Circular Thinking

The first day of the Summer Residency for my Doctorate in Higher Educational Leadership program started with a “get to know each other” exercise. We were each given a sheet of paper from a flip-chart and some colored markers. We were instructed to spread out and create a sheet that described who we are with the understanding that we would share our creation with the cohort. A great and fun idea. Who doesn’t want to get to share who they are? So, I wandered out of the classroom to find a quiet place to create my sheet.

When I came back into the room I discovered how linear my thinking was, as you can see below. Next to mine is a photo of my friend Amy Bronson’s creation. As I shared my sheet with the class, I simply worked down the list, discussing each of the bullet points – quite linear. As Amy discussed her story, she took us on a journey around her sheet – almost in a circular manner.

There is a significant different between Eastern and Western thought. One of those differences is our actual thinking process. Western thinking is quite linear – steps 1,2,3, leading to a final outcome. Eastern thinking is more process-oriented and “circular.” The focus isn’t about getting to the final outcome but the pilgrimage. Its more about the journey than the outcome.

We need to remember that Hebrew thinking was Eastern, which means the Hebrew scriptures were written by Eastern thinkers. Notice how the Old Testament is written in story and journey form. It doesn’t give us exacting formulas to land on, but principles to follow (the Proverbs are a great example of this). In our Western thinking, we tend to presume that the New Testament follows the Old Testament linearly. We must also remember that Jesus was trained and grew up in an Eastern culture, learning the Hebrew scriptures. (This would be true of the Apostle Paul and most, if not all, of the other New Testament writers who constantly circled back to the Hebrew scriptures as they developed their own understanding of Jesus and his anointing as King)

I want to circle back to a previous blog post, The Great Omission. In it we looked at what is often referred to as Jesus’ Two Great Commandments:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:36-40)

I have always suspected the two commandments were more circular in their intent (i.e., Hebrew thought). I suspect we get bogged with Western linear thought (i.e., once I learn to love God well, then I can begin to love others). Since we can never quite get that figured out (how to love God well) then we subconsciously (or consciously) allow ourselves off the hook regarding the loving our neighbors.

Looking at the two commandments in a circular manner might look like this: We love God the best we can, as best as we know him, and start loving others because he asked us to.  In the process, we see and know God better (and maybe differently), so we can love him all the more, allowing us love others better, etc., etc.  

My friend Chuck Jamison pointed me to something that New Testament scholar M. Robert Mulholland suggested regarding the two commandments. The text, he says, could be translated “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. Another way to say this is to love your neighbor as yourself.”

Chuck Jamison: “Love your neighbor” is just another way of saying “Love God.” To actually love God would be to love my neighbor… whomever is standing in front of me at the present moment. That’s a powerful thought. Imagine the transformative power in that – for me and the world around me!

The Great Commission

In the last posting, we discussed The Great Omission, in which we wondered if, culturally, we have maybe disqualified Jesus from important societal discussions. I want to continue the conversation today, January 18, 2021, which is the 35th anniversary of Martin Luther King (MLK) Day. MLK Day is a federal holiday in the United Sates, set aside to celebrate the life and achievements of American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. This year, we commemorate King’s 90th birthday.

I wonder what Dr. King would have to say about the increased racial tensions evident in America today. I wonder what he would say to the Christian community about the role we have played (or not played) in addressing the racial disparities and tensions we face today…

I recently read a rather disturbing study by the Barna Group. Their research showed that practicing Christians – self-identified Christians who say their faith is very important in their lives – are no more likely to acknowledge racial injustice than they were prior to the tragic deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and others this past summer (cf Barna, September 2020). I wonder what Dr. King would say to us?

Here is another interesting Barna study which I find equally disturbing in light of the Great Omission post: According to their research, over half of American Christians have never heard of the Great Commission, and over 37% of those polled couldn’t identify the Great Commission out of a list of various Bible verses. As a reminder, in what we refer to as the Great Commission, Jesus said:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matthew 28:16-20)

The Great Commission was Jesus’ “marching orders” to his followers, trickling down to the 21st Century. It’s our mission, vision and core values rolled into one statement. And half of us are unaware of its existence? I think we’ve discovered the disconnect. How are we to do what Jesus wants us to do if we don’t know what Jesus want us to do? If we don’t know what Jesus wants us to do, then we are “free” to pick and choose whatever we want. It would explain how external ideologies and rhetoric are free to affect our thoughts and actions. Isn’t it imperative that we know/discover Jesus and his desires for us as followers?

