$4.79 and Counting…

As I write this, gas prices in my area have reached $4.79 per gallon ($1.27/liter). That means the cost to fill the 20+ gallon tank in my vehicle approaches $100. Ouch! In the United States, we have experienced gasoline price increases of about 50%. Ouch indeed!!

As hard as it is to fill my gas tank and watch the numbers mount, it pales compared to the many farmers in our region that not only are experiencing a 50% increase in fuel costs but were unable to get their crops planted in a timely manner this year because of poor weather conditions. Crop planting was delayed to the point in which farmers were forced to set aside the seed dedicated to this year’s seeding to purchase new, faster maturing, lower-yielding hybrids (if available) at exorbitant prices.

But that pales in comparison with the devastation entire communities experienced when recent tornados ripped through their towns and cities. And that pales with the devastation caused by mass-shooting gunmen in the United States communities like Buffalo, NY, Uvalde, TX, and Tulsa, OK.

And then there are places in our world like Ukraine in which life has been (and continues to be) disrupted at the pleasure of a tyrannical dictator/president of neighboring Russia. Death and destruction because Putin and his oligarchs decreed it to be so.

As I’ve continued to read the story of Israel’s demise at the hands of tyrannical kingdoms and their leaders, I am realizing that $4.79/gallon isn’t such a big deal in the grand scheme of world history. From what I can gather from reading the history of the times, the barbarism that Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar displayed would make the war on Ukraine seem a bit tame. Building siege works around cities was standard procedure for the Babylon armies, leading to the natives turning on each other for survival, even reverting to cannibalism. (The TV Mini-Series, The Bible, gave us a slight understanding of period barbarism when Nebuchadnezzar had King Zedekiah’s eyes gouged out!)

This barbaric treatment of his people is what Jeremiah witnessed during his life as a prophet. As a spokesman for God, he tried to warn the people again and again. And they ignored him again and again. So he lamented and wept! (See Persistence and Same Old, Same Old).

Jeremiah’s laments have been recorded in the Hebrew scriptures, known as (appropriately named) Lamentations in the Old Testament of our Bible. The book is a mix of lament for the people and for himself, given the life-long contempt he suffered as God’s spokesperson. An example: I became the laughingstock of all my people; they mock me in song all day long… I have been deprived of peace; I have forgotten what prosperity is. So I say, “My splendor is gone and all that I had hoped from the Lord.” (Lamentations 3:14-18)

Jeremiah didn’t have a lot for which he could be hopeful. Nor did the people. The Hebrew scriptures are laced with songs of lament. The Psalms are especially replete with lament, both individual and communal. Depending on who’s doing the counting, upwards of one-third of the Pslams contain significant levels of lament. Jeremiah’s lament was not uncommon.

And yet in the middle of his lengthy lament, Jeremiah was able to say, “Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:

22 Because of the Lord’s great love [hesed] we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
24 I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
    therefore I will wait for him.” 25 The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,
    to the one who seeks him;
26 it is good to wait [hope] quietly
    for the salvation of the Lord.”
(Jeremiah 3:21-26)

Regardless of circumstances, God was the source of rescue and hope for faithful people like Jeremiah. They understood the covenant relationship between Yahweh and his people. They understood their role in his new creation project. They understood that he chose them to be a blessing to the nations. They understood and had hope.

And they understood loyalty as central to their covenant relationship with God. God initiated the covenant (see Smoking Pot in the Old Testament) and was thus the prime loyalist. We see it throughout the Hebrew scripture as love and faithfulness, usually linked together (some translations use “mercy and faithfulness” or “steadfast love and faithfulness”). The Hebrew words are hesed and emet – words rich with the loyalty implications associated with God’s character (see Hesed and Emet).

Faith and loyalty are tightly linked. When God asks us to be faithful he is primarily asking for our loyalty. Loyalty does not require perfection. Loyalty requires, quite simply, loyalty! Thus the Shema: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one [the only God]! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and with all your soul and with all your strength [your entire being]… (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, AMP). Loyalty!

Those who are faithful – loyal to God – can be hopeful. I suspect those whose loyalty wanders, lose hope.

Same Old, Same Old

I have continued reading through the book of Jeremiah in a couple of different translations, accompanied by Eugene Peterson’s classic book about his favorite prophet, Run With the Horses.  Peterson reminds his readers that Jeremiah is known as the weeping prophet.  A read of Jerimiah helps us to see why the epithet.

As described in an earlier blog post (see Persistence), the prophet Jeremiah persistently delivered God’s message to his people which was persistently rejected and ignored (often with harsh and sometimes physical contempt) leading Jeremiah to lament/vent:

“For twenty-three years*… I have spoken persistently to you, but you have not listened. You have neither listened nor inclined your ears to hear, although the Lord persistently sent to you all his servants the prophets, saying, ‘Turn now, every one of you, from his evil way and evil deeds, and dwell upon the land that the Lord has given to you and your fathers from of old and forever. (Jeremiah 25:3-5, ESV)

No wonder he wept.

