritual eyes to see the gleaming sparkle that is growing within you – the Light of God reflecting and refracting off of the beautiful person God has made you and is making you to be. Which is so much better than a participation ribbon.

Remembering Religion

Religamenting

Psalm 78 is a song to help people – especially children – remember their faith story.  Why is this important?  Is it important today?  Why not let our children figure it out when they are old enough to care?  That’s a good idea.  Why would we want to brainwash them?  Certainly there are plenty of testimonies of people who had poor experiences from their church ranging from benign to horrible.  Let’s do our kids a favor and let it slide.

I guess we should only want to foster a healthy, thoughtful faith in our children if we care about their:

 

ü  Quality of life

ü  Healthy self-esteem

ü  Work ethic

ü  Ability to forgive

ü  Live in peace

ü  Future marital health

ü  Capacity to parent

ü  Physical health

ü  Grief management

ü  Anger management

ü  Healthy sexuality

ü  Mney management

ü  Good citizenship

ü  Student skills

ü  Life balance

ü  Life ethics

ü  Planet

ü  Respect

ü  World peace

ü  Friendships

ü  And everything else.

 

This may seem bold, and you may object as you think of examples when religion caused more harm than good.  I bet I can think of more of them than you can, yet I am still a fan of the idea that religion can lead to the best that life can offer.  What is the difference?  When I think of the worst examples of how religion perpetuated oppression and violence – slavery (especially in the U.S.), the Crusades, Hitler’s Nazism, ISIS and its predecessors, etc. – I am painfully aware that religion wasn’t living up to name.  In all of these aforementioned examples, the goal was to separate, to divide, even to wipe out entire people groups based on heritage or faith.  By definition, that’s actually irreligious.

Religion literally means to re-ligament, to reunite the parts into a whole.  Religion is supposed to help put us back together, not pull us apart.  Put us back together in connection with God.  Put us back together as whole individuals who find themselves fragmented.  Put us back together as a human race.  Re-ligament.  Whenever we see religious expressions that seek to dismember, we’re looking at fraudulent religion.  This presents a tension, because the way of faith is counter-cultural and seen as foolishness to the world.

Religion at its best, however, seeks to understand the nature of God and, since we are deeply tied into that nature, religion is supposed to help us reconnect ourselves into that nature.  To use language from the Jewish creation story, if we really believe that we are created in the image of God, then religion exists to help us more and more reflect that image.  If we believe that God is the source of life, that God is the heartbeat of creation itself, then being increasingly reunited with God will mean we will experience more of life as our heart beats the same as God.

The problem comes when we begin thinking of religion as the end and not the means to the end.  The end is to be “religamented”, reconnected to God and each other and all creation.  Religion is supposed to help with that.  Too often, however, we settle for religious certitude, finding great strength in the clean lines it provides, which I think define and protect our comfort zones.  But God cannot be boxed.  When we try too hard to define God, God outgrows us, and we experience joints stretched out of place.  Dislocated.  Imagine a person living for a long period of time with a dislocated shoulder. Incredible pain.  Imagine entire populations living that way.  Religion is supposed to put things back in place.  In this metaphor, religious leaders are supposed to act as chiropractors and physicians who help put things back where they are supposed to go in order for life to be more whole.

When we foster this kind of thinking with the children under our care, we are setting them up for a life that continually seeks that connectedness.  That’s a life tied into the source.  That’s a life that is maturing, that is deep, that is grounded, that makes an impact, that prevails even when pain and failure come.  It’s a life that I believe everyone actually wants and tries to find one way or another.

Our goal today is to explore how to allow religion to help put us back together, to religament us with ourselves, others, our world, and of course, God.  We get a clue from Psalm 78:1-8 (NLT) below:

O my people, listen to my instructions.
Open your ears to what I am saying,
     for I will speak to you in a parable.
          I will teach you hidden lessons from our past—
               stories we have heard and known,
                    stories our ancestors handed down to us.
We will not hide these truths from our children;
     we will tell the next generation
          about the glorious deeds of the Lord,
               about his power and his mighty wonders.
For he issued his laws to Jacob;
     he gave his instructions to Israel.
He commanded our ancestors
     to teach them to their children,
          so the next generation might know them—
               even the children not yet born—
                    and they in turn will teach their own children.
So each generation should set its hope anew on God,
     not forgetting his glorious miracles
          and obeying his commands.
Then they will not be like their ancestors—
     stubborn, rebellious, and unfaithful,
          refusing to give their hearts to God.

An oft-quoted proverb is related to this:

Train up a child in the way he should go [and in keeping with his individual gift or bent], and when he is old he will not depart from it. – Proverbs 22:6 (Amplified Bible)

Jesus was raised with good religion, which paved the way for the life he lived:

Jesus grew in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and all the people. – Luke 2:52 (NLT)

Thinking of all three together, we are talking about remembering the faith, training related to that remembering, resulting in growth in wisdom and stature and favor with God and all people – that’s religamented!

What I want to share with you are practical things that helped shape me, as well as one big thing I wish were more normative in our culture that I have tried to do with my kids that I think may help faith stick with the people you influence.

You are the model.  I can honestly tell you with complete confidence that my brother and sisters are good people.  They are human, meaning they are not perfect.  But they will not treat you with disrespect.  They are not jackasses.  They are compassionate, kind, graceful, centered, giving, sacrificial with their time and resources, and are deeply committed to their faith, practicing it as a lifestyle (not an accessory).  I hope I am the same.  I can tell you that my parents never taught a class on how not to be a jackass, or how to respect others, or graceful, compassionate, sacrificial, etc.  We had no formal training.  What we had was exposure to people who made this their life ethos.  My parents lived the faith.  We attended churches that did the best they could, but that’s not where we picked up the faith.  We lived it.  It was a top priority for my parents.  It defined their attitudes and behavior.  We caught what faith was and how it plays out simply by watching them.  They are human, which means we all had unlearning to do here and there, but the fact is that we all caught faith and have lived raising our own kids to do the same.  Those around you are aware of who you are and what you really value.  Your character and person are the primary message, not your words.

At an early age, both of my parents chose to devote their lives to following in the footsteps of Jesus.  They believed this connected them to God who provided life now and forever.  That primary choice led to every other choice, and together they all fostered a God-filled life for them.

Tomorrow Morning & Next Sunday.  Short and simple, church was a non-negotiable priority in our household.  It was never a Saturday night or Sunday morning decision whether or not we would go.  This was part of our rhythm, a given.  There were very few exceptions throughout my entire growing up years.  I think this is akin to the command to keep the Sabbath.  I think perhaps the Ten Commandments included keeping the Sabbath because if it wasn’t stated that clearly, we wouldn’t do it.  People have always tried to cheat it, and it doesn’t work out well.  It’s not a legalistic thing.  But when you make that choice, it pulls a lot of other things into order.  Saying yes to church led to a host of passive no’s to any number of things.  Related to that, and especially witnessed in my mom, was a commitment to connecting daily with time set aside for a brief reading, meditation, and prayer.  These two things were modeled all while growing up.  I never had to ask them if they valued these things – that was obvious.  Now, just to push this a little bit…  If we say with our lips that we deeply value our faith but can’t seem to make the gathered-community-Sabbath-reset-experience a priority, what are we actually communicating?  Talk is cheap. This seems really obvious, but when we are intentional about reconnecting with God we find ourselves more religamented than when we try to squeeze it in on our commute.

Prom 1986.  No matter what my wife tells you to convince you otherwise, I want you to know I am not perfect.  In fact, my personally history would indicate that this has been the case since I drew my first breath.  There were a handful of times in my life when I did some impressive work making the case for my imperfection!  Once was when  I got home late from the high school prom.  Well, actually, I got home early – early morning when I was supposed to get home late at night.  My parents held me accountable for sure.  It was not a pleasant homecoming.  As a parent who raised kids through high school, I can appreciate what they must have been going through.  Well, at least my Mom.  Was I in a car wreck, perhaps?  Was I blacked out somewhere? Was I abducted by aliens?  These are things parents entertain.  They were rightly upset, and they calmly let me know that.  Then they calmly grounded me for an appropriate amount of time (until I turn 50).  They were graceful as they held me accountable, and they were graceful moving forward.  They were not the types to remind me about my “sin” for the rest of my life.  This taught me to be that way with others, to hold accountable but not hold a grudge, to give people a second chance, to seek redemption.  I never attended a “how to be graceful” class taught by my parents – their lives were the lesson.  Gracefilled living religaments us to God who is the very source of grace.  When we grace, we are more immersed in the presence of God who is Grace.

Olds Delta 88.  My parents were solidly middle class.  We always had enough, but never a lot more than that.  Yet they always supported the church financially no matter what.  And always first.  Their support was non-negotiable.  That sacrifice meant not eating out as much, not buying the same clothing labels others could, living more modestly.  I think they realized that they could enjoy a richness of life that did not require riches, which enabled them to share more than less.  Because they did, a lot of mission work got done in the world and through the churches they belonged to.  A lot of lives changed because they shared their precious nickels.  There is an interesting truth about giving to the work of God in a budgeted way (some refer to this as tithing) rather than an occasional offering here and there.  You’ve heard the phrase “put your money where your mouth is”.  When we put our money toward something, we literally value it.  Jesus said that where our heart is, that’s where our treasure shows up.  My parents put a regular, budgeted part of their treasure toward what God was doing in the world.  It was an amount they felt.  It was an amount that could have upgraded their car situation or home’s square footage considerably.  When you do that, you not only make a value statement, you realign your values every month.  This stretches you in ways you won’t unless you have skin in the game.  We have done the same thing.  This valuing religaments us to the Spirit of God who continues to stretch us as well.