Over the years I have always pointed people to the Gospels. How else will we possibly know the Jesus of scripture? (I use the term “Jesus of scripture” in opposition to the “Jesus” of culture.) This is what is frustrating and deeply disturbing for me: I suspect a very high percentage of those who claim to be Christians have never read through the Gospels even once. That leaves us susceptible to cultural ideologies contrary to our commission.

Prior to the inception of watermarks in our currency, do you know how bank tellers were trained to distinguish between real and counterfeit bills? They spent time familiarizing themselves with the real thing so that when a counterfeit shows up, it’s obvious to them. I hope and pray that we are willing to spend significant time in the Gospels, doing the heavy lifting necessary to know the difference between the Jesus of scripture and all the counterfeits running around these day.

Otherwise, we can be duped! And who wants to be duped?

The Great Omission

As I’ve watched the events of the past several years, and especially the past ten months or so, I have been confused and frustrated. But after the events in Washington DC last week and seeing the responses from much of the Christian community, I am deeply disturbed. When we discuss political and social needs of human beings in our country (human beings created in God’s image, by the way) it appears to me that we have left Jesus out of the equation. “Left out” would be an omission. I fear we have intentionally removed Jesus from important discussions and, worse, have figured out how to justify such actions. That’s not just an omission but a commission, as in “the action of committing [an] offense.”

Ironically, there is a passage in scripture known as the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20). Jesus to his disciples:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

A key element to this directive is disciple-making – inviting people to follow Jesus and teaching them to obey everything Jesus commanded. I remember reading this early in my Christian journey, wondering exactly what those commands were. It drove me to read the Gospels several times over. I even made a list of all his commands (which was daunting, by the way). My second or third time through the Gospels, I suddenly realized that all his commands (and in fact, all of scripture) hinged on just two:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Deuteronomy 6:5). This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:36-40)

And who is my neighbor? That’s what the theologian asked Jesus in the narrative we know as the Good Samaritan story. In response to the question, Jesus told a story that didn’t fit the man’s ideology. Your neighbor, Jesus indicated, is likely the one you dislike (hate?) the most. It appears the guy didn’t decide to follow Jesus. Is there a chance our ideologies clash with Jesus?

Who is my neighbor? Former President Jimmy Carter tells the story of a Cuban immigrant pastor named Eloy Cruz, a man who focused his life and ministry on Puerto Rican immigrants to the United States, people who were among the poorest of the poor. President Carter asked this pastor about the secret of his success. Cruz responded in humility and with a certain measure of embarrassment. “Señor Jimmy, we only need to have two loves in life—for God and for the person who happens to be standing in front of us at any time” (Leif Anderson). My neighbor is whomever God places in my path even if I don’t like them, even if they are different than me.

How can people who claim to be Christ-followers be willing to set aside the tenets of Jesus? How can we, instead, seem to be okay with rhetoric that demonizes our neighbors and turns them into enemies (don’t miss the irony that Jesus also commanded us to love our enemies). Help me understand! To me, it appears we have been willing to set Jesus aside. (See also What the Right and Left Have in Common.)

How else can we explain the Christian community’s inability (and unwillingness?) to face, admit, and speak into the divisions and disparities so evident in our society?

As you can see, I’m mostly asking questions here. However, something is surely amiss and we, the Christian community, need to be willing to ask where we might have missed the mark. I am open to hearing your thoughts!

Barrington Bunny

“A gift. A free gift. No strings attached.”

The above quote was lifted from a short story by Martin Bell called Barrington Bunny. It’s a Christmas story. And an Easter story. The two can’t be separated. Both are about giving. And about sacrifice.

In our culture, we usually give from our surpluses, our extra, when we can afford it. And in our economy today, fewer of us can afford it. But in God’s economy, giving is sacrificial…

Consider Jesus’ discourse with his disciples, after observing the giving habits of people at the temple: Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” (Mark 12: 41-44)

Jesus equates giving to sacrifice. He’s kind of an authority on the subject. He was the greatest unconditional gift. A free gift. No strings attached. The well-known scripture passage tells us just that: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

So what do we do with this? What of us? The Apostle John made sure that we understood the principle that Jesus modeled, “God loved, so he gave,” transferred to us his disciples, his followers. This is what he wrote to early believers and was captured in the New Testament book of 1 John: This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for one another. (1 John 3:16)

God loved, so he gave the ultimate gift – Jesus. A free gift. No strings attached.

Jesus loved, so he gave the ultimate gift – his life. A free gift. A sacrificial gift. No strings attached.