A couple of days ago, May 24, 2022, I was reading Jeremiah 40-43.  Jerusalem had fallen to the Babylonians who removed the rich and influential citizens leaving behind the poor and destitute to serve as their labor force. Johanan became the default leader of this ragtag group.  Johanan and the people approached Jeremiah, asking him to “Pray that the Lord your God will tell us where we should go and what we should do” (Jeremiah 42:3) sealing the request with a vow of obedience…

5“May the Lord be a true and faithful witness against us if we do not act in accordance with everything the Lord your God sends you to tell us. Whether it is favorable or unfavorable, we will obey the Lord our God, to whom we are sending you so that it will go well with us, for we will obey the Lord our God.” (Jeremiah 41:5-6)

Long story short, they didn’t like the response from God, ignored it, and did exactly what God told them not to do.  As I reflected on this story in the context of the entire book of Jeremiah, I wrote in my journal (for the second day in a row)…

That same day, May 24, 2022, I watched in horror as the news unfolded of the murder of students and teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.  My mind was immediately flooded with the many other school shootings** in the United States (mostly over the past 25 years) – Columbine High School,  Sandy Hook Elementary, Virginia Tech, Stoneman Douglas High School, etc., etc., etc.  As I wept and reflected on the events of the day, I once again wrote in my journal…

Same old, same old!!

…followed by “When is enough enough?”  I’m certainly not the only one asking the question, “When is enough enough?”  On May 25, Steve Kerr, head coach of the Golden State Warriors in a pregame press conference, refused to talk about the all-important NBA playoff game, instead said…

“When are we going to do something? I am so tired of getting up here and offering condolences to the devastated families that are out there,” said Kerr, who was visibly frustrated. “I’m so tired of the excuse, I’m so tired of the moments of silence. Enough!”

I have many more questions! 

Chap Clark, in his ground-breaking research, concluded that we have systemically abandoned our young people in favor of adult agendas (Hurt, 2004; When Kids Hurt, 2009).  It seems he might be right.  Why can’t adults be willing to forgo some of their pet agendas in favor of our young people?  Why should my grandchildren be traumatized by lock-down active shooter drills in school? (I have been in high school buildings during such drills – I can only imagine what would go through the mind of an elementary student.)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German theologian & anti-Nazi activist, once said, “The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children.”  I wonder what Bonhoeffer might say to us today?

A couple thousand years ago, Jesus said, Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9).  I wonder what Jesus might say to us today?

And I wonder when we will get tired of the same old, same old and say Enough!?

*  Interestingly, it’s been 23 years since the Columbine shooting. ** Historically, the number of school shootings in the United States stands at 288.  Mexico has the second-most school shootings in the world – eight!

References:

Clark, C. (2004). Hurt: Inside the world of today’s teenagers. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.   

Clark, C., & Rabey, S. (2009). When kids hurt: Help for adults navigating the adolescent maze. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books

Let Your “Yes” be “Yes”

I have had recent opportunities to listen to and speak to the woes of young parents within my sphere of influence. As I reflect back on our own parenting experiences, I am grateful for a couple of encouragements that served us well. The first was through the late Howard Hendricks who encouraged parents to have very few rules, and the few should focus on things like the respect for self and others. Many rules, he suggested, required time and effort to enforce, drawing parental attention away from the “meatier” role of parenting (like character development).

A second helpful parental admonition came through a few different sources and was something akin to “Let your yes be yes and your no be no,” especially in the moment. Attempts to overexplain decisions often go south. If you are a parent, you know what I mean. Sometimes we just need our kids to trust us. Hmmm – sounds like something God might say, too.

Both admonitions point to an intentionality associated with steadfast parenting.

As stated in previous blog postings, I have been in the habit of spending daily times with God reading through the Psalms – a 25-year habit (see Fore-Edge Paintings). For the past few weeks, I have been immersed in Psalm 119, the long one focused on the psalmist’s love for God’s word, precepts, statutes. The psalm is written acrostically, 7-8 verse stanzas for each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This week I read from the stanza associated with the letter Nun (נ):

Your word is a lamp for my feet,
    a light on my path.
I have taken an oath and confirmed it,
    that I will follow your righteous laws. (Ps. 119:105-6, NIV)

The first verse brought back memories of a classic old song based on the passage. What caught my attention is the beginning of the second verse – I have taken an oath and confirmed it. The wonderment that caused me to pause: “How and what does it mean to confirm an oath?” On the surface, the answer seems quite straightforward, even black and white. One either took an oath or they didn’t. The question kept ruminating in my mind. Maybe there was more to it…

What IS an oath? My dictionary says an oath is a solemn promise, often invoking a divine witness, regarding one’s future action or behavior. By this definition, the psalmist was making a solemn promise to God to follow his righteous laws (precepts, statutes, or judgments, depending on the biblical translation). The Hebrew word used here for oath is shâba‛ (שָׁבַע) which literally means “to seven oneself.”

