You May Have an Idol in Your House an Not Even Know It!

Throughout the Bible, God’s main concern is where His people are placing their trust and worship. Israel found itself constantly caught in an affair of worship with false gods, and Jesus and Paul were usually challenging what it meant to worship God in truth and in spirit. So what about today? We’ve solved our worship problem… right?

I will admit that today I am tired. I have received a visit from my old friend A. Sinus Infection last night and we are currently having tea together in my office. (He always overstays his welcome, and as a friend, I call him “jerkface.” He doesn’t seem to mind or get the hint to leave.) Regardless, I have reached the end of my processing ability for the news lately… or maybe I’ve just reached the end of my processing ability for the reaction to the news.

To begin, I am in Numbers right now, which deals with the struggles of godly leadership and the perils of ungodly leadership. I have seen in the before and after shots what effect the presidency has on the men who have occupied the role. I cannot imagine the stress and massive sense of responsibility that comes with that office. That said, I have little to no faith that things will change overly much for good or ill regardless of who’s in the White House. I’ve said before, America boasts a government for, of, and by the people, so the guy in the big chair is simply the byproduct of whatever the country may be feeling, not necessarily the ultimate decider of its destiny.

I know some of my readers feel otherwise. I know some people on Facebook who seem to believe that any opposing political viewpoint is a personal attack. Why is it a personal attack, I wonder? It could be that one is simply interested in a fair and balanced examination of the facts, taking into account facts, experience, and feelings? Maybe it’s to challenge blind faith? Or maybe, because our trust is placed in something earthly, mortal, fallible, and we’re scared we may be proven wrong?

When Israel asked for a king, God gave them one, along with the caveat of what happens when kings come into power. (It’s a long, nasty list.) But God had a different plan in mind from the beginning. He wanted His people to be royal priests, responsible for caring for one another and creation while also giving due glory to God. Idolatry is handing one or both of those responsibilities to something, or someone else.

Where is your trust? Are you handing your God-given authority and responsibility to something or someone else? Worship is more than singing, worship is a lifestyle of reflection – of God into the world and praise back to God. When we place our trust and hand over our power to institutions, persons, or objects, that’s where we are giving our praise and worship, and that’s who, or what, we’re reflecting back into the world.

Stop and reflect the next time you become angry when you bump up against an opposing viewpoint and become angry or defensive. Why are you feeling that way? Does it lead to positive action sustained by love of others? Does it lead to dominance-seeking exchanges of words and articles? If it’s the latter… maybe you should start to wonder if your worship is in the wrong place…

How do your reactions with your children and family show where your worship is going? How do your priorities illustrate that you take your responsibility to and from God seriously? When is it hardest to fully put your trust in God?

Oh, and check under the driver’s side seat in your preferred method of transportation, I understand that’s a good hiding place. (Genesis 31, particularly v.34-35)

Photo Credit: Billy Idol 2012.JPG via Wikimedia Commons

And if you got the joke, good for you.

Complex Solutions in a Microwave Culture (or, Inaugurations and Marches)

If you didn’t keep up with the news this past weekend, I wouldn’t be surprised if you felt like you woke up out of a coma to some kinda of fever dream made of political nightmares. (Well, I would say one nightmare for each side of the aisle, but that’s coming from someone who’s somewhere in the middle and maybe up, or down, not sure which direction you start using for adamant moderate.) Anyway, there was an inauguration that gave a sizable chunk of the population a sense of relief, and another a sense of horror. And there was a march that gave a momentary reprieve from horror, and transferred it to the first group. So, really, no one walked out of the weekend happy. So much for that pursuit of happiness thing. (Cue sad trombone.)

Anyway, our culture has a problem. It has a disease. It has a sickness so deep in its core that there is no easy cure… It’s the desire for quick, easy fixes. (Whatever you were probably thinking I was going to say after the ellipses is probably going to be addressed here, just not the way you were thinking.) We live in a (cliche incoming) “microwave generation.” We want a duct tape or WD-40 solution to everything, regardless of the complexity of the problem. And while the Mythbusters have pretty much shown that duct tape can fix or build just about anything, it doesn’t make it the appropriate solution for every problem.