Guild Girls.  My dad’s career was serving the church.  For over a decade of time, my mom was on staff at a church as well in music ministry.  But when she wasn’t, she was serving somewhere.  Helping with women’s ministry was her passion – helping girls mature in faith through girlhood into womanhood, then serving with women. She’s 82 years old now, and still leads a Bible study in the two churches she attends (one in Michigan, the other in Kansas).  Showing up and helping out was the family M.O.  I learned it without questioning it.  Maybe being the youngest I was used to taking orders, but I never minded it.  I was just pitching in.  It felt right and good.  I felt like I was contributing.  I really didn’t get upset when others didn’t, because the feeling I was getting was better than their “getting off the hook”.  That’s the amazing thing about serving out of the right motive.  When it’s done out of love, service may be exhausting, but it gives back more than it takes.  It really ties you to a deeper source.  Serving religaments us to God, because the Spirit of God is always serving towards someone’s or something’s restoration somewhere.

Zau Ya.  Zau Ya was born and raised in what used to be called Burma.  He was hoping to get an education so that he could return as a missionary.  He lived in an apartment that was attached to our church in downtown Lansing, Michigan.  I can’t tell you how many times we traveled the 30 minutes from our suburban home into the downtown area to help Zau Ya out in one way or another.  He was alone, and my parents knew it.  They did what they could to make sure he made it.  We even set him up for Christmas one year.  Zau Ya lives in the Bay Area, and pastors a sister church of ours.  I saw him a couple of years ago.  He has a great fondness for my parents because they walked alongside him when he was alone.  They saw a man who was torn apart from his wife and kids, and they sought to religament him.  I didn’t need a class on incarnation – I simply witnessed them.

Lynne’s family experience in this regard was nearly identical.  We were so fortunate to find each other.  We speak the same language.  We raise our kids with the same True North, mimicking so much of what was done for us, tweaking things here and there that fit us better.  We know our kids will improve on our work.  We know there are some things we could have done better.  But we also know that our kids’ faith was more caught than taught for them.

The Closet.  There is one thing that I think we as human beings are learning to embrace that is very challenging simply because it is so counter-intuitive.  That thing is vulnerability, something we touched on last week and will touch on again in a few weeks.  Our own Karie Nuccio, sitting in my Bible Study last week gave a good working definition: the ability to laugh at yourself.  Laughing at ourselves means we recognize that there is something funny – usually something a little off – that reminds us that we’re not perfect.  Being able to laugh at ourselves requires vulnerability.  It requires letting down our shields that protect us so that we can be honest about ourselves.  I think with kids, we as parents want them to think the best of us, and know that they are looking up to us.  So, it is easy to keep the shield up and be defensive when our goofiness is pointed out.  On a much deeper, more challenging level, vulnerability also takes the risk to be honest about what we’re hiding in the closet.  Our wounds, our uglier mistakes, our great failures are definitely a part of us, and definitely inform us whether we acknowledge them or not.  Getting them out of the closet and looking at them frees us from the tyranny of hiding from them.  And if we risk vulnerability by sharing our experience with our kids, we give them perhaps the great tool for their lives – a model for potential resurrection.  The deaths we hide in the closet become the seed of resurrection and new life.  How are we being open with our kids and those closest to us with what in our closets?

You have already communicated what faith you already have to those around you.  The closest people around you can speak fairly knowledgably about your faith, even if you have never uttered a word about it.  They can do this because faith isn’t expressed as much by our lips as by our life.  Our lives communicate what we believe.  This leads to an important question.  Does your life proclaim a faith that remembers the Story of God, that serves to religament you toward wholeness?  Or does your life proclaim something altogether different? 

What faith would you like to proclaim?  What areas of your life are saying something you don’t really believe? What needs to change?  These are critical questions.  For parents with younger kids, you are modeling what they will intuitively take to be normal and correct.  Beyond kids, you are communicating a faith to everyone around you – is it what you want to communicate?  Is your life what you want to say to God about God?  Is your life what you want?  Is the faith you are living religamenting you and others, or are you more disconnected than you need to be?

The goal here is not to guilt trip, but to examine ourselves for the sake of clarity.  The witness of Jesus gives us great hope that there is more worth pursuing, and that the Spirit of God is with us toward that great hope.

Letters After Your Name

What do Benjamin Franklin, Ed Sheeran, and Stephen Colbert have in common?  They each have doctoral degrees.  None of them, however, earned the degree by undergoing the academic process.  Each of them received honorary degrees.  There is ongoing debate as to whether or not a person should use the title “doctor” if their doctorate was honorary.  If an institution granted such a degree, so goes the argument, then they are deeming the recipient worthy of the title, and therefore one should use it freely.  After all, they worked so hard in life that an institution recognized and rewarded them with the prestigious honor.  Generally speaking, however, this way of thinking largely comes from those who have been awarded such a degree without earning it academically.  Those who went through the rigors of academics to earn the degree view the use of the honorary title on a range from “needs and asterisk” to tacky to unethical.  Proper etiquette is to designate the degree as honorary when listing the letters after the name of such a recipient.  Ben Franklin, however, enjoyed being called Dr. Franklin.

Today, the title Reverend could mean different things to different people.  Among historical denominations, a Master of Divinity degree is prerequisite before going through an ordination process where one’s written and oral defense of faith must stand up to the scrutiny of ordained peers and denominational leaders.  Depending on the tradition, this can range from a long, challenging process to an incredibly long, excruciating process that ends with a meaningful ceremony at which point the title is bestowed.  The point is that it is difficult to achieve.  In some churches, especially Baptist and independent congregations, the local church can ordain whomever they deem worthy of the title.  It is usually handled with great seriousness and is typically given to pastor-types.  Since the educational criteria is not necessarily required, the title may not be recognized by other churches or denominations, which creates problems at times, especially when moving from one ministry to another.  Finally, if you want the title, you can also get it for free online with a mouse click.  Most people who acquire it this way do so in order to perform a marriage ceremony.  Others do it to impress folks.  For taxation purposes, the IRS, interestingly, primarily defines ordination in terms of the role performed.  If a person does not perform the duties typically assigned to pastors – traditionally defined by the handling of the sacraments in a corporate worship setting – they don’t pass muster.  The “Reverend” before a person’s name carries different weight depending upon what letters come after that person’s name.

Kyle Barwan was got arrested for more than taking a woman’s money.  He was cuffed and stuffed because he stole someone’s valor.  Barwan worked his way into his victim’s life and home with the help of a military uniform.  He told her stories of his military experience, close calls and heroism, which certainly must have impressed her.  They moved in together, and the woman got to know him more and more with each story he shared.  After a while, however, she noticed some details that didn’t add up.  She did some research, and soon thereafter called the police.  She believed that her live-in boyfriend was a fraud.  She was right.  Barwan had never served in the military.  But he sure enjoyed the respect people gave him when he pretended that he did.

What is your response to the three subjects above – honorary doctorates, mouse click ordination, and stolen valor?  Why do people get upset about these alleged infractions?  Why do people want the titles, anyway?

By the time the Gospel of Matthew was finalized and written onto scroll, Jesus had been gone for over three decades.  A lot changed, yet a lot stayed the same.  The Pharisee branch of Judaism was in charge of “running” the official religion, and scribes (think Jewish Law Lawyers) were handling the details.  The Sadducee branch that held power in Jesus’ day was gone – literally wiped out when the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. after a Jewish uprising caused Rome to come down hard – extremely hard – on the city.  So, there was a massive changing of the guard, so to speak.  The Pharisees represented a more rural mentality than urban.  Most were not formally educated.  The title Rabbi was mostly honorific at that time – it did not become a formal, earned title until later in the first century C.E.  Essentially, the title meant “highly esteemed teacher” in the minds of those who attributed it to people in Jesus’ day.  Of course, there were well known scholars in that period, but that does not mean that most people who were given the title Rabbi were necessarily formally educated.  There are numerous examples of this in Jewish antiquity, and should be allowed to be appreciated for the honor it meant to bestow even if it would not meet our standards of education-based titles today.

The Pharisees in Jesus’ crosshairs at that time were reveling in their title.  When we place our identity and worth in a title, we know we are vulnerable.  If that identity is threatened in some way, we go down with it.  Somewhere inside of us we know this is true, even of titles that seem solid.  If it’s popularity we’re building on, we’re one nasty Facebook post, Snapchat or Tweet away from being cast to the bottom of the heap.  If it’s our successful business or practice, we’re one bad Yelp review or allegation away from trouble.  Do we even need to talk about physical health?  Nope.  Even if we build a long career where everything goes smoothly all the way to retirement, we will soon discover that we will become another picture on a wall somewhere that will very soon lose influence, and eventually fade from memory of the organization we served.  No matter what the title, we are vulnerable because titles fade.  Because we intuitively know this, so long as we are building on the foundation of title we are naturally prone to puff ourselves up and will be defensive when it is threatened.  No wonder these Pharisees were so threatened by Jesus – he was constantly pointing out their vulnerability simply by speaking about the truth of life, as was the case below.