A common practice in Hebrew antiquity was to make seven declarations when making an oath. This could mean making the oath seven times or doing seven things to show the sincerity of the oath (i.e. seven sacrifices). Keep in mind that the number “seven” was sacred in Jewish tradition signifying that they took their oaths quite seriously.

But what does it mean to confirm one’s oath? I would think that declaring the oath seven times would be confirmation enough. Dabbling a little deeper into the text, we discover the root Hebrew word for confirm to be qûm (קוּם) which suggests the psalmist was steadfastly purposed in fulfilling the oath. Steadfastly purposed would lead me to believe there was intentionality associated with the oath – intentionality in following God’s law.

Over time, oath-making had gotten a little out of hand. When Jesus arrived on the scene, the religious leaders and their lawyers had turned “oathing” into something that served them well. They had invented a system of traditions laced with loopholes. They took the position that only when they made an oath were they required to be truthful. Oaths were commonly sworn in such a manner that unless the name of God was specifically mentioned in the oath, it wasn’t binding (first-century fine print!). And thus lengthy arguments and debates ensued over when an oath was or was not binding. It seems like a pretty significant departure from the psalmist’s intentionality to follow God’s laws.

It was enough of a departure that Jesus addressed oath-making during his discourse we know as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Employing his oft-used “You have heard it said, but I say to you” formula, Jesus negated the use of oaths…

But I say, do not make any vows [or oaths]! … Just say a simple, ‘Yes, I will,’ or ‘No, I won’t.’ Anything beyond this is from the evil one. (Matt. 5:34-37, NLT)*

What Jesus was saying was profound and simple. Cultural Judaism and traditions were focused on oaths, promises, and rules. Their time and energy were focused on either keeping their oaths, promises, and rules or developing workarounds to suit their needs. God was left out of the equation. Thus his rebuke of their tradition-focused behavior in which they neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. (Matthew 23:23)

It’s an easy trap to fall into. In wanting to live an exemplary Christian life, we can easily be drawn to cultural Christian traditions that focus on what and how and end up neglecting the weightier matters (the why) of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. It requires intentionality.

* Some translations read (and the Greek affirms), “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no.'” By the way, this must have resonated with Jesus’ own brother, James. He reiterated the thought in his epistle. See James 5:12

Persistence

One word that described all of our children when they were young was persistence. As toddlers, they never gave up getting my attention: “Dad, Dad, Dad…DAD!” Though it took on different forms, they exhibited persistence well beyond their toddler years. In all honestly, though sometimes frustrated by such persistence, I was mostly appreciative of their sticktoitiveness.

From Merriam Webster – Persistence: firm or obstinate continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition. Persistence can be a positive thing – firm continuance. Or negative – obstinate continuance. Two types of persistence with day and night outcomes.

I’ve slowly been reading chronologically through scripture using a less familiar translation, The Voice. “Slowly” is the operative word. I’m using a chronological “read through the bible in a year” plan that I started in January 2021 and am presently in the book of Jeremiah. Slowly.

Jeremiah, the prophet, was the epitome of persistence. Yahweh, the One True God, called Jeremiah into service as a prophet in 626 BC, the thirteenth year of Josiah’s reign as king of Judah (the southern kingdom of Israel). He continued serving God as a prophet until the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 586 BC. He served God under five different kingly reigns in Judah – Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah. As a prophet, Jeremiah’s main job was to speak to the people on God’s behalf, regarding both present situations and future events.

Jeremiah’s call as a prophet seemingly came at an opportune time. Josiah had been instituting religious reforms and the people of Judah were returning to God. It was a good time to be a prophet in Israel. But the reforms would be short-lived. The region was already in upheaval. The Assyrian Empire, soon to fall to the Babylonian Empire, had captured the northern kingdom of Israel. Jeremiah and his countrymen found themselves caught in the chaos of “international” changes. The shalom of the southern kingdom of Israel (Judah), her leaders, and her capital, Jerusalem, was in jeopardy.

Did Judah’s leaders look to God in the midst of the chaos and uncertainty? Not at all. Jehoahaz disregarded his father, Josiah’s, reforms and things went downhill from there. Each of the subsequent kings followed suit. They were persistent in doing things their way, ultimately returning to false prophets and idols. Jeremiah’s role during this? To speak to the people – kings, and commoners alike – on behalf of God. It came at great personal cost. But he hung in there. He was persistent.