Food is just a symptom of the problem. Consider the sheer amount of microwaveable meals and foods available at your grocery store. Now, think about the number of times you have cooked a homemade (or semi-homemade, no judgment) meal. How do these compare with your growing up years? Honestly, my generation (millennials, I say with a sigh) is beginning to take notice and change things. We’re living in a time of the “slow food” movement, which seeks to further causes like sustainable farming, local produce and meat, and good cooking techniques. It values flavor, sustainability, and the local community. This is interesting when compared to a certain period in American history where everything seemed to be moving toward automation, fast-food, and instant meals. I don’t agree with everything in the slow food movement, but it’s something I can get behind because I see the value in it, as well as how it’s attempting to tackle complex issues in complex ways and taking its time developing those solutions.

Compare that with recent protests and reactions against the government. (And, as a white man, I will be approaching this issue carefully.) Consider the women’s march. (If you want to read a well-pondered opinion piece that is probably more thorough than mine, and from which I will be using some ideas, check out this article by David Brooks.) Brooks points out that the Women’s March, and “progressivism” (whatever that means now) missed an opportunity to define what it means to be a patriot, and to tackle a complex problem by presenting a comprehensive, long-term solution.

The idea I’m getting at is that a silver bullet solution isn’t available in the complex world we inhabit. (And why are all problems werewolves?) Consider abortion rights, which, arguably, was a major point of protest, which left many pro-life persons feeling shunned or unwelcome during the lead-up to the march. And, there were real issues to be dealt with: energy, equal pay, equal job opportunities, basic rights for all, and immigration reform, to name a few. And, truly, we could spend days just discussing what one of those issues means at its most basic level and how it would actually work in America and globally. These aren’t easy, simple problems.

So let’s take the pro-life stance. (Bias awareness: pro-life is my point of view, but please listen, as you may be surprised by the conclusion.) Pro-life seems like an easy viewpoint: protect the rights of unborn children. Pass a law, make it illegal, and done. Except that it hasn’t ever been, and never will be that easy. Consider that the early church was known for walking through the streets and gathering up abandoned and exposed newborns and nursing them back to health with their own resources. Consider that this was a fairly radical idea when it started, as the Greek ideal was to dispose of those considered weak, frail, or unwanted. Moving this forward, what does it look like the church’s (and the general population’s) role needs to be in lessening abortion? Sounds like the church, along with other individuals, has a lot of work to do, huh? Is the church willing to pay for hospital visits and delivery fees and to compassionately care for mothers carrying their children to term? Is the church willing to educate young people and really talk about sex in an open, frank way? Are individuals willing to give up their prejudice against single moms and love and provide for these children as God does? And that’s just the beginning of the pro-life argument.

See, being pro-life means more than just arguing for beginning of life rights. It also means defending the rights of the aged, the disabled, the poor, the refugee, the immigrant. Each of these individuals has a right to life as well. Is the pro-life movement willing to pull them under its wing as well? Oh, and what about being a vocal opponent of torture, war, and other violence? Can we really say, “Save the life of this child,” while calling for the deaths of enemies? And one step further… can one claim a pro-life stance if in favor of the death penalty?

When it comes to these issues, the complexity comes to rest at home. Will a law truly change the situation, or is it just treating a symptom? Will compassion, generosity, and education do more? The solutions rest in our own hands and depend on whether or not we begin to take action. Our time, talents, and resources show your priorities. Our words and actions illustrate the content of our hearts.

Jesus said, “Whatever you do for the least of these, you have done for me.” Liberty bears this inscription, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Isn’t the American (and Christian) ideal to take the long, hard road toward a collectively decided goal? Despite its mistakes in the past, when America is unified toward a worthwhile goal, very little can stand in its way. And when the church is unified toward a godly goal, nothing can stand in its way.