Now Jesus turned to address his disciples, along with the crowd that had gathered with them. "The religion scholars and Pharisees are competent teachers in God's Law. You won't go wrong in following their teachings on Moses. But be careful about following them. They talk a good line, but they don't live it. They don't take it into their hearts and live it out in their behavior. It's all spit-and-polish veneer.
     "Instead of giving you God's Law as food and drink by which you can banquet on God, they package it in bundles of rules, loading you down like pack animals. They seem to take pleasure in watching you stagger under these loads, and wouldn't think of lifting a finger to help. Their lives are perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowery prayers the next. They love to sit at the head table at church dinners, basking in the most prominent positions, preening in the radiance of public flattery, receiving honorary degrees, and getting called 'Doctor' and 'Reverend.'
     "Don't let people do that to you, put you on a pedestal like that. You all have a single Teacher, and you are all classmates. Don't set people up as experts over your life, letting them tell you what to do. Save that authority for God; let him tell you what to do. No one else should carry the title of 'Father'; you have only one Father, and he's in heaven. And don't let people maneuver you into taking charge of them. There is only one Life-Leader for you and them—Christ.
     "Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant. If you puff yourself up, you'll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you're content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty. – Matthew 23:1-12 (The Message)

Jesus was calling for the opposite of putting our stock in title.  He was calling us to embrace the fact that we are all very human, very fallible, and therefore vulnerable.  When we embrace the fact that we are vulnerable instead of trying hard to mask it, we are no longer captive to the fear of failure.  This is what servanthood is all about.  We do a lot of things to avoid paying attention to this vulnerability because it’s painful to think about.  Yet avoiding reality only adds to our sense of vulnerability, which makes it even harder and more painful to live.  So, we self-medicate in a wide variety of ways.  The result?  We are the most overweight, over-spent, and over medicated people in our country’s history.

According to the highly respected social sciences academic Brene Brown, vulnerability is actually something we need to embrace, not avoid.  People who are the most alive, who experience the most of the things we want the most in life – love, joy, peace, meaning, etc. – embrace their vulnerability instead of avoiding it.  Why?  Because they recognize that what makes them vulnerable is what makes them beautiful.  When they fully embraced that which made them vulnerable, recognizing it as part of the human condition, they became free from the torture of being found out – because they outed themselves.  This is not a celebration of sin, or elevating brokenness – this is simply living humbly in light of reality.

I think every human being navigate these waters in one way or another as we are faced with the decision about who we are.  How we identify ourselves is what we take pride in.  Taken loosely, we can even take “pride” in our painful past, turning our struggle into a badge of honor that can get in the way just as much as an honorary doctorate, mouse click ordination or wearing a uniform you never served in.  Maturing in our identity is not easy work, either, as we need to constantly be aware of the value we give out titles – even the good ones.  I have been proud of many good things in my life: my family name, my academic achievement, my musical talent, my world-famous dancing skills (at least in my mind).  I have even taken “pride” in some of the uglier parts of my story: personal choices that led to me brokenness, leadership decisions that got me in trouble, etc.  The trouble comes when I forget that these things are not really my true foundation.  These titles are an important part of my story, but they are not the genesis of my very existence.  At the center of everything, I am simply a child of God.  At my core, I look like my Father in Heaven more than my dad here on earth.  That is a foundation worth building on, and necessarily keeps me on the humble side when I realize that every other person on the planet has that same core.  This way of seeing leads to serving more than being served because I am reminded that we are all on the same journey together and need each other’s help to make it glorious.

In the face of leaders who loved their titles and the power they endued, Jesus told his followers to do exactly the opposite of the Pharisees.  Instead of propping themselves up, choose to power down.  Choose to serve others fully, not as a new form of gaining title, but because it is in serving where we find connection with others.  When we are connected with others, we are more whole, more well, more human in the best sense of the word.

Bottom line: embrace vulnerability.  It will help align your steps with Jesus’.  It will open you up to the anointing of God which is Christ present.  It will naturally lead you to serve others out of love.  And ironically, it will make you stronger than when you were trying so hard to be strong.  Do it for a lifetime and you might even be given an honorary doctorate, find yourself a reverend, but all with legitimate valor.

Field Guide to Thessalonica, USA

Have you used the “n” word recently?  How about breast feeding?  Do you have any particularly strong feelings about nursing mothers?  We’ll come back to that in a bit.

My wife and I recently joined my parents, brother and sisters (and their spouses) on an epic trip to Alaska.  It was incredible from start to finish.  One thing that helped us get the most out of the experience was knowledgeable people who informed us about wherever we were and whatever we were looking at.  We would have enjoyed the trip without them, but they enhanced the trip immeasurably.

I want to provide that kind of service for you as we look at a passage from a letter written by the Apostle Paul and his associates, Silas and Timothy.  The letter was written to the church he helped get started in the town known at that time as Thessalonica, called Thessaloniki today.  In the event that you stumble upon a time machine and venture back to 51 C.E. or so in that region, I want you to be prepared! 

The city named after a former Emperor’s sister was one of the most cosmopolitan cities of its day because of the strong trade routes due to the Via Egnatia, an ancient Roman Empire freeway that paved the way for global commerce.  People from all over the ancient world lived there, and they brought their traditions with them.  As a Roman city of import, they were also dependent on Rome for financial support.  In terms of religion, the two biggest influences were Greek Mythology and it’s Roman Mythology counterpart.  Above all, the reigning Caesar demanded to be acknowledged as divine, demanding worship in one way or another (a few decades later, Domitian would demand that his subjects refer to him as Lord and God).  Emperors, holding the power to sustain or end life, saw themselves as the saviors of the world – they held salvation in their hands.  They believed that their rule was Good News, and were quite evangelical about it.

Enter Paul and company.  Paul, Silas, and Timothy had started a church in nearby Philippi, and were hanging out in that city, funded by a wealthy woman referred to as Lydia.  She was a very successful business woman, selling rare, expensive purple fabrics to royalty.  She was compelled by the Good News she heard from Paul, decided to be led by the example and teaching of Jesus, realizing that his path led to doing life with God.  Through a very interesting number of events, Paul was eventually asked by the city officials to leave the city, which he did.  Where did he go?  Thessalonica.  What did he do?  He started letting people know about the Good News of Jesus.  What happened?  Like Lydia, people understood that it really was good news and embraced this new way of life and faith.  Like before, however, things eventually went south, which prompted the letter. 

Have you ever bought something you really wanted and needed, but then discovered related costs afterwards that you had not thought about?  Maybe you bought your first car but you didn’t consider what insurance might run.  Or gas or oil changes or tires or fuzzy dice or fragrant deodorizing hanging trees you hang from the rearview mirror?  Or have you ever fallen in love and entered into a relationship you want and need but then realize that being in that relationship is going to change the dynamics of every other relationship in some way?  That’s what happened to the Thessalonians when they embraced the Good News Jesus shared about the nature of God and the implications for living.  They no longer maintained their relationship with the other religions, and didn’t make any offerings to them, either.  This strained their relationships with those whom they used to worship.  Furthermore, they didn’t get the same business deals they got before because they switched religions – the new faith cost them in real terms.  Some people even treated them harshly for not worshiping the Emperor as commanded, fearful that Rome might withdraw support.  Paul and company had to leave the city, and the new Jesus followers were on their own.

After some period of time, Paul got word that the new believers were still being harassed and wrote them the letters we now call 1st and 2nd Thessalonians.  He tells them to hold on to the hope that God is still with them, at work right where they are bringing about the salvation he alone can bring, and that one day, should they die soon, they will be welcomed into heaven.  As for living in the midst of people with very different beliefs and practices?  Paul and company reminded them of their posture when they first arrived in the diverse city:

You yourselves know, dear brothers and sisters, that our visit to you was not a failure. You know how badly we had been treated at Philippi just before we came to you and how much we suffered there. Yet our God gave us the courage to declare his Good News to you boldly, in spite of great opposition. So you can see we were not preaching with any deceit or impure motives or trickery.

For we speak as messengers approved by God to be entrusted with the Good News. Our purpose is to please God, not people. He alone examines the motives of our hearts. Never once did we try to win you with flattery, as you well know. And God is our witness that we were not pretending to be your friends just to get your money! As for human praise, we have never sought it from you or anyone else.

As apostles of Christ we certainly had a right to make some demands of you, but instead we were like children among you. Or we were like a mother feeding and caring for her own children. We loved you so much that we shared with you not only God’s Good News but our own lives, too. – 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 (NLT)

As you can clearly see, the “n” word now comes  into play.  Not the “n” word you might be thinking of but rather a Greek word which biblical interpreters continue to debate about:

It should be noted that interpretations of v. 7 vary because the manuscript evidence is divided. A single Greek letter, ν (n), is added to the Greek word ἤπιοι (ēpioi, “gentle”) in some manuscripts of 1 Thessalonians but not in others. So scholars wonder if Paul actually wrote “we were gentle” or “we were infants [νήπιοι nēpioi]” (see the NRSV note to v. 7). In the latter case, Paul would be saying that “the apostles were not `heavies,’ making much of themselves through various demands (v. 7a), but were as unassuming among the Thessalonians as infants.” – Abraham Smith, New Interpreters Bible, The First Letter to the Thessalonians

The “n” word Paul used, nēpioi, is both informative and instructive.  Essentially, Paul was saying that even though they believed they were proclaiming the truth and had God behind them, they chose to proceed with humble strength.  They chose the posture of an infant, or perhaps a nursing mother.  Have you thought much about infants and nursing mothers?  I know when I picture an infant or nursing mother in my mind, I naturally think “warrior”, “cage fighter”, and “threat”.  Okay, that’s not quite right, is it?  The posture Paul was saying he took with them was vulnerability.  They were very confident in what they believed, but they chose to take an approach that would create the least amount of hostility from their audience. Instead of shouting from street corners that people were going to hell, they walked alongside in vulnerability, placing their trust in God to open doors and hearts to change lives.  Infants rely on others to survive – so did Paul and company.  Nursing mothers are the very picture of nurturing out of love.  Paul was writing this to them to remind them that this is the way of Jesus, who took the peaceful route all the way to his torturous death.  They are not only bearers of the Good News, they are heralds.  As such, they need to be very thoughtful in their approach.  The way of Jesus is the way of peace, the way of the cross. 

So, there you have it.  Just in case you travel back in time and take heat for not practicing the popular religion in Thessalonica, you know what to do.  Go vulnerable.  Choose to nurture like a nursing mother.