“For twenty-three years, from the thirteenth year of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, to this day, the word of the Lord has come to me, and I have spoken persistently to you, but you have not listened. You have neither listened nor inclined your ears to hear, although the Lord persistently sent to you all his servants the prophets, saying, ‘Turn now, every one of you, from his evil way and evil deeds, and dwell upon the land that the Lord has given to you and your fathers from of old and forever. (Jeremiah 25:3-5, ESV)

Persistence abounded – on every level. God had been persistent in his loyalty (hesed) to his people for generations, a persistence not lost on the people. He was persistent in reminding them of the simplicity of his covenant formula – I want to be your God, I want you to be my people (cf. Exodus 6:7, Leviticus 11:44-45, Leviticus 26:11-12, Deuteronomy 29:13). Through Jeremiah, God repeatedly and persistently reminded the people of the security associated with adherence to the covenant formula. For example:

Obey me, and I will be your God, and you will be my people. Do everything as I say, and all will be well! (Jeremiah 7:23 NLT)

Unfortunately, the people obstinately continued to ignore God, replacing him with images they had created. They replaced the God of creation with gods they created – gods that they thought would serve their purposes. And all was not well. King Nebuchadrezzar and his Babylonian armies overran Judah, laid siege on Jerusalem, decimated the Temple, and carted a majority of the people away into exile.

None of this was a surprise to Jeremiah nor should it have been to the people. Jeremiah had firmly continued to warn the people. They persistently (obstinately) chose not to listen as evident in the chapter 25 passage above. Oh, and they persistently abused Jeremiah for delivering God’s message. Throughout the book of Jeremiah, we can feel his anguish, also evident in the above passage.

But God is persistent in his covenant loyalty. Though exile would last 70 years, a whole generation, he promised to bring the people back from captivity and restore them in the land with a new covenant which Jesus ultimately brought to fruition:

“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
    after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
    and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people
” (Jeremiah 31:33 NIV)

God’s covenant formula transfers from the old to the new covenant. Let me be your God (He’s’ good at that) and all will be well. He never said, “all will be easy.” But he did say “all will be well.” It’s the essence of the Lord’s Prayer.

Eugene Peterson wrote a book about 20 years ago, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society. Peterson captured the essence of the covenant formula from our perspective: persistence in letting God be God. Perhaps Merriam-Webster needs revising…

Persistence: firm or obstinate continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition; a long obedience in the same direction.

Beeswax Candles

I have traveled to a few foreign countries, each time aware of smells and aromas different from what I am familiar with. My first journey was to Paris where I was inundated with the smells of all kinds of perfumes and colognes. Now anytime I pass the cosmetic section of a department store, the aromas make me think of that trip to Paris. Anyone who has traveled to a foreign country knows what I mean.

While navigating the narrow shop-lined streets of Old Jerusalem a few weeks ago, I was confronted with a particularly sweet smell that seemed to permeate everything. I discovered the common source – virgin beeswax candles. Almost every shop was selling them in preparation for the upcoming Easter celebrations. They were sold in bundles of 30-40, thousands and thousands of bundles. (They are apparently available on Amazon, as well). I had never seen these pencil-thin beeswax candles before in my life. What was their significance?

I discovered that the candles are of particular importance in Eastern Christian traditions. We got a little sense of their use while in Jerusalem visiting various Christian shrines like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. After returning from our pilgrimage to Israel, I did a little more digging…

Our Eastern Orthodox friends celebrated Easter this past weekend (April 24, 2022). This is my abridged understanding of how Greek orthodoxy celebrates the resurrection of Jesus: The celebration actually begins the night prior to Easter, the day often referred to as Holy Saturday (the “forgotten day” of Easter week). Parishioners gather for a typical lengthy liturgical service. At midnight, in a completely darkened church, a priest steps out from the altar area with a single lighted candle (the Holy Light), announcing “Christos Anesti!”– Christ is Risen!

“Christos Anesti!”– Christ is Risen!

The parishioners arrive with candles in hand, prepared to receive the light of the world. While continuing to chant “Christos Anesti!” the priest begins passing the Holy Light to nearby parishioners who in turn pass the light to one another, saying “Christos Anesti!” with the recipient replying “Alithos Anesti!” (Truly He is Risen). The light, representing the Risen Christ radiates out into the congregation, then out the door into the world. The candles, usually beeswax, remain lit and carried home, bringing the Light into their homes.