We are called to love, to give of ourselves – free gifts. Sacrificial gifts. With no strings attached.

This Christmas, ponder on the significance that God loved, so he gave. So simple and yet so profound. This is the true meaning of Christmas. And of Easter.

Jesus, the Radical Counter-Culturalist

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the Gospel of Luke the past couple months, most recently reading the “Sermon on the Plain” (Luke 6). In the “sermon” narrative, Jesus made a somewhat famous, unconventional, counter-intuitive, counter-cultural, and radical statement…

To you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. (Luke 6:27-28)

I say somewhat famous because I suspect most people are familiar with the three words, “Love your enemies.” However, we must not miss that Jesus was saying far more to his followers. I fear that because these words are quite familiar, they can easily be heard or read without a second thought. Remember that familiarity breeds contempt. These three words and the rest of this short discourse were not familiar to Jesus’ first century followers and they likely didn’t go unnoticed. They were counter-cultural and radical.

Notice that Jesus started with the statement, “To you who are listening…” Jesus was well aware of the fact that his words might go into one’s ear canal, but no farther. Parents understand this concept. So do our kids. Jesus often said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear” (cf. Luke 8:8 and 14:35). Jesus was effectively saying. “Lean in and listen – this is the stuff of God’s kingdom, if you are willing and able to receive it.”

Love your enemies.

Jesus followed his introductory “lean in” comment with the charge that his followers love their enemies. There are three main Greek words used to describe love – eros (erotic love), plileo (‘brotherly’ love) and agapē (goodwill and benevolence). Agapē uniquely describes and expresses God‘s love for his creation. The word used in this passage is agapē. Jesus appealed to his first-century and subsequent followers to agapē their enemies. He implores us to love our enemies in the same manner in which we expect God to love us – with grace, mercy, goodwill and benevolence.

Jesus suggested practical ways that we, his followers, might demonstrate agapē love toward those who offend us…

Do good to those who hate you. We are off to a rough start! Oh, if only he had said to tolerate our enemies, we might have had a fighting chance. But do good? That’s a tall order. By definition, agapē is doing good – goodwill and benevolence. Goodwill implies an outwardly friendly, helpful, or cooperative attitude. Goodwill surpasses tolerance. Benevolence describes the quality of being well meaning, showing kindness. Benevolence is goodwill in action. It has the best interest of the other (our enemy/offender) in mind. This is radical, counter-cultural, and counter-intuitive.

Bless those who curse you. It doesn’t get any easier! What does it mean to bless someone? Blessing is a powerful Biblical concept, which I wrote about a few months ago. When we bless someone, we are really invoking God’s favor on that person. Invoke God’s divine favor on those who curse us? Radical, indeed. An unheard of suggestion.

Pray for those who mistreat you. A coup de grâce, of sorts. Love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and now pray for those who mistreat us? This is a hard expectation. It’s no wonder so many of us gloss over these difficult mandates, moving on to something that is more soothing to our souls. It’s no wonder so many of us choose to set aside Jesus’ directives and instead allow cultural ideologies to mold and shape us. What Jesus is saying to us is unconventional, counter-intuitive, counter-cultural, radical, and frankly hard, if not impossible.

It’s important to realize something about the Sermon on the Plain (as well the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew). Jesus is not suggesting a checklist that we should try get right. Rather, this is about a willingness to be a kingdom person. He is describing the basic life and character of a kingdom person, of a Christ-follower. He shows us who we can become when we follow him and heed his mandates. Following is always primary. Seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness (or justice)… (from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6). When we seek Jesus and his kingdom first, then we see a shift in our thinking and can begin and continue* to Love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who mistreat us.

“No power in the world is comparable to agapē love, both to keep Christians from becoming like their enemies and to release their enemies from the presence of their own hatred.” (Edwards, J. R. (2015). The gospel according to Luke, p. 198)

* In Greek, each of the four imperatives – love, do, bless, pray – are present tense, connoting continual action!

Thankfulness and Gratitude

During my high school Young Life Campaigner (Bible study) group’s Zoom call Monday night, we had the obligatory conversation about thankfulness, given that this is Thanksgiving week here in America.

In the United States, the Thanksgiving holiday is a bit of a myth which came to the fore during the Civil War when President Abraham Lincoln, to foster unity, declared it as a national holiday. I am aware that other countries have also set aside annual days to be thankful. Days set aside for thanksgiving are centuries-old, though feasting is a newer phenomenon. In centuries past, days of thanksgiving involved fasting, prayer and supplication* to God. It reminds us of the Apostle Paul’s admonition in his letter to the Philippians…

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7, ESV).