Oh, and one more thing.  We live in ancient Thessalonica today, right here and now.  Worship is happening all around us.  It may not be Greek or Roman gods or Emperors, but there is plenty of worship going on.  And it isn’t necessarily happening in a sanctuary.  Because worship is really about what we praise, what we value, what we say is worth our allegiance.  Strip away religious lingo, and that’s what it’s really all about.  We are saying we value God, that the reason we praise God is because God is worth it, that God has our allegiance, which means we are choosing to have our lives led by the God of Jesus over every other god.  We are exclusive in that sense, choosing this Way over every other way.  Truly living this way will get noticed in a world that celebrates bravado, self-absorption, greed, and winning at all costs (each of these is exclusive, by the way). 

You who follow in the footsteps of Jesus are bearers and heralds of Christ.  You are anointed with the very Spirit of God to be and proclaim Good News wherever you go.  How should you proceed?  With a megaphone to voice judgment?  With harsh, inflammatory words that demean others?  Nope.  Think vulnerable infant.  Think nurturing, nursing mother.  Think Jesus.

Following Jesus will mean saying no to worshiping as others worship (think about that awhile).  There will be pushback because the Way of Jesus is countercultural and counterintuitive.  Important side note: if you are pretty much just like everybody else in a culture that does not really worship God, perhaps you aren’t worshiping God, either. 

Who do you worship?  If God, then what is your posture? How are you behaving in a world of other-god worshippers?

Denali National Park and all the glaciers we saw were stunning.  But they were much more so because helpful guides pointed things out that we might otherwise may have missed.  When we choose to listen to those who study Jesus, we are receiving wisdom from field guides who want us to see what we otherwise might miss.  Once informed, we are blessed to get to do the same for others, all with the humble posture of an infant or nursing mother.

Guardrails: The Ten Commandments

The following is an excerpt from The New Interpreter’s Bible on the Ten Commandments, written by renowned scholar Leander Keck.  I do not believe this violates any copyright issues, but if I learn otherwise, I will take it down immediately.  This is one of the commentaries I use regularly.  The exposition is longer than most people would care to read, but I would encourage you to read it anyway, because the Ten Commandments are the foundation of what it means to be faithful people.  Deeper learning and reflection are worth your time.  Enjoy!

EXODUS 20:1–17, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS

Overview

The terrible, holy God of Sinai is always at the brink of “breaking out” against Israel and spilling over in self-aggrandizing destructiveness (19:22, 24). We are, in the light of that danger, hardly prepared for the proclamation of the Ten Commandments in this next unit. The God who threatens to break out in inexplicable rage instead breaks out in magisterial command. The relation of theophany to law is an odd one. The juxtaposition of the two genres, however, is definitional for what happens to Israel at Sinai. Command is rooted in theophany. The juxtaposition of theophany and command asserts that, for Israel, there is nothing more elemental or fundamental (even primordial) than the commands that intend to shape and order the world according to the radical and distinctive vision of the God of the exodus.

The Decalogue itself is likely a distinct literary entity that originally was not connected to this theophany. There is, moreover, serious critical question about the date and provenance of the decalogue and, therefore, about its Mosaic authorship. These commands may, like much of the legal material of the OT, have some linkages to already established legal materials of the ancient Near East. None of that, however, takes us very far in interpreting the commands as we have them.

We must, even with all of these critical uncertainties, try to take the corpus of commands as they are given. This means, first, that they are given in the context of the Sinai covenant. They constitute the substantive vision around which the God-Israel relation is ordered. Sinai binds Israel to this vision of social possibility and places Israel under this particular obedience. Second, the commands are given with the authority of Moses. They are in some sense an authentic articulation of what Mosaic faith in its core is all about. Third, even if these two traditions originated separately, the connection of exodus and command in 19:4–6 (and 20:1) binds the Sinai commands to the liberation passion of the exodus narrative. The commands are a decisive way in which Israel (and Yahweh) intend to sustain and institutionalize the revolutionary social possibility that is asserted and enacted in the exodus narrative.

The commands are commonly understood as divided into two “tablets”: one concerning relations to God (vv. 1–11), and one concerning the neighbor (vv. 12–17). The relation between the two tablets is of crucial importance to biblical faith. It is self-evident that the second tablet is the more readily available, practical, and pertinent to us. It is risky, however (especially among “theological liberals”), to take the second tablet by itself, as positive law concerning human relations. But such a view misses the primary covenantal point that these “neighbor demands” have their warrant, impetus, and urgency in the character of this particular God. The second tablet is not just a set of good moral ideas. It contains conditions of viable human life, non-negotiable conditions rooted in God’s own life and God’s ordering of the world. Thus it is important to “get it right” about Yahweh, in order to “get it right” about neighbor. Karl Marx has seen this most clearly and programmatically: “The criticism of heaven is thus transformed into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.”

Marx means that “God talk” always implicitly asserts neighbor relations and that every mode of neighbor relations inevitably bootlegs some powerful (even if hidden) notion of God. Thus it is not the case simply that Israel must attend both to God and to neighbor, but that the way of attending to God determines our ways of attending to neighbor and vice versa. It is precisely the worship of the God of the exodus that provides the elemental insistence and passionate imagination to reshape human relations in healing (cf. 15:26), liberating ways.

Norman Gottwald is correct in saying that in its recital of liberation and especially in the actions at Sinai, Israel initiates a revolutionary social experiment in the world, to see whether non-exploitative modes of social relationship can be sustained in the world. In commenting upon the first commandment, Pixley comments:

“The problem is not, of course, whether to call the rain God Yahweh or Baal. Behind the conflict of these gods is the social reality of a class struggle.… The polemical formulation of the commandment to worship Yahweh, then, has its explanation in the long struggle of the peasantry to rid itself of the domination of a long series of kings … who resurrected the old forms of class domination.… An Israelite had no choice but to reject any form of loyalty to any god who had not saved the slaves of Egypt.

Thus the Decalogue stands as a critical principle of protest against every kind of exploitative social relation (public and interpersonal, capitalist and socialist) and as a social vision of possibility that every social relation (public and interpersonal, economic and political) can be transformed and made into a liberating relation.

Exodus 20:1–7, “No Other Gods Before Me”

Commentary

Israel’s destiny under command is rooted in the self-disclosure of God. These commands might be taken not as a series of rules, but as a proclamation in God’s own mouth of who God is and how God shall be “practiced” by this community of liberated slaves. The speech of God itself is abrupt in its beginning. Except for vv. 5–6, which are quite general, chapter 19 gives no hint that commands are to follow from the theophany. In Israel, however, God’s self-giving is in the form of command. Thus the tradition holds closely together “a god so near” and “a torah so righteous” (Deut 4:7–8). God is known in torah; nearness is expressed as righteousness.

20:1–2. The self-disclosure of God begins with a succinct reference to and summary of the recital of liberation (v. 2). The first utterance is, “I am Yahweh.” Thus God speaks the same powerful formula that has been reiterated throughout the exodus narrative (cf. 7:5), in which the formula is designed to reassure Israel and to challenge Pharaoh. Here the formula serves to impose a claim upon Israel. The event of the exodus provides the authority for the commands as well as the material claim of those commands.

20:3. This verse (conventionally the first commandment) is programmatic for all Israelite reflection on obedience. Walther Zimmerli and Werner H. Schmidt have taken this command (together with the second command of vv. 4–6) as the essential command, for which all other law is exegesis, and as the leitmotif of OT theology. We may identify four related themes.

First, the command requires Israel to mobilize all of its life, in every sphere, around one single loyalty. In the contemporary world, as in the ancient world, we practice a kind of henotheism, which lets different gods have their play in different spheres. This command insists on the integrity, coherence, and unity of all of life. Israel is a community destined to “will one thing.”

Second, it is not likely that this command makes any claim about monotheism in any formal sense. That is, it does not insist that there are no other gods. It insists only that other gods must receive none of Israel’s loyalty or allegiance. This command thus is in keeping with Deut 6:4, which also allows for the existence of other gods, but denies them “air time.”

Third, the last phrase, “before me,” may also be read, “before my face.” Because face in reference to God often means “sanctuary” or “altar,” the command may mean “in my presence”—“in my shrine.” On this reading, the command pertains precisely to the practice of worship and asserts that the liturgic life of Israel must be under stringent discipline in order to avoid compromise.

Fourth, H. Graf Reventlow has offered an alternative reading of this command that has considerable merit. Reventlow observes that the formulation of this command is not “Thou shalt not,” but rather “there will not be to you.” He proposes that the statement is not an imperative command, but an indicative, whereby Yahweh in light of the exodus declares the banishment of all other gods (cf. Psalm 82 for the same motif). On this reading, the statement is a declaration of theological emancipation, whereby Israel can freely and gladly serve Yahweh, without any distracting compromise. One does not need to obey this command but only to hear and trust the good news of triumph and banishment.

20:4–6. The second command (vv. 4–6), often linked to the first, further asserts Yahweh’s distinctiveness, which is to be enacted in Israel. The command, in fact, is a series of three prohibitions followed by an extended motivational clause. The three prohibitions are: You shall not make.… You shall not bow down.… You shall not serve.… This threefold prohibition serves as a counterpart to the formula of banishment in v. 3.

Two understandings of the commandment are possible. In the NRSV and NIV renderings, the command precludes “idols,” the assignment of theological significance to any element of creation, the investment of ultimacy in what is not ultimate. Clearly, if “no other god” has any real power and, therefore, any real, substantive existence, it is grossly inappropriate that Israel should invest such an object with ultimacy.

The word פסל (pesel), however, need not be rendered “idol.” It is more properly rendered “image,” a visible representation of Yahweh. The temptation, then, is not the creation of a rival that detracts from Yahweh, but an attempt to locate and thereby domesticate Yahweh in a visible, controlled object. This latter reading, which is the more probable, is also more subtle. It does not fear a rival but a distortion of Yahweh’s free character by an attempt to locate Yahweh and so diminish something of Yahweh’s terrible freedom.