As we witnessed when in Israel, light from candles permeates Eastern Orthodox tradition, culture, and worship. As it apparently should! The Apostle John began his Gospel narrative by reminding his readers that Jesus is the light of the world:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…  9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. (John 1:1-5, 9)

Jesus’ teaching likely shaped John’s thinking regarding this “light of all mankind.” In John 7, we find Jesus in Jerusalem attending the Festival of the Tabernacles (or Booths). It was one of three annual festivals to which the Israelites were to make a pilgrimage to the Temple, if at all possible. As typical, Jesus used the opportunity to teach “the people” about God’s Kingdom. And as typical, opposition arose from the religious leaders, specifically the chief priests and the Pharisees.

The feast associated with the Festival included a lamp lighting ritual. It is possible that Jesus was alluding to this ritual when he said to the people (anyone within hearing – pilgrims, his followers, the opposition)…

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

John would also have remembered Jesus’ teaching in what we know as the Sermon on the Mount. Speaking specifically to his disciples, his close followers, Jesus passed the light onto them:

14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)

As Christ-followers in the 21st century, maybe we should light a few beeswax candles as a reminder that we, too, are the light of the world. We possess the light but are not to be possessive of that light. We are to let it shine. We are to pass it on to others, so it can radiate out into a dark and broken world. A statement N.T. Wright made at the Wheaton Theology Conference in 2010 comes to mind…

Politics is the constant to-ing & fro-ing between tyranny and chaos.  But we believe in Jesus Christ and in the sovereign saving rule that he exercises from the cross and in His resurrection.  And we have the task of modeling before the world what that sort of polis would look like.  Not as an independent thing hiding away from the world, keeping the light to ourselves so that we can then say, “look at the rest of the world, isn’t it dark?”  Well, of course it is if we’re not shining the light there!

Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

An addendum (4/29/2022). I invited my friend and Young Life Colleague in North Macedonia, Brook Filipovski , to critique my description of Eastern Orthodox Easter. Her response: I think you did a great job of explaining the Orthodox practice. We have actually not been to a service here as our kids are so little and there’s no good place to go in the church, but maybe next year… This year I was at a friend’s house until just past midnight as she turned 40 on Easter morning. As I drove our mutual friend and me home, we got detoured as a huge Orthodox church in the neighborhood was spilling out thousands on the street in the 12:15 AM time slot. It was very moving to see everyone with their candles.

Israel

My wife, Barb, and I recently returned from a 10-day pilgrimage to Israel. The opportunity to join a group from our community on a pilgrimage surfaced about a year ago. Though not sure of the financial ability to make the trek, Barb and I agreed together that we should move toward this experience.  It seemed right to the Holy Spirit and us (cf Acts 15:28).

When I started this blog three years ago, I had two things in mind.  I discovered over the years that I am able to process my theological learnings and ponderings through writing, especially if I’m writing for others to understand (I credit my doctoral work at Bethel University for solidifying this for me).  So blogging has become a means of processing for me and in this posting, I will start to assess the amazing opportunity we had to visit the land central to our faith.

Secondly, I want to develop a theology that is practical, both for me and those reading these blog posts.  Thus the descriptor of this blog: We each need a theology that is practical for day-to-day living. A simple definition of theology is the attempt to understand God and what he is up to. Practical Theology Today is a blog focused on gaining a better understanding of God so that we can join in his work.

Though we went on this pilgrimage because it seemed right to the Holy Spirit and us, I didn’t go simply to “get closer to God” (though that certainly happened). I think I traveled to the Holy Land to solidify my theology (keeping in mind the definition of theology), further my understanding of God, and ultimately enlighten my journey as a Christ-follower.  So please join me as I start processing my trip…

Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives

As I said, this was a pilgrimage.  Our leaders, David and Elizabeth Sparks of Footstep Ministries, regularly referred to our time together as a pilgrimage. I’m beginning to understand the significance of the terminology. By definition, a pilgrimage is a journey of a pilgrim. A pilgrim is one that journeys in foreign lands and travels to a shrine or holy place as a devotee. We certainly got to do that. The second definition of pilgrimage is the course of life on earth. The pilgrimage continues!

Pilgrimage is the course of life on earth.

With Context as one of my top CliftonStrenghts, I suspect visiting the land we call Holy will have a transformative effect on my ongoing pilgrimage. It occurred to me that God is the designer of the concept of pilgrimage (i.e., regular journeys to the temple) as part of the Israelite’s course of life (with their God).

Four times a year they were instructed to trek to the temple in Jerusalem for various festivals, with Passover as the granddaddy of them all. As we immerse ourselves in the Gospels as Christ-followers, we read several times about Jesus and his disciples, his students, going up to Jerusalem to attend a festival (the last one, the Passover, leading to his crucifixion).