Let’s look ahead toward more complex, long-term solutions than easy, short-term fixes. Pray for America. Pray for your leaders. Pray that you will see opportunities and take them.

Photo Credit: Statue of Liberty, NY.jpg via wikimedia commons

More than a Tent

I have decided to finish out my Torah studies, which requires that I journey through two of the graveyards of year-long Bible readers: Numbers and Deuteronomy. (Sure, I know that assumes that most make it through Leviticus, but I’m giving the benefit of the doubt here.) Anyway, with all of the specific accountings and rules listed in these two books, I can understand why many would warily undertake a read of these books. And, yet, some of the most amazing stories are buried in Numbers, including a talking donkey! (Not nearly as entertaining as Donkey from Shrek, but pretty darn close, just without the pop culture references.)

Back in Exodus, God gave instructions for building the Tent of Meeting, aka “The Tabernacle.” This glorified (literally!) tent would serve as the focal point of God’s interactions with His people, the Israelites both during their journey to Canaan and after settling into the land. The tent would move around, guarded by a contingent of able-bodied Levites, leading the people through the wilderness, and then bringing the presence of God near.

I have to wonder how an Israelite town would react to the news that the Tabernacle would pass by or dwell near town for a while. What joy mixed with fear and awe would well up at the thought of the Mighty Lord of Hosts being so near. Would there be an outpouring of thank offerings? Would there be an outpouring of prayer and worship? Would people breathe a sigh of relief to know that God had not forgotten them?

I also have to wonder at the split that was exacerbated by the Temple’s presence in Jerusalem, Judah, as opposed to Israel, the northern kingdom. Suddenly, people found themselves cut off from that meaningful presence of the Temple and the Tabernacle.

So which are we today? Are we a Temple, who stays in one place, beckoning to one and all to come up to the mountain and worship? Are we a Tabernacle, packing up and heading out at the Spirit’s leading to where the people are? Is one more right than the other?

Of course, you can probably note where my bias lies. I do see the church as a tabernacle rather than a temple. We should be mobile, going out and “making disciples of all the nations.” There is something to be said, though, for having a rallying point, a stationary hospital where we can bring the wounded, torn, and broken for healing. But where are the ambulances?

So when is a tent more than a tent?  Perhaps the answer to that question lies in another question: when is a human more than a human?

Photo Credit: Stiftshuette Modell Timnapark.jpg via Wikimedia Commons

Sex: What’s the point?

It’s been a while since we discussed sex on this blog, mostly due to the fact that I have had several good, hard thinks and conversations about the subject and am nearly ready to put some ideas down in writing. I want to start vaguely and then move to specifics.

Conversations about sexuality are much like building a house. It really does no good to argue about the color of the paint or the particular furnishings of the house unless the foundations are discussed and decided upon. Most of the debates I hear about sexuality are more concerned with the furnishings of the house than the foundations of the house itself. Sure, the couch might look nice and be well made, but if it won’t fit through any of the doors, it’s of very little use.

Foundationally speaking, Jews and Christians often look to the same place: Genesis. Genesis begins with the building of a grand house, Creation, and the making of humans to inhabit that house as God’s representatives. These representatives were designed to reflect God’s character, love, and authority into the world, and reflect creation’s praise back to God. This is the idea of the royal priesthood, the role humans were made to fill.

Following this idea through Genesis shows what happens when humans are unfaithful to that calling and cease reflecting God’s character and begin reflecting nature back to itself. At that point, violence, exploitation, the beginnings of empire, power grabbing, greed, and lust all take shape as the story of Genesis continues into the story of Babel.

Abraham is then chosen to be the recipient of the Covenant. God cuts a covenant with Abraham and his family, which sees a dramatic illustration in the strange vision of Genesis 15, where God, as King, takes responsibility for the covenant with Abraham. This covenant is renewed in Exodus at Mt. Sinai where the people are given their royal, priestly vocation and then are told what would happen in case of infidelity on their part followed by God’s promise to redeem them.