The motivational clause begins in v. 5b, introduced by כי (, “for”). The reason for the prohibition is Yahweh’s very own character; Yahweh is a “jealous God” who will operate in uncompromised and uncontested freedom. Yahweh’s jealousy is evidenced in two ways in a formula that is more fully stated in Exod 34:6–7. Negatively, this jealous God is one of deep moral seriousness who takes affront at violations of commands, so that the cost of the affront endures over the generations (34:7b). Positively, this jealous God is one who practices massive fidelity (חסד ḥesed) to those who are willing to live in covenant (34:6–7a). The two motivational phrases are in fact more symmetrical than the NRSV suggests, for “reject me” is in fact “hate” (שׂנא śānēʾ), as the NIV translates, thus contrasting precisely those who “love” and those who “hate” Yahweh.

Thus the idol (as rival and alternative) or the image (as localization and domestication) is an attempt to tone down Yahweh’s jealousy. There are two reasons for toning down God’s jealousy: resistance to God’s deep moral seriousness or discomfort with God’s massive fidelity. Yahweh’s character, to which this command witnesses, holds to both moral seriousness and covenantal fidelity. The measure of both “punishment” and “showing steadfast love” is adherence to the command. The temptation of Israel, here precluded, is to tone down the primacy of command. Israel in covenant must trust itself to the terrible freedom of the God who will be obeyed.

20:7. The third command continues the line of the disclosure of God from the first two commands. This command is often misunderstood and misused, when it is taken to refer to “bad” or vulgar language. While “right speech” is indeed at issue, more is at stake than not cursing or using obscenities. What must be understood is that the “name” of Yahweh bespeaks God’s powerful presence and purpose. The utterance of the name is the mobilization of the presence and power of God, an assumption that is still evident in prayers offered “in the name of Jesus.” To make “wrongful use of the name,” or as Walter Harrelson suggests, the use of the name “for mischief,” means to invoke through utterance the power and purpose of Yahweh in the service of some purpose that is extraneous to Yahweh’s own person. That is, the violation is to make Yahweh (who is an ultimate end) into a means for some other end. Such a practice may be done in quite pious ways (without anything like “curse”) with an instrumental view of God. This command thus follows well from the first two, because all three concern seductive ways in which the God of the exodus is diminished or trivialized.

The sanction (threat) of this command is ominous indeed: Yahweh will not “acquit” those who seek to use God for their own purposes but will hold such persons guilty to perpetuity. The severity of this threat is congruent with the motivational clause of v. 5.

Reflections

These first three commandments are preoccupied with the awesome claims of God’s person. God insists, in the light of the exodus, upon being accepted, affirmed, and fully obeyed.

1. It is not always helpful in teaching and preaching the commandments to go through them one rule at a time, as though using a check list. To be sure, there is some need for specificity of interpretation. That, however, is only preliminary to the main interpretive task, which is to voice the large and demanding vision of God that defines biblical faith.

The truth of the matter is that the biblical God is not “user friendly.” The theological crisis present in all our modern situations of proclamation and interpretation is that we are all “children of Feuerbach.” In the nineteenth century, Ludwig Feuerbach fully articulated the hidden assumption of the Enlightenment, that God is in the end a projection of our best humanness. That Feuerbachian “betrayal” takes more than one form. The “liberal temptation” is to diminish the role of God, either to remove God from public spheres of life and leave God for interpersonal matters, or to make God an object of adoration rather than a subject who can do anything. One signal of such reductionism is the slogan that “God has no hands but ours.” The reactive “conservative temptation” is the projection of a settled, sovereign God who in fact is not operative as a political character (as in the drama of the exodus) but is only a set of fixed propositions that give certitude and stability. Either way, in our shared theological failure of nerve, we end with a God very unlike the one who makes a self-disclosure here.

2. Exposition of these commandments has as its topic the voicing of the holy, jealous God of the Bible who saves and commands; a God who is an active, decisive presence in our common public life, but who in holiness is beyond all our most pious efforts at control and manipulation.

There are no analogues, no parallels, no antecedents, no adequate replications or explanations for this God who confronts us in and through the narrative of liberation. It is the majestic act of “getting glory over Pharaoh” (14:4, 17) that bestows upon Yahweh the right to speak and to command. The exodus shows that Yahweh has now displaced every other loyalty, has driven from the field all rivals, and now claims full attention and full devotion from Israel. This people would not have entered history except for Yahweh’s demanding solidarity against Pharaoh. The question of this faith in the modern world is whether there is a people, a concrete community, that can embrace and practice this demanding loyalty. Most of the people with whom we preach and teach are (like us) both yearning and reluctant, both ready and hesitant, to embrace these commandments that bespeak a lifetime of ceding over authority.

How, indeed, can a “mystery” be demanding? We expect a mystery to be amorphous and transcendental; we expect a demand to be coercive, visible, and political. In these three utterances, however, Yahweh is indeed holy mystery who, in the very utterance of mystery, enunciates demand.

3. This uncompromising demand is properly voiced in a world of unacknowledged polytheism. We have always lived in a world of options, alternative choices, and gods who make powerful, competing appeals. It does us no good to pretend that there are no other offers of well-being, joy, and security. In pursuit of joy, we may choose Bacchus; in pursuit of security, we may choose Mars; in pursuit of genuine love, we may choose Eros. It is clear that these choices are not Yahweh, that these are not gods who have ever wrought an Exodus or offered a covenant.

In the Christian tradition, baptism is the dramatic form of making a God choice, in which receiving a new name and making promises is choosing this liberating-covenantal faith against any other shape of life. Thus in the Christian tradition, appropriating and living out baptism means living by a single loyalty among a mass of options.

4. The second commandment, in its prohibition, inventories the heavens above, the earth beneath, and the waters under the earth (v. 4; cf. Deut 4:17–18;). The triad, of course, refers to all of creation (cf. Gen 1:28). The command asserts that nothing in creation is usable in making God visible or available. God’s sovereign mystery is discontinuous from everything and anything in creation. The propensity to encapsulate God in creation leads to an attempt to retain for ourselves control over some piece of creation. The clearest, most extensive treatment of this confusion in the Bible is Rom 1:20–25. To imagine that anything in creation could possibly embody the creator God is a result of “futile thinking” and “senseless darkened minds” (Rom 1:21). The outcome is false worship based on a lie instead of the truth (v. 20).

In contemporary church discussions, this powerful, polemical, doxological statement has often been side-tracked and related only to issues of homosexuality. The confusion of creator-creation, however, is much more profound and ominous than an argument about sexuality. Attempts to “image God” by taking creation in our own hands are much more evident in technological abuse of creation and in military exploitation, by which “God as power” comes into play without any restraining awareness that “God as power” is also “God as Holy Mystery.” It may in the end be the case that the “shameless acts” men commit with men (cf. Rom 1:27–28) are not sexual as much as they are military and technological. The Mosaic prohibition against idols and images has profound sociopolitical implications, for the practice of worshiping idols is never simply a theological or liturgical matter but always spills over into social, ideological, and political practice, inevitably with the intent of partisan advantage. Carlos M. N. Eire has shown how the prohibition on idols became a driving power for Calvinism as a sociopolitical force. Where the church is soft on idols, it becomes muted on social criticism.

5. The third commandment asserts that God cannot be put to use and is never a means toward an end (v. 7). The notion that the ultimate human purpose is to “glorify and enjoy God” means that God is pure end and never means. Using God’s name mischievously however, is an enormous temptation, because the holy God is vulnerable to being made into an ideological tool.

Exodus 20:8–11, “You Shall Not Do Any Work”

Commentary

The fourth commandment is conventionally included in the first tablet. However, because the sabbath command occupies such a prominent and decisive position in the Decalogue, and because it enjoins rest for humanity as well as honoring God the creator, I take it as a command that stands between and connects to both tablets.

Unlike most of the other commands (see also v. 12), this one is not a prohibition; rather, it enjoins Israel to positive action. Israel is to remember (זכר zākar). The act of remembering here, as in the remembering of the Eucharist, means to appropriate actively as a present reality. The seventh day is to be marked as “holy time”—i.e., as time completely devoted to Yahweh.

The initial command of v. 8 is explicated in three parts. There is first an acknowledgment of six legitimate days of work. Then comes the command for a day of rest for the one addressed, ostensibly a land-owning man, who will provide rest for all creation under his dominion (vv. 9–10). Finally there is a motivational clause (v. 11).

The positive command itself indicates that sabbath remembrance is in fact a complete and comprehensive work stoppage. There is no mention of worship. The way in which this day is to be acknowledged as holy—i.e., different and special—is to separate it from all days of required activity, productivity, coercive performance, self-securing, or service to other human agents. Moreover, this covenantal work stoppage is not a special privilege of the male believer. The entire society that makes up the family, village, or clan is to share publicly in this act.

How is it that a covenantal work stoppage bears witness to this self-disclosing God? The answer is given in the motivational clause: Israel rests because God rests. This God is not a workaholic; Yahweh has no need to be more secure, more sufficient, more in control, or more noticed. It is ordained in the very fabric of creation that the world is not a place of endless productivity, ambition, or anxiety. Fretheim has made the case that exodus liberation is aimed at the full restoration of peaceable creation. There is no more powerful hint of that connection than in this commandment.