Consider that journey, that pilgrimage from the Galilee region to Jerusalem in the first century. It was a 100-mile (160 km) walk, covering most of a week. They would typically travel south along the Jordon River to Jericho, then west the final 20 miles (32 km) up into Jerusalem on the road made famous by Jesus in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. [When the Gospel authors wrote “go up to Jerusalem,” that’s what they literally meant. The elevation of Jericho is roughly -850′ (-260 m) – yes, below sea level. Jerusalem’s elevation is close to 2500′ (760 m) above sea level – a climb of 3350′ (1020 m).]

The road from Jericho to Jerusalem (on the far side of the wadi)

As a Lenten practice this year, I’ve been reading through the Gospels. One does not need to spend a lot of time immersed in the Gospels to realize that Jesus and his disciples did a lot of walking. In addition to their regular Jerusalem treks, they traveled from Capernaum out to the Mediterranean Sea, north to Tyre and Sidon, north to Caesarea Philippi, south to Samaria – to name a few of their journeys. After seeing the very rugged, hilly, and rocky geography and topography of Israel, I’m beginning to realize how much time they spent together “on the road” (or on pilgrimage?) navigating the terrain.

As we immerse ourselves in the Gospels, we begin to realize that much of Jesus’ teaching was directed toward his followers as they journeyed from place to place, as they trekked the hills and valleys of Israel. It’s the nature of following – being with Jesus and learning from him (see Follow the Leader). I picture those first-century followers watching Jesus proclaim the Kingdom of God throughout Galilee with an approach significantly different than they had ever seen or expected, then Jesus taking them on long treks, pilgrimages, where he could help them understand what was going on, help them better understand the God of the Kingdom.

As Christ-followers, we are on a lifelong pilgrimage to seek and understand the God of the Kingdom. May it not be just a course of life on earth but rather the course of our life on the earth. Immersion in the Gospels is primary to our pilgrimage; a trip to Israel is a close second!

Follow the Leader

About 20-25 years ago I discontinued the use of the word “Christian” as a descriptor, choosing the term “Christ-follower” instead. In western and particularly American dialogue, the noun Christian has been relegated to use primarily as an adjective (i.e., Christian music, Christian books, Christian t-shirts, Christian schools). The noun Christian lost its meaning. A Christian is a person who follows (verb) Jesus. Nouns and verbs go together, thus Christ-follower.

But, what does it mean to be a Christ-follower, especially in the 21st century? How does it play out in our day-to-day living? Key to the answers to these questions is an understanding of what “following” implies…

When the first-century disciples heard Jesus say, “Follow me,” they understood exactly what he was asking of them.  When we look back in history, we look through the lens of what we know to be true today – Jesus was God’s Son, God in the flesh, the messiah, the savior, the resurrected one.  Not to those first ones he called.  To them, Jesus was a Jewish Rabbi.

Jesus entered a religiously driven culture and education system.  In first-century Palestine, the boys (sorry girls) started school at about six years old.  For the next 3-4 years they memorized the Torah – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  Memorized.  The whole Tora!  By the time they were ten!  (Have you ever wondered why Jesus spoke to the people as though they had a good knowledge of the scriptures?  It’s because they did!).

By age ten, those with natural abilities to memorize and understand the scriptures began to distance themselves from others.  They were invited to continue on with their education.  The others?  They were invited to go back home and learn the trade of their fathers’.  Yes, they were cut.  Sounds a bit like sports in America.

Those that continued with their formal education spent the next four years memorizing the rest of the Hebrew scriptures – the Old Testament, as we know it.  Thirty-nine books.  Have you ever looked at how thick the Old Testament is?  Memorized!  During this time, the students also began learning the questions that surrounded the scriptures.  Questions, not answers.  We wouldn’t do so well with that in our culture, would we?  It also might explain why Jesus was more of a question-asker than an answer-giver.

As you can imagine, by age 14-15, only the best of the best students remained.  The rest were home learning their fathers’ trades.  Those remaining would then apply to a well-known rabbi to become one of that rabbi’s disciples. The goal of the student wasn’t just to learn from the rabbi but to actually become like him.  The student in effect, said, “I want to follow you – follow so close that I am actually covered by the dust you kick up as we walk together” (cf. Dust)

The rabbi would interview the student applicants to weed out the best of the best and end up with the “best of the best of the best.”  The rabbi wanted someone that not only could learn academically but that was actually willing to become like him.  Those weeded out would go home to learn the trade of their fathers.  To the ones he chose, he would say, “Follow me” and the disciple knew exactly what was being asked of him.  When the rabbi said, “follow me” he is implying to the disciple that he believed the disciple had what it took to learn from him, become like him, and join him in his mission

As is evident in the Gospel accounts, Jesus was viewed as a rabbi.  The rabbi Jesus lived around the lake Galilee region, probably in Capernaum.  He had likely lived in this fishing village for a few years.  It was a small town so it would be safe to say he knew and was known by a majority of its residents.  I suspect the locals were fully aware that their resident rabbi wasn’t like any other rabbi they knew, though they couldn’t quite put their finger on why he was different.