After this covenant is cut with Abraham, with circumcision being the sign, the rest of Genesis is interwoven with the theme of sexuality. There are temptations, refusal of duty, lying, almost adultery, fornication, polygamy, and more. It makes more sense in light of Jewish interpretation (provided by Rabbi Sacks in his Covenant and Conversation materials, specifically the podcast “What is the Theme of the Stories of Genesis?” published 12/19/16) which points to the theme of sexual fidelity being parallel to fidelity to God. Marital faithfulness reflects faithfulness to God.

This makes sense as throughout the prophetic writings, the prophets use the image of Israel as the bride of God, which is then echoed in the letters of Paul which often reference the church as the bride of Christ. The idea of marriage being a covenant of faithfulness enacting our faithfulness to God is an ancient one, indeed. Israel’s sin is often couched as one of infidelity, of adultery, by chasing after other gods or putting other objects in the place of God. (See the entire book of Hosea which is a long illustration of this idea.) Reflecting the will of money, sex, power, or the individual led to exploitation, oppression, and violence among God’s people, which God, through the prophets, condemned. The issue at the center, though, was God’s longing to have Israel return to faithful covenant living. (And before anyone is quick to throw blame on the Israelites, we are all guilty of handing over ourselves to objects and drives that are not God. We, too, are called to repent and return to faithfulness.)

Sex is something that does matter to God. It matters as the method of human procreation. It matters as the way marital partners share in the joy of faithful covenant-keeping. It is a crucial part of the grand vocation to reflect God’s character, authority, and order to creation in that our committed faithfulness should reflect God’s own committed faithfulness.

A quick note on circumcision: John Goldingay notes that circumcision is pointedly a male issue. Why? Because in ancient times, as well as now, society has often given men free rein with their sexuality, while women often have been expected to be much more reserved. In part, God is literally cutting the male ego, especially in regards to sex, down to size. (This is not the only interpretation of circumcision, which is primarily the “cutting in” of the covenant illustrated by God marking this people as separate with a particular purpose.)

The foundation for sex is faithfulness. Sex without faithfulness is an exercise in handing our God-given authority to nature. We are called not to succumb to nature, but to rise above it, to join in God’s task of giving more meaning to the act of sex than mere pleasure, or mere procreation, but something deeper, more humble, and far more important.

Sources for this post are: Genesis parts One and Two by John Goldingay, and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ various Covenant and Conversation resources, written and in podcast form. (As far as Bible translations used in studying these books, see the JPS version, the NAB, and John Goldingay’s literal translation included in his commentaries.

Photo Credit: Free stock photo of man, couple, love, woman via Pexels

America’s Civil Dispute and 3 Ways to Fix It

Here’s a friendly reminder that the term of a new president is approaching. There are some who are elated, some despairing, and some unsure how to feel. I have seen articles and counter-articles covering each and every event and social media posting. I have heard angry people shout names that they would be ashamed of if they heard the recording. I have seen people share hateful messages with a glee that borders on malice. Regardless of how you feel about the incoming government, here are some things to consider.

First, the office of the president does deserve respect. I have honestly been rather disgusted with the way people have spoken about President Obama and President-Elect Trump. I have been especially disgusted with the way Christ followers have spoken of these men, people who, as James put it, try to use the same mouth for praising God and cursing others. Please think carefully about how you talk about those in authority. Respectful dialogue and tones do not rule out disagreement but do lead to more productive discussions. Remember, your kids are always listening, and other peoples’ kids are listening, too. If you want to end the bickering, fighting, backstabbing, and name-calling, then be the first to stop.

Second, put your trust in God and quit panicking. If fear is your motivator, then you will make mistakes. I recently did an Escape room and missed escaping by 2 seconds because I panicked and missed calling out a single number for the door code. Fear causes us not to be sharper, more vigilant citizens but half-crazed vigilantes always looking under the bed for the next political boogeyman. Do what you can, call your representatives if you need to, and leave the rest to God. Love others, and be confident in God’s love, because perfect love drives out fear.