While the motivational clause links this teaching explicitly to creation, the preamble of v. 2 links the command to the exodus as well. Such a connection between the command and the preamble hints at a connection made much more explicit in Deut 5:12–15, where the motivation of creation has been subordinated to that of the exodus. In this text the purpose of the covenantal work stoppage is to remember and reenact the exodus. Moreover, Hans Walter Wolff has observed that the phrase “as you” in Deut 5:14 makes the sabbath a great day of equalization in which all social distinctions are overcome, and all rest alike. To be sure, that nice phrase is not present in our version of the command, but it is in any case implicit. The implicit act of equalization in sabbath witnesses to the intention of the creator that creation should be a community of well-being, in which all creatures stand together, equally and in shared rest.

Reflections

1. This sabbath commandment stands at mid-point between two other extended expositions of sabbath in the book of Exodus, both of which are important for explicating the command (16:5, 22–26; 31:12–17). The story of manna (16:5, 22–26) indicates that rest is possible because God gives enough food, and all who gather either little or much have equally enough. The command of 31:12–17 indicates that God needs to be “refreshed,” and therefore that those made in God’s image also need to have life (נפשׁ nepeš) restored (cf. Pss 19:7; 23:3). Sabbath is necessary because of God’s own vulnerability. Thus in sabbath, Israel relies on God’s generosity and participates in God’s vulnerability.

2. The sabbath command is given its foundation in the creation narrative of Gen 1:1–2:4a. That text, commonly taken to be exilic, is part of the development whereby Israel in exile comes to rely on sabbath as one of the two major distinguishing marks of Judaism. (The other is circumcision.) The cruciality of sabbath is further evident in Lev 26:1–2, where it is paired with making images as the preliminary to the great recital of blessings and curses. (Notice that these two verses have a double use of the formula “I am Yahweh.”) In Isa 56:4, 6, moreover, sabbath is reckoned as the key mark of keeping covenant in the community after the exile.

Sabbath looms so large in exilic and post-exilic Judaism because the Jews are now politically marginal and vulnerable. They are endlessly at the behest of someone else. Sabbath becomes a way, in the midst of such vulnerability, to assert the distinctiveness of this community by a theological announcement of loyalty to Yahweh. It is also a political assertion of disengagement from the economic system of productivity that never has enough. Thus Judaism in its covenantal work stoppage practices disengagement from the socioeconomic political enterprise that in its endless productivity offers safe, secure rest and well-being.

3. Contemporary practice of sabbath is not concerned to devise a system of restrictions and “blue laws.” Rather, sabbath concerns the periodic, disciplined, regular disengagement from the systems of productivity whereby the world uses people up to exhaustion. That disengagement refers also to culture-produced expectations for frantic leisure, frantic consumptions, or frantic exercise.

The pastoral issue for many persons is to develop habits and disciplines that break those patterns of behavior. Sabbath practice is not to be added on to everything else, but requires the intentional breaking of requirements that seem almost ordained in our busy life. Sabbath thus may entail the termination of routines, the disengagement from some social conventions, or even the lowering of one’s standard of living. The very concreteness of sabbath is a sacrament witnessing to the reality of exodus and to the governance of the creator who has broken the restless penchant for productive activity. The healing of creation, and of our lives as creatures of God, requires a disengagement from the dominant systems of power and wealth. Sabbath is the daring recognition that with the change of sovereigns wrought in the exodus, such unrewarding expenditure of labor is no longer required. It is only a bad habit we continue in our disbelieving foolishness (cf. Luke 12:16–20).

4. This fourth commandment is commonly placed in the first tablet, honoring the majesty of God. It belongs in the sequence concerning God’s sovereignty (first commandment), God’s freedom (second commandment), God’s holy name (third commandment), and now God’s holy time (fourth commandment). It is clear, however, that the neighbor concerns of the second tablet begin here to intrude upon the first tablet. The affirmation about God’s rest leads to a command about human rest. In this latter accent, sabbath serves to acknowledge and enact the peculiar worth and dignity of all creatures, and especially of human creatures. Consequently there are limits to the use of human persons, and of all creatures, as instrumental means to other ends. Sabbath is a day of special dignity, when God’s creatures can luxuriate in being honored ends and not mobilized means to anything beyond themselves. In the commandments that follow, we shall see that this limit to the “usefulness” of human creatures introduced in the fourth commandment now becomes a leitmotif for the second tablet.

Exodus 20:12–17, Neighbor Relations

Commentary

This set of six commands includes one positive command (v. 12), followed by five prohibitions. Calvin offers that charity “contains the sum of the second tablet.”

20:12. God enjoins Israel at the mountain to “honor” father and mother. The command consists in an imperative followed by a motivational clause. The command concerns the problematic relationships between one generation and the next. We have seen that the Exodus narrative is understood as a tale told to ensure that the children and the children’s children will know and embrace the memory of liberation (10:1–2). The book of Genesis is preoccupied with the safe transmission of blessing and promise from one generation to the next. Moreover, Michael Fishbane has suggested that the urgent command of Deut 6:4–9 evidences that the children were resistant and recalcitrant to the core teaching of Israel (cf. Ps 78:5–8). And Deut 21:15–17 attests to the fact that Israel struggled with the continuity of generations and the valuing of the life-world of the parents by the children. It may be that every society struggles with this issue, but the children’s loyalty is peculiarly urgent in a community whose faith works only by remembering unrepeatable events.

The command is to “honor.” The Hebrew term כבד (kābēd) includes among its meanings “be heavy,” suggesting the sense of “give weight to.” The negative warning of 21:17 forms a suggestive counterpoint to this command, because the term curse (קלל qll) may also be rendered “to treat lightly.” Such a nuance is important, because the command does not advocate obeying or being subordinate but treating parents with appropriate seriousness. Childs concludes that it was “a command which protected parents from being driven out of the home or abused after they could no longer work.” (Cf. Prov 19:26.) Calvin shrewdly notes that in Eph 6:1, the commandment is quantified, “in the Lord,” so that “the power of a father is so limited as that God, on whom all relationships depend, shall have the rule over fathers as well as children … Paul … indicates, that if a father enjoins anything unrighteous, obedience is freely to be denied him.”

The motivational clause concerns keeping the land, which is God’s gift. This is the only command of the Decalogue that includes land as a motivation. Several possible connections might be made concerning this command and its motivation. First, the connection may be a quite general one, that distorted relations between the generations lead to a forfeiture of shared well-being. Second, the connection may be a quasi-legal one, suggesting that the capacity to retain the inheritance (נחלה naḥălâ) of land depends on embracing the promises of father and mother. Third, if the land is understood as a result of withdrawing from the slave economy for the sake of a covenantal, egalitarian community, then the land will be held only as long as the covenantal vision is held with passion. In any case, socioeconomic security depends on the right ordering of interpersonal relations between the generations, perhaps between the generation of power and that of vulnerability.

20:13. The command against murder is terse and unadorned. While scholars continue to sort out the exact intent of the term murder (רצח rāṣaḥ), the main point is clear: Human life belongs to God and must be respected. Walter Harrelson (following Barth) takes a maximal view of the prohibition and interprets it broadly as “reverence for life”—i.e., all human life. H. Graf Reventlow suggests that the term murder originally referred to blood feuds and epidemics of killings that grew out of an insatiable thirst for vengeance between clans and families. Still other interpretations of this command suggest that murder is precluded within the community of covenant but that the prohibition does not apply outside of one’s own community of covenant. It is entirely possible that all such distinctions, in a kind of casuistry, make too fine a point. Appeal to Gen 9:6 suggests that biblical faith has drawn an uncompromising line against the taking of another life, period. Human life is intrinsically of value and may not be ultimately violated.

20:14. The prohibition against adultery concerns distorted sexual relations, or more broadly, distorted human relations. Again, the command is so terse as to invite and require interpretation. Most narrowly construed, “adultery” consists in the violation of the wife of another man. Such a patriarchal reading understands the woman to be the property and trust of a man. For ample reason, of course, the command has been much more broadly understood in Jewish and Christian communities. Most comprehensively, the prohibition points to the recognition that sexuality is enormously wondrous and enormously dangerous. The wonder of sexuality is available in a community only if it is practiced respectfully and under discipline. The danger of sexuality is that it is capable of evoking desires that are destructive of persons and of communal relations. It is inevitable that such a command will be subject to ongoing dispute, because around the subject of freedom and discipline in sexuality we deal with the most intense and elemental mystery of human existence. There is in this command neither license for permissiveness nor a puritanical restrictiveness. Everything else is left to the interpretive community.

20:15. The eighth command on stealing is characteristically terse. On the face of it, the commandment concerns respect for the property of another. It does not probe behind the social fact of “property” to notice, as Marx has done so poignantly, the probability that private property arises regularly from violence. It is enough that what is possessed by another must not be seized.

On the basis of Exod 21:16 and Deut 24:7, Albrecht Alt has proposed that the original form of the prohibition was “Thou shalt not steal a person.” The gain of such an interpretation is that it focuses on the cruciality of the human and is not drawn away toward lesser “objects.” It is, perhaps, neither necessary nor wise to choose between a more conventional focus on property and Alt’s focus. The materiality of Israel’s faith recognizes that selfhood includes the necessary “goods” to make a life of dignity possible. That, of course, leaves the vexed question of relation between the essential goods of the “have nots” and the extravagant goods of the “haves.” This command cannot be used as a defense of “private property” without reference to the kinds of sharing that are required for available human community. Harrelson concludes: “The commandment not to steal means, in effect, that persons are not to whittle down, eat away at, the selfhood of individuals or of families or of communities.”119

20:16. The ninth commandment (v. 16) is not a general command against “lying” but concerns courtroom practice. The prohibition understands that a free, independent, and healthy judiciary system is indispensable for a viable community. The courtroom must be a place where the truth is told and where social reality is not distorted through devious manipulation or ideological perversion. It is remarkable in this list of prohibitions that concern the sanctity of human life, the mystery of sexuality, and the maintenance of property, that courts should be so prominent. The prohibition, however, is a recognition that community life is not possible unless there is an arena in which there is public confidence that social reality will be reliably described and reported.