Peter and Andrew fished that lake for a living.  They probably learned from their father, which meant they didn’t make one of the cuts in the education system.  James and John also fished the lake with their father.  Maybe they were 15-16 years old. And they all paid taxes to Levi who probably set up his tax booth near the shores of the lake so he could witness their haul; so he could charge enough taxes to satisfy Rome, King Herod, and insure his personal wealth.

To all five of these guys Jesus said, “Come, follow me.”  They knew exactly what he was saying to them.  Exactly!  There were invited to be with him, learn from him, become like him, and join him in his mission – become fishers of people. Can you imagine the sting of being cut, of being told that you didn’t have what it took, that you weren’t good enough for God?  And then to hear this unique, renegade rabbi that seemed to speak differently about God say, “Follow me” – how cool is that? 

Why wouldn’t they follow Him?  Why wouldn’t any of us follow Him? And why would we settle for an adjective instead of a verb?

Baptism, Pickles, and Steel Poles

During this time of Lent, in preparation to celebrate Easter, I am reading through the four Gospels a couple of times.  One of the times is via Audible.  There is something quite beneficial in listening to familiar scripture – we hear things that we might easily have glossed over while reading. Listening to the Gospel of John, I became aware of a fair amount of discussion about baptism in the first few chapters – John the Baptist, Jesus’ own baptism, Jesus and John baptizing concurrently, etc. 

A question surfaced at Young Life College several years ago as to where the concept of baptism came from. To them, it appeared to have been something new with John the Baptist’s ministry.  So I did some digging and discovered some interesting stuff…

At the time of John the Baptist, baptism was not new to Judaism and was mostly reserved for proselytes (Gentiles converting to Judaism, which was rare).  It appears that first-century Christians borrowed a term used in the Greek world in describing what takes place within baptism.  Two different, though related, Greek words show up in the New Testament:

  • Bapto – which basically means to dip (as in ‘dip into dye’) and is used only three times in the New Testament, one being when Jesus dipped the bread into wine during the last supper (John 13:26).
  • Baptizo – derived from bapto, means to dip repeatedly (so the item being dipped gets washed), immersed or submerged (as in a sunken vessel).  It also means ‘to overwhelm.’  (cf. Uncharted Waters.) Immersion wasn’t a new concept to first century Judaism, either. Priests would achieve ritual putity via total immersion in a bath known as a Mikvah.

What is really interesting was the discovery of the use of both words in a Greek recipe for making pickles, dating to about 200 BC.  The text states, “that in order to make a pickle, the vegetable should first be ‘dipped’ (bapto) into boiling water and then ‘baptized’ (baptizo) in the vinegar solution.  Both verbs concern the immersing of vegetables in a solution. But the first is temporary. The second, the act of baptizing the vegetable, produces a permanent change.” (Thayer, 1889)

This is fascinating!  John’s baptism suggested a change of mind (repent) and a respective change in actions leading to fruit-bearing (see Matthew 3 and Luke 3).  He also said that Jesus would essentially take it a step further, baptizing with the Holy Spirit.  In explaining this, the Apostle Paul said “don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6:3).   If baptizo implies submersion or sunk to the bottom of the sea (overwhelmed), one can assume death occurs!  I think that’s Paul’s point – baptism isn’t just a ‘ceremonial cleansing’ but rather death to the one being baptized, with reemergence analogous to resurrection and rebirth.

Paul uses “in Christ” language throughout his letters, reminding us “all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes.” (Galatians 3:27) and in 2 Corinthians 5:17 “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”  Permanent change!

Galvanizing of Steel Poles

I am reminded of the process of galvanizing steel poles that I used to design.  Here’s the galvanizing process in a nutshell:  the steel pole is dipped (bapto?) into an acid bath for cleansing, then immersed and submerged into a vat of molten zinc (about 600 degrees).  The pole remains submerged (baptizo?) until the steel reaches the same temperature as the zinc.  At this point, the steel and zinc molecules fuse together and something new is created.  When the pole is brought back up out of the vat, the molecular structure of the surface of the steel is permanently changed. *

Being baptized into Christ isn’t about cleaning up our act.  It’s about dying to self and being galvanized to Jesus, the result being new creation.  I like how the Amplified Bible treats 2 Corinthians 5:17:

Therefore if any person is [ingrafted] in Christ (the Messiah) he is a new creation (a new creature altogether); the old [previous moral and spiritual condition] has passed away. Behold, the fresh and new has come!

* An additional, interesting thing about the galvanizing process:  When the finished galvanized product is placed into the environment, the zinc actually sacrifices itself in protecting the steel.  Hmmm.