Lastly, always check your sources. It is all I can do not to name and shame people on Facebook for posting shoddily written articles built on shaky evidence. Ask yourself a couple of questions while reading each article (or headline), “Where’s the money from this article going ? (i.e. Who’s advertising?)” and “Who stands to benefit from this?” If an article appears to be too good to be true, it’s probably not entirely true. All sources are biased, but the trustworthy ones are aware of it and work to balance their reporting. Good sources are fair, and try to present both sides well. The mark of a poor thinker, writer, and citizen is to be unable to articulate the opposing side’s viewpoint.

If we, as Americans, are tired of the mud slinging and ceaseless prattle, we should educate ourselves on the viewpoints of all sides. We should challenge ourselves to walk in the shoes of another person. We should be willing to sit at the table and eat and discuss with those whose opinions differ from us. We should, unsurprisingly, work to model our lives on the self-giving character of Jesus.

Again, we need reminding from time to time, but this nation is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. The government can only be as good as we are. And that, my friends, is what should cause us to start working on ourselves.

Where Do You Live?

Ok, in hindsight, that title does sound a little on the creepy side. No answer required, and hopefully some of the creepiness will be assuaged by what follows.

I have always found it interesting when authors describe where their characters live. From the “hole in the ground” of Tolkein’s Bilbo Baggins; the dark, cold, unwelcoming abode of Dickens’s Ebenezer Scrooge, or even the cozy Waystone Inn of Rothfuss’s Kote, some of my favorite authors have given me a good idea of what these homes look like. At times, I have looked up from a book to be disappointed that I was right where I left myself rather than in the abode I had just had described in great detail to me.

So where does God live? Does He describe His home to us? In a way, He does. Genesis 1 describes the building of a magnificent Temple we know as Creation, with God laying the foundations of his own home on days 1-3 and then adding beautiful detail work on days 4-6. At the end, he places humans into Creation to be His agents, to radiate His character and authority into the world and reflect Creation’s praise back to Him. We were to be a royal priesthood, acting on God’s behalf and delivering praise and intercession back to God.

Then, after forging a covenant with a humble man longing to start a family, and delivering that family from slavery, God commissioned another “abode.” This was to be a magnificent tent, built to reflect in miniature the beauty and wonder of Creation. God’s presence would dwell there among His people and move with them as they traveled. He led his people through the wilderness, giving them the law of the covenant, and reaffirming his faithfulness.

Later, a well-meaning king, a man after God’s own heart sought to build a more permanent structure for God’s presence to inhabit. God denied his request, but only for a generation, and that king’s son built a structure that again reflected in miniature the beauty of God’s creation. Now that God’s people dwelt in the Promised Land, God would dwell with His people while calling all the nations to Himself.

See, these were to be places where heaven and earth met. God’s realm and this realm overlapped at these points, and direct contact could be made. (Though these weren’t the only places, as seen in Jacob’s visions in Genesis.) Heaven, in the Jewish mindset, isn’t some skyward place somewhere beyond the bounds of the clouds, but a place that wraps invisibly around our own experience and overlaps in wondrous and common ways. What God did next was unexpected in the time it was accomplished, but now we read the ancient story as leading up to this moment.

Heaven and earth met in the form of a baby boy, who grew into a man. This man walked and dwelt among His people bringing news of a new Exodus, a freedom from the great oppressors of sin and death. He came giving of himself, healing the sick, opening the eyes of the blind, and making the lame to walk. This living, breathing tabernacle lived, slept, and taught right beside the poor, the weak, the uneducated, and those anxious for freedom. Drawing to himself the violence great powers of darkness, this man went through death and emerged on the other side, claiming a new kind of life and Kingship.