The sphere of this command is narrowly circumscribed. Truth-telling concerns “your neighbor”—i.e., a fellow member of the covenant community. The neighbor is not to be “used” by lying in order to enhance one’s own interest. Community requires drawing a line against private interest in order to make social relations workable.

20:17. The tenth commandment, on coveting, is somewhat different from the other elements of the second tablet. It concerns the destructive power of desire. It is not helpful, however, to interpret “desire” as a vague, undifferentiated attitude. Rather, it here concerns desire acted upon publicly, whereby one reaches for that which is not properly one’s own. Such reaching inevitably destroys community. The text knows that humans are indeed driven by desire. The commandment regards desire in and of itself as no good or bad thing; its quality depends on its object. The tale of Genesis 3 is the tale of desire misdirected (cf. v. 3).

Notice that desire in ancient Israel is characteristically not directed toward sexual objects (as we might expect) but pertains primarily to economics. Its concern is to curb the drive to acquisitiveness. Thus the object of desire may be silver and gold (Deut 7:25; Josh 7:21) or land (Exod 34:24; Mic 2:2).

The supreme and legitimate “desire” of Israel is to do the will and purpose of Yahweh.

In this prohibition, the primary object of desire is the neighbor’s house. That “house,” however, includex wife (reckoned in a patriarchal society as property), slaves, and working animals. The command expects that within a community of genuine covenanting, the drive of desire will be displaced by the honoring of neighbor, by the sharing of goods, and by the acceptance of one’s own possessions as adequate. This commandment, placed in final position in the Decalogue, is perhaps intended as the climactic statement of the whole, referring to Yahweh’s claims at the beginning (v. 1). Yahweh’s victory over the Egyptian gods in the same action defeated the spiritual power of coveting.

Reflections

This second tablet, anticipated in the fourth commandment, indicates that the holiness of God puts God beyond the reach of Israel, and mutatis mutandis, the intrinsic worth of human persons as creatures of God puts humans beyond the reach of abuse and exploitation.

The second tablet is a magisterial assertion that human life is situated in a community of rights and responsibilities that is willed by God. Within that community, human life in all its ambiguity and inscrutability is endlessly precious and must not be violated. This affirmation seems so obvious that we are reluctant to voice it. It is now clear that in the obduracy of totalitarian society and in the rapaciousness of market economy, a humane life of shared rights and responsibilities is exceedingly fragile. The interpretive task is to show that this fragile bonding in covenant that guarantees dignity and well-being is a live possibility among us. The second tablet is indeed an articulation of a more excellent way; it is a way in which human life is intrinsically worthy of respect, in which human persons are honored ends rather than abused means, and in which rapacious desire is properly curbed for the sake of viable community.

1. The fifth commandment concerns the struggle between the generations, a struggle that is inherently filled with tension (v. 12). On the one hand, there can be a kind of traditionalism that submits excessively to “the way we were.” On the other hand, there can be a one-generation narcissism that imagines nothing important happened until “us.” That intergenerational tension requires a seriousness that does not simply capitulate but that honors in freedom and response. In the angel’s announcement to Zechariah, a remarkable transposition of the relation of the generations is anticipated: “With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17 NRSV).

Here it is not the children who submit to the parents, but the parents who are “turned” to the children. This assertion of the angel does not override Moses’ command. Rather, the two statements are in tension, and adjudication requires that both parties, parents and children, must be engaged in the process. The commandment precludes a new generation that disregards the parents and does not give them due weight. The angel’s poem precludes a blind, mechanical submissiveness of children to parents. “Honor” is a more delicate, transactive maneuver, whereby both parties grow in dignity through the process.

2. The prohibition on killing asserts that human life is valuable to God, and under God’s protective custody (v. 13). No doubt distinctions and differentiations are to be made in enacting this command. The most obvious of these now before us concern capital punishment, war, euthanasia, and abortion. The interpretive community is of no single mind on these great questions, and no consensus is in prospect. The commandment itself states a non-negotiable principle and nothing more. That, however, is a great deal in a society where life is cheap, where technology is impersonal, where economic greed is unbridled, where bombs are “smart,” and where ideology is powerful. The murder that makes the newspapers signifies a breakdown of the human infrastructure, which legitimates brutality. The murder behind the headlines—i.e., the killing that happens a little at a time, mostly unnoticed and unacknowledged—is kept ideologically obscure. Such slow, unnoticed destruction diminishes human life among those not powerful enough to defend themselves. The interpretive issue may be this: If human life is precious, what public policies are required in order to enhance and protect it? The old-fashioned responses of employment, housing, and health care are not remote from this command. Calvin counts on the positive application of this command, “that we should not only live at peace with men … but also should aid, as far as we can, the miserable who are unjustly oppressed, and should endeavor to resist the wicked, lest they should injure men.”

Jesus intensified the command to include anger (Matt 5:21–26; cf. 1 John 3:15). One wonders whether in our society Jesus might have focused not on anger but on cynical indifference that is sanctified by a greedy, uncaring individualism that is in its own way killing.

3. The prohibition against adultery concerns the primal mystery of human existence and viable human relationships (v. 14). Our interpretive concern, of course, moves beyond the patriarchal assumption that operates with a double standard. Fidelity should be the guiding theme of interpretation of this command, as distinct from legal arrangements that bespeak old property practices and rights. Formal, legal relations of marriage provide the most durable context and basis for such fidelity. They do not, however, in and of themselves amount to fidelity. Our social context has few models or norms for fidelity of a genuine conventional kind. (It is for that reason that the relation of Yahweh-Israel or Christ-church have become such powerful models and metaphors, though these metaphors are beset with enormous problems in their patriarchal articulation.)

Continuing reflection on this commandment, which concerns genuine fidelity, may go in two directions. On the one hand, there is a struggle with legally constituted relations (marriage), which are not always relations of fidelity because of abusive behavior and a lack of authentic mutuality. On the other hand, there is a struggle concerning the possibility of a genuine relation of fidelity that is outside the conventional sanctions of legal marriage. It is clear on both counts that interpretive issues are not simple and one-dimensional.

In its fullest interpretation, the command against adultery envisions covenantal relations of mutuality that are genuinely life-giving, nurturing, enhancing, and respectful. Such a notion of long-term trust is treated as almost passé in a narcissistic society, preoccupied with individual freedom and satisfaction.

4. There are many ways to “steal a self” (v. 15). Such a focus in the eighth commandment raises important issues regarding what it takes to make a self socially viable. We are, of course, aware of theft and household burglary. We are increasingly aware of white-collar crime whereby large sums of money and property are seized in seemingly “victimless” crimes. Serious covenantal relations preclude such activity.

We must take care, however, that our interpretation of this commandment is not a mere defense of private property and the status quo as a justification for the unjust distribution of goods. Faithful interpretation requires us to probe even the subtle forms of “theft” that rob persons of their future. Here are three facets of theft to which the commandment may point.

First, the terrible inequity of haves and have nots in our society (as in many others) means that babies born into acute poverty are at the outset denied any realistic chance of surviving in a market economy. Because we believe in the goodness of God’s creation, we believe such children are intended by God to have what is necessary for an abundant life. Very often, however, they do not—because they have been robbed of their future. They are not robbed by “bad people”; they are robbed by power arrangements and structures that have long since relegated them to the permanent underclass. Over such arrangements and structures, the command speaks out: “Thou shalt not steal!”

Second, a like theft continues to occur between developed and developing nations, whereby a long-term pattern of deathly dependence is fostered. For a long time Third World countries have been treated only as colonies, natural resources, or markets, kept in a dependency relation, so that nearly all benefits of the relation go to the developed economy and its colonial agents. Patterns of military control and credit arrangements guarantee not only long-term dependency but a predictable cycle of poverty, hunger, and endless destabilization. There is no doubt that we in the West are the primary beneficiaries of such practice.

Third, in interpersonal relations that lack mutuality, characteristically there is an aggressor and a victim. In that unequal relation, which is carried on by invisible but brutal power, the “self” of the victim is endlessly stolen and diminished. The radical vision of Moses is that covenantal practice does not permit these modes of destructive power in relations, public or interpersonal.

5. The three commands on killing, adultery, and stealing together constitute something of a special group. Not only are they the most tersely expressed commands, but also they all address the ways in which vulnerable persons in community are assaulted, diminished, and destroyed. Such actions, condemned in these commands, are all acts of uncurbed power, which fails to recognize that the perpetrator and the victim share a commonality and a solidarity that preclude destructiveness. Contemporary interpretation need not get bogged down in casuistry about this or that command, but can focus on the shared solidarity that precludes destructiveness, either in the transactions of public (economic) power or in the intimacy of interpersonal relations.

6. Viable human community depends on truth telling (v. 16). This commandment is not concerned with “white lies,” but the public portrayal of reality that is not excessively skewed by self-interest or party ideology. The primary point of reference is the court, where witnesses speak and testimony is given. The commandment insists that courts must resist every distortion of reality, every collusion with vested interest (cf. 18:21; Pss 15:2; 24:4), which makes such truth telling prerequisite to worship.

More broadly construed, the commandment enjoins members of the covenant community not to distort reality to each other. The major pertinence of the prohibition in our society is the collapse of truth into propaganda in the service of ideology. That is, public versions of truth are not committed to a portrayal of reality, but to a rendering that serves a partisan interest. Such a practice may take many forms. Among the more blatant practices of “false witness” in recent times has been the use of propaganda through which defeat has been described as military victory or reporting has simply been silenced, so that no truth need be told at all. Such a public tendency is not new. Isaiah 5:20 already addresses those who distorted reality (self-)deception.

