Archive for February 2014

Rest On Every Side

When Solomon became king, he inherited an Israel at the height of its power and wealth. Solomon’s father, David, had spent decades fighting numerous wars to carve out territory for himself and fighting off rivals. David’s legacy of violence permeated his whole family, and his heirs fought over who would inherit royal power. Early on in Solomon’s reign, he has his ambitious half-brother Adonijah executed. King Solomon rooted out and destroyed anyone who would threaten his kingship.

For me, this isn’t an easy part of the Bible to read. I’m disoriented by a story in which God’s chosen leader establishes himself through bloodshed, even murdering his own brother. My king, Jesus, was nailed to a cross rather than imposing his will by force. Yet, there’s no denying that this story of imperial rule was part of Jesus’ Bible, too. What sense do I make of this?

One detail that feels important to me is that all of this violent consolidation of power takes place before Solomon has a conversation with God that changes his life. Not long after the bloody events at the beginning of his reign, God appears to Solomon in a dream and says, Ask what I should give you. The young king’s response is to ask for an understanding mind to govern [God’s] people, able to discern between good and evil…

God is very pleased with this response, and not only grants Solomon great wisdom, but also wealth and long life. God establishes Solomon as ruler over a vast territory, larger than Israel has ever been, before or since, and Solomon reigns with justice so famous that even foreigners come to hear his wisdom. The people of Israel stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him, to execute justice. Solomon becomes a man transformed by God’s grace and power.

I wonder how Solomon might have handled his brother Adonijah, and the other rivals that he killed, if he had asked God for wisdom earlier. I can’t help but think that the same spirit of justice that made him the greatest human ruler the world has ever known might have led him on a different path in those early days of his kingship.

Along with his famed wisdom, wealth and influence, God gives peace to Solomon’s Israel. The seemingly endless warfare of David’s reign is over, and Israel experiences a rest and prosperity that is rare in history. In this period of general well-being and stability, Solomon perceives that it is time to build a temple for the God of Israel.

David had wanted to build the Temple, but he was disqualified from building the Temple precisely because of his violent ways. It is written that David said to Solomon, ‘”My son, I had planned to build a house to the name of the LORD my God. But the word of the LORD came to me, saying… ‘You shall not build a house to my name, because you have shed so much blood in my sight on the earth…'”

Beyond the moral problems that this violence raised, David would have had a hard time building the Temple, even if he felt he were permitted to. Simply put, David had too many other irons in the fire. There were so many wars to fight, enemies to defeat, and armies to organize, that David never had the breathing room to attend to this holy work.

But Solomon does. At peace with his neighbors and in a position of great wealth and tranquility, Solomon has the time, energy and attention to focus on that which is most important. Solomon explains to a neighboring king:

…Now the LORD my God has given me rest on every side; there is neither adversary nor misfortune. So I intend to build a house for the name of the LORD my God…

For Solomon, there is finally space for the truly essential work to get done. The time of clawing and scratching to consolidate power is over. Finally, there is a king in Jerusalem who has the mind of the Lord, who reigns in peace and justice. Without the need to fight for survival, engage in conquest, or eliminate rivals, Solomon is freed to attend to the core service that God is calling him to.

As I read this passage, I find myself looking deeper, seeking the various levels of meaning in the text. On a literal level, of course, the Scripture speaks about the conditions surrounding the construction of the Temple. Yet, I also see here an invitation into a different way of living today. Rather than allowing myself to be distracted by life’s constant struggles for security and control, what does it look like for me to experience rest on every side, and to turn my attention to building a house for the name of the LORD my God?

My mind is drawn to a passage from the teachings of Jesus. He tells the story of a sower tossing seeds on the ground. Some of them fell on the path and were eaten by birds. Others fell on rocky soil and were unable to flourish. Other seeds fell among the thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!

What would it be like for my life to be like the seed that falls on good soil, having rest on every side? So often, I allow God’s purposes for me to be snatched up by the birds of distraction. My endurance fails because of the rocky conditions of my routines and patterns of thinking. And the weeds of the world – selfish ambitions, scarcity thinking, and false relationships – frequently threaten to choke out the good seed of God in my life.

What would it mean for me to have rest on every side, allowing me to focus all my attention on making my life a a house for the name of the LORD my God?

Signs and Wonders

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.

Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. – Acts 2:43-47

For those of us who are trying to live as followers of Jesus today, the Book of Acts sets a pretty high bar. The early Christian community was one marked by the extraordinary. Miraculous healings, people speaking in languages they did not know, voluntary redistribution of wealth so that everyone had enough, and the conversion of thousands of people who had every reason to be skeptical of the good news.