Reference: Grimm, C. L. W., Thayer, J. H., & Wilke, C. G. (1889). Thayer’s Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich: Associated publishers and authors.

Ash Wednesday…

Lent 2022 starts today, Ash Wednesday. Lent (literally springtime) was popularized in the fourth century and had a different and more practical purpose than we might think seventeen centuries later. If we were to poll people this week as to the purpose of Lent, we would likely hear something about what we should give up during the 6+ weeks leading up to Easter. We might likely have a similar view. If so, we find ourselves entering into this springtime with a negative perspective. I live in Minnesota. With another snow event predicted for this weekend, I am not hearing many people dread the coming of spring. Who would want to approach spring sullenly? What about Lent?

The editors of Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter suggest that “Lent should never be morose – an annual ordeal during which we begrudgingly forgo a handful of pleasures. Instead, we ought to approach Lent as an opportunity, not a requirement.” After all, the main purpose of fasting (the forgoing of a pleasure) is to provide more opportunities to discover and enjoy God. There is an old liturgy that refers to the Lent and Easter season as “this joyful season.” How might we approach Lent this year (and every year) in a manner that brings joy? I will toss out a few suggestions, trusting readers to weigh in with other suggestions…

  • Read one of the Gospels. Read all of the Gospels! This is always my go-to. You can plan your reading so that you finish at Easter, providing you with the backstory leading up to Jesus’ death and resurrection.
  • Read Walter Wangerin’s classic Reliving the Passion (based on the Gospel of Mark). It has been transformative for me over the years. (It’s available for Kindle… or Amazon can get it to you in a couple days.)
  • Read Bread and Wine.
  • Find a weekly Lenten service with the express purpose of discovering and enjoying God in new ways.
  • Since we are talking about the hope of springtime, N.T. Wright’s book Surprised by Hope would be a good read (though it might take you past Easter to finish).

Whatever you choose to do during this season, God will meet you, further revealing himself to you (I speak from experience!). Blessings!

Tov Meod

Growing up on a farm, we had a dairy herd with a mix of registered and non-registered Holstein cows. My dad was on the cutting edge of dairy husbandry, locally and nationally. He served on the local Holstein Association board and on local and national levels of the Dairy Herd Improvement Association. I might have mentioned elsewhere that we received monthly computer printouts showing production, cost analysis, and mature potential for each cow, dating back to the mid-1960s.

The Holstein Association provides a classification system similar to academic grading. The herd owner pays a significant fee to have a “classifier” come to the farm to grade each registered cow. Even though a well-developed rubric is used, the process is a bit subjective. The classification categories are Excellent, Very Good, Good, and Fair. Excellent and Very Good classifications garner national attention, leading to a greater value of the cow, beyond just her production history. I noticed on the Holstein Ass’n website that there is a national “honor roll” of cows receiving one of these two classifications, as can be seen here. It’s a big deal! And we are only talking about cows.

Ever wonder how human value is classified/determined? Historically, we have created classification systems that separate out royalty, aristocracy, common people, serfdom, etc. (think Downton Abby). What about God? How does he classify humanity in the grand scheme of things?

Looking at the creation narrative (Genesis 1) we can see that at the completion of each of his creative activities, God saw that it was good (cf 1:10, 1:12, 1:18, 1:21). The Hebrew word for “good” is tov. God looked at his creation, calling it tov. We love God’s tov creation, which is one reason we so enjoy nature and national parks so much.

I love looking at images from the Hubble telescope. The Hubble was designed to peer deep into space, into this massive universe that God created. Here are a few fun images…

Our Galaxy – the Milky Way

The bottom Hubble image is a photo peering deep into the Milky Way, our galaxy. Scientists estimate the Milky Way to be 100,000 light-years in diameter and 20,000 light-years thick (keep in mind that a light-year is approximately 6 trillion miles), consisting of a couple billion stars. And there are several billion such galaxies in this universe that God saw as good, tov.

Looking further into the Genesis 1 creation story, we find the description of the creation of humanity…

Right now I don’t want to focus on the “in our image” portion – that’s a whole nother conversation. What’s of importance here is the fact that the narrative repeated three times that God created humans. Something to know about Hebrew poetry: Anything stated is worthy of our attention. If stated twice, then more so. However, anything repeated three times is exponentially more important. We should lean in and take heed. Repeated three times is an indicator that the creation of humans far outweighs the creation of the rest of the universe, as beautiful and grand as it is. We are of great value!

After the completion of humanity, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). Very good in Hebrew is tov meod. Only after the creation of humanity did God describe his creation project as very good, tov meod. Apparently, as the pinnacle of his creation, we are exponentially more valuable to God than the rest of creation. Or as someone reminded me 40 years ago…

As a creation of God’s, my worth is a given. There’s nothing I can do to gain more worth or to lose my worth – tov meod news!