And with His blood, he made clean and set apart a people for Himself who became themselves the place where heaven and earth meet. Now those who follow Jesus, who experience the guiding of God’s Spirit are a meeting place of heaven and earth. Jesus is continually building himself a house, a people, brick by brick, person by person, through the actions of His people.

So, I’ll ask it again: where do you live?

Waiting on Expecting

There are a few things that a person needs to have to work with kids: a deep love for children, infectious curiosity, an encouraging heart, and abiding patience. I would also suggest that perhaps a smidgen of insanity never hurts, but too much insanity leads to enjoying middle and high school age students. (Sorry, for those that aren’t familiar, Children’s and Youth ministers have inside jokes about who’s more responsible and which group is actually crazier.)

Anyway, our culture has very little patience for waiting. Most of us pay an extra fee every year just to get free two-day shipping from Amazon. We’ve bought Keurig machines to give us nearly instantaneous coffee. And I have even seen some people get frustrated with a microwave being too slow. Regardless, instant gratification is in our culture and there is very little in the way of media to combat it. In fact, it may be getting worse. Before Netflix and Hulu, we would have to wait a whole week for a new episode of our favorite show, but now entire seasons are dropped at once and the binge can proceed with vigor!

Which brings us to just how many stories in the Bible are about waiting. Abraham and Sarah wait not only for their promised child, but also the promise of a permanent home, and land. Jacob and Rachel wait not only for a child, but for their permanent home as well, Jacob dying in a foreign land. Moses waits patiently for years for freedom and the promised land, and dies before reaching it. David waits for years to become king until the previous king, Saul, passes away. The prophets wait anxiously for God’s rescue and for Israel’s repentance. The exiles wait in sorrow for the return to Jerusalem, and then for the ultimate end of exile when God comes to rule. And now, in that same vein, Jesus’ followers are also now waiting in the now-and-not-yet of the Kingdom’s arrival when God will set everything right again.

As we can see, there is a long tradition of waiting on the Lord. God takes the long view and has impeccable timing. He also often works in unexpected ways and at unexpected times. Isaac is not the firstborn, but the youngest who inherits the Covenant blessing of family and land. Joseph and Benjamin are the youngest of Jacob’s children, but Joseph ends up saving the entire family by going through a waiting period of suffering. Moses is able to experience God’s faithfulness, and, for those of us who’ve read the Gospel accounts, stands in the Promised Land alongside Elijah the prophet and Jesus. David becomes a king whose kingdom is established forever. Israel does repent and returns to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple and the walls.

At every stage the accounts end with a possibility, a new beginning. The story itself is still being written, still working out from those possibilities through those who are open to God’s presence and guidance.

And all of this gives me hope in my own waiting. Some of the first things my wife and I threw at each other while dating were the number of children and their names. (We were an odd couple, and still are. I won her over by being able to make tea in my dorm room and having a Tim Burton movie on standby. Mama always did call me special.) My wife and I knew we wanted kids, and we made sure we waited long enough to have put down some roots. But apparently we weren’t finished waiting. We haven’t received the blessing yet, but we are both hopeful. With each disappointment, each turn of an unfavorable diagnosis, we dig down a little deeper into God’s faithfulness. I hold onto the promises to Abraham, Isaac,  and Jacob, the blessings they received and God’s faithfulness to each. I know that my story hasn’t ended, and I can have hope by remembering God’s story.

Whatever you’re waiting on, hold fast to God’s faithfulness. Continue watching, because, your prayer may be answered in unexpected ways. A child might be dropped at your doorstep, or a foster child may enter your life. You may end up being called “mom” by young people you’ve influenced all over the world through the internet. And, yes, I’m using a lot of child talk here, but it applies across the board. What you expect and what God brings your way are often very different. You might do something crazy like fill out an application you expect to be rejected and find yourself on a plane to China. You just never know.

What are you waiting for? Are your eyes and mind open to what unexpected answer you might receive? Resurrection was unexpected, and still is, so that’s our bar for what to watch out for as we pray and wait!