I’ve seen some pretty amazing things in my day, but I have to admit that it can be a little overwhelming to read the Bible’s description of those first years after Jesus’ resurrection. In the face of such an amazing community – seeing thousands convinced on the spot, healing the sick, raising the dead, and devoting themselves to an extremely high level of mutual support – my own efforts at being a disciple seem pretty weak.

It’s easy for me to feel inadequate, to wonder what I’m doing wrong. I’m tempted to judge myself. Am I not praying hard enough? Not generous enough? Not loving enough? When I really consider it, I know that I’m falling short on all three of these, and then some!

Yet, as I hold the matter in prayer, I am reminded that the Christian life is not about my own personal piety. I can’t earn an amazing, Spirit-filled community. This isn’t something people do; rather, it’s the motion of the Holy Spirit that inspires all beauty, truth, and power.

How can I, and the community that I belong to, prepare ourselves to receive this kind of life? Earlier in Acts 2, people ask Peter precisely this: Brothers, what should we do? What response is required of us now that we have heard the gospel message and come face to face with the resurrection? Peter’s response was simple: Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

What does it look like for me to repent? How is God calling me, and us as a community, to turn away from our old ways of thinking and behaving? What does it mean to embrace the kind of open-heartedness that allows the Holy Spirit to move and make the impossible possible?

Though I fall short in so many ways, I pray that God will have mercy on me, just as with the first Christians. Lord Jesus, send your Holy Spirit. Transform my life, change my heart and mind. Work signs and wonders in me.

Happily Ever After

As I’ve mentioned recently, I’m a big fan of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. I find the movie’s ending particularly touching. Poor boy Charlie proves his good character and Wonka invites him to come and inherit the factory, inviting his whole family to join him there for the rest of their lives. After extending this marvelous invitation, Wonka turns mock-serious and says: But Charlie, don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted. … He lived happily ever after.

It’s a typically silly Wonka line, and it fits with the joy of the scene. Yet, it’s always struck me as false. Does getting everything you’ve always wanted ensure happiness? Not in my experience.

I’ve wanted so many different things. A certain relationship, to travel, a particular job, or even just the freedom to set my own schedule. I haven’t always gotten what I’ve wanted, but whenever I have, there has been one constant: I’ve always wanted more.

Though I often forget it, I know from experience that getting what I desire is not the pathway to enduring fulfillment. There will always be something else that I feel I need. No matter how beautiful life is, there will inevitably be some person, place, or thing that I imagine would make things even better.

The movie’s closing song hints at this truth:

If you want to view paradise, simply look around and you will. Anything you want to, do it. Want to change the world? There’s nothing to it.

When I pay attention to the beauty, love and joy that God provides in this present moment, I find a depth and reality beyond the incessant drive for more. Turning away from my desire for everything I’ve ever wanted, I experience the incredible blessings that God has already provided.

That’s the only happily ever after I’ve ever known.

Cut to the Heart

On the day that the Holy Spirit comes on the followers of Jesus for the first time, it causes quite a stir. The whole community begins to speak in different languages, allowing them to communicate to the thousands of pilgrims from around the world that have ventured to Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost. This miracle of speech catches people’s attention, and soon there is a crowd of thousands gathered, hearing the good news as told to each one in their own native language.

This freaks people out, and some begin to speculate that the disciples must be drunk on wine! In the midst of all this confusion, Peter stands up and began to address the people. He explains that the disciples are not drunk, but rather that this gift of language is a sign of a new era. It is an age inaugurated by Jesus, who has sent the Holy Spirit to everyone, regardless of gender, age, class, ethnicity, or any other human barrier. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved, immersed into this new life and power that is flowing in the streets of Jerusalem that morning.

The Holy Spirit is so palpably present, that three thousand people are immediately convinced of the truth of Peter’s testimony. The Bible records:

Now when they heard [the message that Peter preached], they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” (Acts 2:37)

The thousands present for Peter’s speech are cut to the heart, because they realize that they have executed the promised Messiah, God’s son. Even though most of them were not in Jerusalem when this occurred, they accept personal responsibility. We did this; we humans killed the one whom God sent to us in mercy. We have become killers of love, murderers of God himself. Where can we turn for help?

Peter answers this question, calling for an immediate response: Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the Holy Spirit. This is God’s promise for everyone, now and forever: If we turn from our selfish ways and offer ourselves to God, we will receive the Holy Spirit. Jesus will turn our lives upside down and fill us with his amazing life.