During our Zoom call on Monday night, I asked if there was a difference between thankfulness and gratitude. In our initial responses we thought the words basically meant the same and were interchangeable. Those who know me well will not be surprised to know that I sent them to their devices to look up the definition of the two terms. We discovered something pretty interesting…

Thankfulness is an adjective and Gratitude is a noun.

To my English teacher friends, the significance of this distinction isn’t missed. The rest of us may need to dig a bit deeper. Being thankful is about being pleased and relieved, an adjective that describes how we feel. Gratitude, on the other hand is the quality of being thankful coupled with a readiness to show appreciation and return kindness. Gratitude is about our character.

With my Campaigner guys, we developed an analogy that helped us make sense of the distinction between thankfulness and gratitude: I get the results of a difficult math test and my grade is better than anticipated, for which I am thankful! Gratitude, on the other hand, would be displayed when I connect with my teacher to show appreciation for the extra help she gave me. Thankfulness is more inward; Gratitude is outward. Thankfulness is more of a spontaneous response; gratitude, as with all charter-building, takes time, effort and intentionality, to which my wife, Barb, alluded in a Face Book post this week:

A couple years ago I decided to focus on the word gratitude. At first I just put copies of the word “gratitude” in places I would see throughout the day. After awhile the word became part of my daily thoughts. I would encourage anyone who desires to see life through a better lens to try this, I feel like it changed me for the better.

Have a Blessed Thanksgiving!

* Supplication is not a word we use much these days. It basically means asking, even begging, for something with earnest and humility.

In God We Trust

I learned a great lesson about trust in grade school, maybe second grade. Elementary, junior high and senior high schools were all contained in the same building, so all ages rode buses together. The school was open campus, meaning kids could leave school and walk home for lunch. Junior and senior high kids could walk downtown if they so desired. Times have changed!

One of the go-to establishments downtown was the local soda fountain / confectionery, Tiernan’s. To a grade schooler, Tiernan’s was one of those magical places full of color and intrigue. As a farm kid, my downtown experiences were pretty much limited to the essentials, like hardware and grocery stores. Tiernan’s would have to wait until I was in junior high.

Mike, one of the junior high kids that rode the same bus as me, frequented Tiernan’s regularly and graciously offered to buy candy for us younger kids. We would give our nickles, dimes, and quarters to Mike on the bus in the morning; he would buy gumballs, jawbreakers, and rope cherry licorice commensurate to the coinage we provided. On the afternoon bus he distributed the booty. I was in heaven, cherishing the little red and white striped, unmistakable Tiernan’s candy bag. I displayed it proudly on the bus, but hid the bag at home, where I cherished it in private until…

…my parents discovered my off-limits antics – off-limits because I was supposed to be saving my gopher-trapping bounty money for something more substantial, like a bike. I was in trouble because I had traded instant gratification for delayed gratification. Digging deeper into my antics, they helped me realize I had been taken, that I was only getting about half the candy that I should have. Mike’s “finder’s fee” was about 50%. Lesson learned.

I remember coming away from that experience wondering how one, especially a kid, could know who to trust and who is untrustworthy. I’ve been thinking a lot about trust the past several months. And wondering a lot…

I wonder how much of the pervasive division and animosity we are presently experiencing in America is connected to trust (or lack thereof).

We don’t trust science. We don’t trust the media. We don’t trust leaders. Leaders don’t trust each other. We don’t trust them (whoever our them happens to be). I have to wonder if all our distrust leaves us untrustworthy as well, perpetuating the division and animosity. Maybe that’s why it feels like we are spiraling out-of-control.

I also wonder how a general distrust of others affects our faith in God. Biblically, faith and trust are closely linked. Can I truly trust God while showing animosity toward the pinnacle of his creation – another human being? I wonder how we are able to heed Jesus’ mandate to “love God and love neighbor,” while holding deep-seated distrust of others. I wonder what Jesus would have to say to us these days. I wonder how all this makes God feel. In God we trust? I wonder.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
    and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him… (Proverbs 3:5-6, NIV)

First Century Social Distancing

If asked “What is your favorite Jesus story?” how might you respond? Since Jesus is the visible expression of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15), what narrative about Jesus best displays the character of God for you?

Our small group is working its way through the Gospel of Luke. This past week we were in chapter five where I was quickly reminded of one of my all-time favorite stories – Jesus’ healing of a leper.