Moreover, Jeremiah understood that religious leadership is equally tempted to deception, which both advances institutional interests and seeks to give credence to theological claims (see Jer 6:13–14; 8:10–11). The commandment continues to expect that there is a viable alternative to this deceptiveness in public life.

7. The final commandment on coveting does not address general envy (v. 17), but concerns a kind of acquisitiveness that destabilizes the property and, therefore, the life of another. Marvin Chaney has shown that the oracle of Mic 2:1–5 is, in fact, an exposition of the command. That is, the command concerns primarily land and the development of large estates at the expense of vulnerable neighbors.

The propensity to covet in our society is enacted through an unbridled consumerism that believes that the main activity of human life is to accumulate, use, and enjoy more and more of the available resources of the earth. An undisciplined individualism has taught us that we are entitled to whatever we may want no matter who else may be hurt. Such individualism, however, is driven by a market ideology based on an elemental assumption of scarcity. If there is a scarcity of goods needed for life, then energy and passion are generated to gather and accumulate all that one can (cf. 16:19–21). M. Douglas Meeks has shown that the ideology of scarcity, which drives our economy, is, in the end, an act of theological doubt that does not believe that God’s providential generosity is finally reliable. This commandment summons the faithful to break with the practice of acquisitive individualism and to reject the ideology of scarcity upon which it is based. Thus the commandment requires a massive repentance that is theological in substance, but that is manifested economically.

This commandment functions as a crucial conclusion to the entire Decalogue. We may note two important connections to the preceding commands. First, this command is related to the command on sabbath. Whereas coveting is an activity of untrusting restlessness, sabbath resists such anxious activity.

Second, the decision to cease coveting relates to the first commandment. Giving up such a fearful ideological pursuit cannot be accomplished by an act of will. Rather, it may grow out of an affirmation that the powers of coveting and greedy consumption have been defeated. Such powers, then, need have no control over us. In Col 3:5 (NRSV), the first and tenth commandments are nicely joined: “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly … greed (which is idolatry).” Violating the tenth command derives from a violation of the first.

8. In interpreting any of the commandments, it is important to discern clearly the position they occupy in biblical faith. It is possible to conclude simply that these are the most foundational absolutes of God’s purpose in the world. That is, the commandments occupy a peculiar and decisive claim, articulated in the categories of revelation. They disclose the non-negotiable will of God.

Alongside that claim, George Mendenhall’s political understanding of the Decalogue may be useful. Mendenhall has proposed that these ten commands are “policy” statements. They are not in themselves guidelines for specific action, but provide the ground and framework from which specifics may be drawn. Taking them as policies links the commands quite clearly to the concrete community Moses formed. This means that, rather than contextless absolutes, they are proposals that counter other kinds of policies. Such an understanding invites adherents to this covenant to recognize that they have made, and are making, peculiar and distinctive ethical decisions related to a core decision about covenantal existence.

There are important ecclesiological implications in such a recognition. In fact, in some older Christian liturgies, the commandments are recited at baptism. In baptism, the believer pledges allegiance to a vision of social reality that is rooted in God’s wonders and deeply at odds with the dominant assumptions of an acquisitive, individualistic society. The community of faith in our time urgently needs to recover the programmatic intentionality of these commands.

9. In Matt 19:16–22, Mark 10:17–22, and Luke 18:18–30, Jesus alludes to the commandments, though he does not cite them all. Two matters strike us in reading those narratives. First, the reference to specific commandments is kept selective. Harrelson observes that Jesus uses only those commands that pertain to the rich—i.e., the one to whom he speaks. Second, the commandments are, for Jesus, a first-level demand, preparatory to the more rigorous demand, “Go, sell, give, come follow.” In these narratives, the commands are not considered unattainable modes of conduct; they are, rather, the threshold to more serious discipleship and a step on the demanding way to “eternal life”!

 

 

 

(re)Learning to Believe

This week, we’re taking a look at another story from the Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land (Exodus 17:1-7).  In the middle of a desert, the Israelites complained about the lack of water, wondering if God was with them or not, calling for Moses’ head, and wishing they were back in Egypt.  Unlike the previous story where God was empathetic toward their plight, in this passage, God was not pleased with their attitude and behavior.  What’s the difference?

When I was home for Thanksgiving break during my sophomore year of college, I had an intense heart to heart with my parents.  In short, I asked them if they really loved me.  While the question was born from a desire for a better, more expressive relationship, and was painful for me to bring up (and surely painful for them to hear), there are aspects of the conversation that now make me cringe.  Here I was, at home, having flown from Kansas to Michigan to be with the family at my parents’ expense.  I stayed in my own bedroom which my parents provided.  I was wearing clothes purchased mostly from money they earned.  I was on break from college that they essentially made financially possible.  My belly was full of food I did not pay for.  All of these were indicators that my parents loved me.  Yet I had the audacity to ask if they loved me!  They showed me one more way that they loved me.  They didn’t kick me out of the house!  In fact, they listened quietly, shared their sorrow over my feeling the way I did, and were entirely graceful.  They recognized on some level that my passion was matched by my immaturity.  I couldn’t see what was in front of me.

The evening before the Israelites complained about their lack of water, they ate quail that miraculously showed up at camp every evening.  They fell asleep under the glow of the glory of God displayed in a pillar of fire, and arose to a pillar of cloud to signal that God was there with them.  The morning of the day they complained, they collected manna from heaven, baking it into enough sweet bread to get them through the day – another miracle they experienced daily.  After all this they asked if God was still with them!  This is why Moses named the place Massah (test) and Meribah (arguing) - their immature arrogance got the best of them, and they would be remembered for it.

We still do this, don’t we?  The way we do this has changed over time, but we still cry out wondering if God exists at the top of our lungs at times, not aware that we have breath in our lungs that enable us to cry out, let alone hearts to pump our blood, brains to process everything we’re constantly doing to stay alive, including raising our fists to God.  All of these things declare the reality of a very much alive creation that is fearfully and wonderfully made.  Like me at 19, we react recklessly instead of responding after reflection.  This behavior may shed light on our despair, but it also illumines our ignorant, immature arrogance.  We are Israel in this regard.  This is a specific take home that this narrative provides.  Yet there is a more global application as well.  It turns out Israel had a lot to relearn about faith. So do we.

What we see happening here will be an ongoing struggle for Israel’s entire journey, which happens to be humanity’s journey as well: choosing to embrace a very new and different paradigm of faith than had been previously employed.  Paradigms don’t change easily or quickly.

Ignaz Semmelweis advised doctors and surgeons to wash their hands to avoid spreading bacteria.  He was largely ridiculed and dismissed because everybody at that time thought that bathing in general was harmful to one’s health.  Elizabeth I was considered a clean freak because she bothered to bathe once a month! Louis XIII was reportedly not bathed at all until he was seven years old!  Civilized Europeans didn’t do such things.  Only toward the end of the 19th century was basic hygiene considered appropriate for good Americans to do.  It took generations to unlearn the false way of thinking about cleanliness.  Generations!  People were truly convinced that bathing would cause irreparable harm!  Research and observation helped recognize the issue, and eventually full-on marketing campaigns were used to convince Americans that being clean was the right thing to do.  But it took a long time.

The people of Israel had a paradigm of belief largely borrowed from the culture around them which they would need to unlearn.  They understood faith to look a certain way, and expected God to act in ways thatfit their belief construct.  God, however, was trying to create something entirely new.  Their view of God was a merit badge theology where we do our part, and then God does God’s part.  It’s sort of a contract.  We can read words that seem to allude to this way of thinking throughout the Bible. So long as we’re good believers, God will come through.  For all who are not good believers, God will come through as well, we think, by rewarding them with nothing at all or worse – judgment.  “They’ll get theirs” we tell ourselves.  One day, they’ll face the Judge and get the punishment they deserve.  This rhetoric is all over the Bible.  It is ancient, it is easily embraced because that’s how we’ve made sense of everything in our world.  We do our part of the deal and God does God’s part.  Simple math.  Uncomplicated.  Seemingly fair.  We feel at home with this theology.

What happens when we stay with that old story? Train wreck in every possible way as we evaluate and judge our situation and others’ according to our reference point.  We will continue to view the world through a narrow lens that always colors reality in hues that favor ourselves while spotlighting the problems of others.  When we give into this easy old story, we become increasingly binary, categorizing everything as simply right or wrong, people as friends or foes, and believers as “in” while unbelievers as “out”. Fortunately, this is not the story that defines God.

The people of Israel were being invited into a new story, a better story that was and is being written by God that is not merit based but rather founded in a grace that is at the very heart of creation itself.  From the very first chapter of the Bible we read the creation poem reflecting God’s desire to create, and every step of the way declaring it good, culminating with human beings made in the likeness of God who are very good.  Very good.  Reflections of the divine.  This is our foundation: that we are inherently good and loved by God – even when we act out of selfish ambition that hurts ourselves, others, and our connection to God.  This also means we are inherently valued and loved by God unconditionally.  The idea of earning God’s favor simply doesn’t fit because we already have it, and always have.

When we embrace this idea we find our steps ordered very differently.  Our motives come from different places.  Our eyes are focused differently.  We are not afforded a view that separates simply into binary categories where we are usually right and those unlike us are wrong.  This broader, unitive way of being is clearly evident in the Prophets, Jesus, Paul, John, and Peter, yet often gets overlooked because the language they used to communicate to their audience necessarily had to be familiar.  The constructs familiar to their audience were more akin to the Israelites’ at the “water rock”.  The Way of Jesus will always sound like a contrast, I guess, because we human beings will always feel drawn toward regressive paradigms that allow us to remain in control.

Knowing our tendency, we must therefore ever keep before us words like those from the Apostle John, who seemed very in touch with the Spirit: God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them (1 John 4:16 NLT).  Pretty simple.  Pretty obvious.  Like washing your hands.