Have we heard this message – really heard it? Can we wrap our minds around the fact that we have nailed Jesus to a cross, and yet he returns to us in love and mercy? Are we ready to turn from our selfish, ignorant, murderous ways and embrace the same posture of humility that God has taken with us? Are we ready to be cut to the heart, feeling the wounds of our own violence, committing ourselves to become peacemakers? Are we ready to repent – to be filled with the Spirit that makes real change possible? It’s never too late to turn it all around.

Obey My Voice

Like most folks, I often struggle with trying to balance the various tasks in my life. I keep busy with jobs, friends, family, ministry, home repair, hobbies, and an assortment of projects that come my way. Most of the time, I like living this way. It’s a real boost to feel like I’m getting a lot accomplished.

It’s impossible to maintain forward momentum all the time, however. When things inevitably get bogged down, my very full life can begin to feel claustrophobic. My existence starts feeling like a traffic jam.

In times like these, I begin to look for ways to simplify, to let go of all the non-essential elements of my life. I seek ways to be truly present to that which is most critical, letting the rest fall away. But how can I tell which of my activities are vital, and which are optional?

Sitting in prayer this morning, pondering this very question, I was led to the following passage from Jeremiah:

…In the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them, “Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk only in the way that I command you, so that it may be well with you.” (Jeremiah 7:22-23)

Just like the Hebrews, I devise all sorts of sacrifices and burnt offerings as a way of staying in control of my life. I devise all sorts of tasks that I am going to do for God – or at least for a perceived greater good. Just like the people of ancient Israel, I set my own priorities about what needs to get done, and then look for God’s blessing. Often, I even convince myself that it was all God’s idea in the first place!

But the essential command that God gives is to obey his voice and walk only in the way he commands. We receive this command repeatedly throughout the law and the prophets, and finally from Jesus himself. We are his friends if we do what he commands us.

In those times when my projects and priorities are weighing me down, choking out the life of God’s seed in me, I must return to a listening posture. Lord, what is it that you are commanding me? How can I be faithful to the life that you want me to be living right now? Rather than trying to develop my own program, a contrived simplicity based on human wisdom, I need the courage to surrender my own agendas and follow Jesus.

Such surrender is terrifying, because I don’t know where this path leads. I don’t know which of my precious ambitions I may have to give up. Ironically, my self-made sacrifices can be the hardest things to give over to God.

Have you experienced this kind of surrender? How have you been asked to change your life? What does it look like to give up your human burnt offerings and sacrifices, bringing instead an offering of attentive obedience?

The Power of None

A couple years ago, a survey found that one in five Americans don’t identify with any religion. For Americans under thirty, the number was far higher – more like one third. This report is being cited constantly throughout the religious-nonprofit world. In many quarters, there seems to be a deep sense of shock at the decline in religious membership.

Me? I’m not surprised at all. What does surprise me is our failure to see that affiliation with a traditional, God-centered religion is no longer the primary way that many Americans express their deeply rooted need for faith. We humans are relentlessly religious animals, and post-modern America is no exception. We’re just embracing a different kind of faith.

A powerful religious system has swept across America in the last fifty years, and it has little to do with our traditional ideas about what religion looks like. This new faith is all but invisible to eyes that have been trained to view religion as only those systems with God at the center. Though few seem to see it, our nation is slowly being converted to an apparently non-religious religion. It is a universal faith, a world religion that has taken root everywhere that armies have marched and Coca Cola has been bottled.

The rituals of this faith can be observed at our great national festivals, such as the Superbowl and the State of the Union address. The priests of this religion wear suits and ties, officiating over the mysteries of currency fluctuations, interest rates and stock markets. Our new state church is one of power and prosperity, whitewashed with beautiful words like honor, freedom and democracy. These words and rituals are administered like a drug, to numb our moral sense in the face of injustice. They serve both to reinforce and conceal the new normal.

While some sectors of the religious establishment are panicking about the rise of religious-nonaffiliation, I would like to suggest that the emergence of the nones is not the real problem. The true crisis has been brewing for much longer, and we as Christians have been complicit in creating it. The Christian community has embraced the idols of the unrestrained market and the self-interested and hypocritical poses of electoral politics, all the while neglecting the weightier matters of economic justice and love of neighbor. We have used God as a mask and shield for our will to power, a convenient rallying cry to cover over our own spiritual nakedness. It is precisely this kind of compromised, false religion that many of the nones are rejecting, and all of us should be thankful for that!

The choice that we are facing is not whether we will be a country of believers or non-believers. The idea that the nones are non-religious is just another part of this new religion’s cloak of invisibility. Of course the nones are religious! The religiously unaffiliated are, in fact, deeply faith-based people. We all are. Rather, we must make a decision about what we will place our trust in. Whether we claim religious affiliation or not, whether we believe in God or not, each one of us must determine who or what we will serve. Will we dedicate ourselves to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? To a new American century? To the American Dream?