While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him. (Luke 5:12-13)

Biblical and other historical accounts attest to a prevalence of leprosy in first century Palestine. Today, we have a better understanding of the disease than they did 2000 years ago. Leprosy (Hansen’s Disease) is a chronic infectious disease caused by a slow-growing bacteria that gravitates to the peripheral nerves and the cooler parts of the body. The skin, being one of the coolest regions of the body, is affected first and most significantly by leprosy. Thus, in ancient Palestine, leprosy was often referred to as a skin disease.

When the 2 million or so Israelites camped in the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt, protection from infections was paramount. Pretty much what we are experiencing in the our present day pandemic. For the protection of the entire society, God gave pretty strict mandates to keep the community safe:

As for the person who has the leprous infection, his clothes shall be torn and the hair of his head shall be uncovered, and he shall cover his mouth and call out, “Unclean! Unclean!” He shall remain unclean all the days during which he has the infection; he is unclean. He shall live alone; he shall live outside the camp. (Leviticus 13:45-46)

As the people camped in the wilderness together, social distancing was necessary as long as the person was infected. Fast forward a couple thousand years and the social distancing had turned into social ostracism. Jesus’ later encounter with a group of lepers indicate that they knew their place in public as they “stood at a distance” from him. The societal requirement for lepers was to stand 50 paces (about 125 feet) from healthy people.

So when the man in the Luke story approached Jesus, he broke through the social boundaries that had been established for him. He knew Jesus could make him clean again, making a way for him to reenter society. Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean. What he likely didn’t know was how Jesus might respond. Rebuke was certainly a possibility. He was unclean and Jesus was a rabbi. In their culture, rabbis preferred to stay far away from the unclean. And legally, the man was required to maintain 50 paces from Jesus.

But he took the risk and approached Jesus. He broke both law and social custom on the chance that Jesus might heal him. Jesus’ response was two-fold. First, and I think foremost, he touched the man. Jesus touched him! How long had it been since the man had been touched by a healthy person? (Something we can certainly understand this during a pandemic!) And yet, Jesus made it a point to touch the man first, neglecting to comment on the man’s impropriety. Then he said “I am willing, Be clean!

In this story we experience what Eugene Peterson often referred to as “the great reversal” in The Message paraphrase of the New Testament (cf. Matt. 19:28, Mark 10:19, Luke 13:28). Jesus turned everyone’s expectations upside down – the man, his disciples, and the onlookers. Jim Edwards, in his commentary on the Gospel of Luke, suggested that a reverse contagion had taken place: rather than Jesus being polluted by the leper, the leper is cleansed by Jesus.

The radical, compassionate Jesus trumped tradition in favor of care of the outsider, of touching the untouchable. This is what makes Jesus worth following. And this is what makes our following worthwhile.

(A postscript: Rereading this post, it occurred to me that some may take this story as a reason not to adhere to local mask mandates during the pandemic. That would be missing the intent of Jesus’ actions and missing the character of Jesus. As previously discussed, we dare not let our presumptive religious and political ideologies inform our understanding of who Jesus is (see What the Right and Left Have in Common). We must always allow Jesus to inform our ideologies. Another reversal.)

What the Right and Left have in Common

Election seasons can be pretty frustrating. I was once part of a conversation involving people from opposite ends of the political spectrum.  “Part of the conversation” meant I mostly remained quiet and listened, wondering what and if anything I had to offer.  Then someone, noticing my silence, asked me what I thought.  I responded that we might want to consider what God thought.  Their follow-up question: “And what do you think God thinks?” I struggle during election seasons primarily because far too many of us are not willing to consider what God may think.

We tend to invoke Jesus’ name in support of our particular political ideologies but not necessarily inviting Him into the process of developing them.  I watched a friend over the past several years become a serious follower of Jesus – giving Him permission to speak into his life, to grow his understanding of grace, to mess with and shape his ideologies.

As a result, I heard this friend say a few years ago that he was really struggling with how he should vote in light of becoming a thoughtful Christ-follower.  In the past he may not have asked that question but simply voted his “party line.”  What a novel idea – to ask Jesus how we might vote as opposed to telling him how we want to vote and assuming he agrees with us.  Or not include him at all.

The conversation reminded me of an article I read in the old, now defunct, youth ministry magazine, The Wittenburg Door.  The article was an interview with the late Brennan Manning, author of many wonderful books, including The Ragamuffin Gospel, Abba’s Child and Ruthless Trust.