There is an alternative available to us, though it is one that will put us in sharp conflict with the present order. There is a President whose State of the Union address is given not to score political points, but to establish true justice and peace. There is an Economy that exists not to enrich the 1%, but to ensure that everyone has enough and that the earth is restored to its intended beauty. There is a God who does not rely on bloodshed to support his power, but instead endures the suffering we inflict, in order to demonstrate his great love for us.

Before we can truly embrace this radical reign of God, however, we first must unmask the deeply religious claims of our current political and economic system. We cannot understand who Jesus is until we see that he is President of presidents, and that his authority over our lives is absolute. Unlike our earthly political systems, his administration brings peace and healing, justice and joy for everyone who seeks the truth. He puts himself last so that each one of us can experience the amazing power of his love.

Are we ready to embrace this fundamentally different system, one based in God’s selfless love for us rather than the dazzle of human might and the allure of self-interest? There is good news for each one of us, whether we are religious believers, atheist/agnostics, or one of the many nones who don’t really care about religion. There is an alternative to the violence and selfishness of empire – an identity to be found that goes beyond who we vote for, what we consume, or who our friends are. There is hope beyond the world that has been pulled over our eyes.

What might it look like for us to embrace this hope together? Regardless of whether we affiliate ourselves with a particular religious institution, what could it look like to center ourselves on Jesus and his amazing example of fearless love? How might we be drawn into communities that go far beyond stale religious rituals, discovering instead the whole-wheat bread of life that we’ve been hungering for?

Who’s The Boss?

Imagine: You’re outside, playing with your kids. Suddenly, four police cars and two fire trucks show up. Police are yelling at you, saying that you could be arrested for endangering your children. You disagree with them, explaining that there is no cause for alarm and that your children are perfectly safe. The police cite you for disorderly conduct.

This is precisely what happened recently to Charles Eisenstein, author of Sacred Economics. Eisenstein elicited the presence of police and fire officials when he took his children out to play on the frozen Susquehanna river. In his judgment, the ice was very thick and safe to walk on. In the eyes of the officers dispatched to the scene, his actions were a reckless disregard for safety.

According to Eisenstein, the ice was clearly very thick and his children were benefiting from the joy of exploring the frozen river. Yet, ultimately, the question of whether or not to play on the ice was less important than the principle of upholding social norms. He writes:

I think what disturbed them was the violation of normality that our little adventure represented. It makes people uncomfortable to see someone flaunting social norms. … That’s why the charge of “disorderly conduct” is appropriate. What we were doing deviated from the established social order.

At the root of the incident was a struggle over authority. Whether playing on the ice was dangerous or simply a good way to spend the afternoon, Eisenstein had a choice to make about how he was going to react to the police. He could pretend to be sorry for playing out on the ice and probably avoid a citation, or he could be honest. Eisenstein chose to speak honestly (and non-submissively) with the police officers. The result was a citation for disorderly conduct.

Despite the fact that Eisenstein felt that he had done nothing wrong, he writes that it was hard to resist the feelings of shame as he was confronted by twenty men and women in uniform. He found that deep within him, there was a basic drive to be accepted by the group. Public shaming is a powerful motivator.

As Eisenstein himself points out, these observations on the power of social pressure have relevance far beyond the legal realm. Societal order is enforced through shame in many areas of our lives. At work, among friends, and even within families and faith communities, many of our most basic social relationships are maintained by making others so uncomfortable that they choose to submit to the group rather than follow their own conscience.

This is a great challenge for those of us who are trying to walk in the way of Jesus. During his ministry on earth, the Lord was constantly getting into trouble with the ruling authorities and experts. Polite society tried to shame him into silence in every way possible, before finally resorting to the ultimate shame: a humiliating death on a cross. To be friends of Jesus will often mean defying the norms and expectations of our society. It will mean being confronted by the shame that is leveled at everyone who seriously challenges the status quo.

This is a path that can only be walked in community. Isolated individuals, standing alone, are virtually powerless to embrace a radically different way of life. We need friends who can remind us whose authority we are living under, that it is Jesus who calls the shots in our life, even when the surrounding culture says differently.

Have you ever experienced times when your sense of right and wrong conflicted with that of the authorities – whether parents, police, work supervisors or teachers? How did you deal with those situations? How can we, as Christian communities, draw closer to Jesus and let him lead us, even when he goes against the grain of society’s expectations? How can we encourage one another to stand firm in our convictions, even in the face of shame and social pressure?