What I remember about the interview was an interesting musing by Manning as he wondered when the liberals and conservatives might figure out that they are all in the same camp and are really in agreement.  Manning suggested that what unites these opposite ideologies is the proposition that Jesus is impractical in the real world. Manning:

“The bottom line is that conservatives and liberals are united, the left wing embraces the right, Pilate and Herod becomes friends, and the one proposition that unites them is that Jesus is impractical.”

People tried to press Jesus into their civic political agendas and he would not allow it.  In their mind, Jesus did not seize the opportunity to change the course of history.  Jesus was political for sure – just not the way people wanted.  He made it very clear that Caesar was not in charge.  Nor was the high priest.  The people’s attempts to draw Jesus into political debates on their terms fell short.  He quickly reminded them, through his discourses, that they were pretty clueless about the grand scheme of things.

Likewise, our attempts to draw Jesus into our political agendas fall short. He’s on a different playing field.  He is King of kings (king over all who think they are or should be kings) and Lord of lords (Lord over all who think they are lord over others).  Because the resurrected Jesus humbled himself as a servant, even to the point of a criminal’s death, “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord…” (Philippians 2:9-11).

In free countries, we take elections very serious, as we should. But we must remember that it is God who is sovereign!  He is sovereign over kings and dictators, over presidents and prime ministers, over liberals and conservatives and, yes, over nations.  We take our privilege of voting very serious, but it pales in comparison to the privilege of knowing and following the King of kings.

Barak (but not Obama)

About 25 years ago, my job moved from Red Wing, MN, to Memphis, TN. I moved from a small factory office building to the massive corporate offices. I moved 800 miles from a private office to a world of cubicles. Privacy didn’t exist. Early in my cooperate cubicle experience, I sneezed and was greeted by a dozen or so “Bless Yous,” which caught me by surprise. Apparently part of the Memphis culture was to communicate a blessing on anyone and everyone that sneezed.

In the last post, we talked about the song The Blessing, based on the Priestly Blessing found in Numbers 6. I have always been intrigued by the word bless as it appears in scripture (~500 times), wondering what the word meant to the ancient readers and hearers. It is used in a number of different ways, which was always a bit confusing to me. God blesses us as we bless him (especially as seen in the Psalms). It always sounded to me like a mutual admiration society…

Suspecting the word means far more than mutual admiration, I started to look at occurrences of bless in scripture, particularly in the Old Testament. Some significant instances from the beginnings of Genesis:

  • God blessed Adam and Eve
  • God blessed the Sabbath
  • God blessed Noah after the flood in a similar fashion as he blessed Adam and Eve
  • Noah, in turn said, “Blessed be the Lord”
  • In the calling of Abram, God said he would bless Abram so he and his descendants would, in turn, be a blessing to others (a significant departure from God being the sole ‘blesser’)

This is interesting, but on the surface it still smacks of mutual admiration. So, being a dabbler in Hebrew, I decided to see what I could discover about this word bless. The basic Hebrew word for bless is barak. Barack is the word for ‘knee’ and implies kneeling. That makes some sense. One approaches royalty on bended knee out of reverence and respect. In Philippians 2, we read that “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow” – bended knee. So we bless God with great reverence, literally and figuratively, on bended knee. A Psalmic example:

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
    and all that is within me,
    bless his holy name!
 Bless the Lord, O my soul,
    and forget not all his benefits… (Ps. 103)

So, blessing God makes sense but what of God blessing us? What immediately comes to my mind is Jesus’ washing of his disciples feet. In John 13 we read:

“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end…Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist…and began to wash his disciples feet.”

This is a great visual. Jesus, knowing full well who he was as God incarnate, showed the full extent of his love and began to wash his disciples feet, presumably on his knees. Picture that for a bit. The God of the universe, the Lord of lords, the King of kings in human form on his knees, serving his creation!

What kind of God do we serve that serves us? What royalty, when approached by a subject on bended knee, would in turn kneel before that subject? And then wash their feet? I remember watching a movie in which a young king left his throne to comfort a young subject (female, of course). He was quickly reprimanded by the elders for his impropriety – it was a scandalous act! I suspect to Jesus’ disciples, his washing of their feet was scandalous. It certainly was to Peter who anxiously tried to refuse Jesus’ gesture.

This is something worthy of our pondering. What does it mean that the God of the universe would want to bless us so scandalously? Does it make you anxious or give you peace? As you ponder…

The Lord bless you
    and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you
    and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you
    and give you peace.