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 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!

Why Moralism Doesn’t Work

People like to be right and like to get it right. I’m that way and I’m guessing I am not alone. I remember back in high school and college the standard question was asked, “Will this be on the test?” I certainly asked the question as well as others. Truth be told, we were more focused on “getting it right” than on learning.

I went back to school a few years ago in pursuit of a doctorate in education. It was one of the best learning experiences of my life. I honestly think I was beginning to toggle over from “getting it right” to purely wanting to learn. My (much) younger cohort were always referring to the course rubrics when writing papers. I found myself writing first, based on the assignment prompts, and periodically consulting the rubrics to see if I had some glaring misses. When I was satisfied with what I was learning, grades become secondary.

The more I dig into the adverse effects of moralism, the more I realize that we naturally tend to focus on the rubrics and miss the intent of the prompts, especially Jesus’ prompts.

Moralism doesn’t work for a variety of reason, primary of which is a natural tenancy toward law and legalism. If we have a bent toward wanting to “get it right,” then we naturally want to know what the rules are, the rubric which defines right living. God provided a rubric for his people, the Israelites, which we know as the Law. However, the law was not to be an end in itself. The purpose of the law was to provide a framework for people who were learning to live in a covenant relationship with the one true God. When the law, especially the 10 commandments, were given to the people, living in a covenant relationship with any god was foreign to their ears and lives. Prior to leaving Egypt, their religious understanding was of many deities, none of which desired a covenant relationship with their subjects.

The law was a framework, a rubric, for learning – learning how to live in a covenant relationship with God and with each other. God didn’t desire the law to become an end in itself. It was to lead to something more. In learning to live in a covenant relationship with God and each other, the rescued Israelites could then become the good news (blessing) to the rest of the world, as intended. Love of God and neighbor was embedded in the law (see Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18). The law, seen as an end in itself, actually kills love.

Good parents develop a rubric for how their family can live in a covenant relationship. “We clean up our messes, we do our chores diligently, we treat each other with respect, etc.” If the family members simply see the rubric as an end in itself, then it becomes a checklist that leads nowhere, however they might have the cleanest house and the most (seemingly) polite kids. Yet the house may lack evidence of a loving, covenant relationship. Love is learned and simply keeping the law doesn’t get us there.

Can you see where this leads? The purpose of a rubric is to facilitate learning. I can write a paper to the letter of the rubric (law), get an “A” and miss out on all there is to learn. If moralism is my de facto understanding of the Christian faith, I can look good on the outside and miss all that Jesus is saying about living in a covenant relationship with the one true God and with those around me. And worse, I will only hear Jesus’ prompts and parables as law – checklists that I should try to perform – and never quite learn and become someone who can naturally….

“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.” Jesus

Hesed and Emet

Circa summer 1984. I participated in the most influential course of my life to date – Old Testament Survey. It was my first graduate-level course as I began the long journey toward a masters degree. The course was offered by Fuller Seminary, in partnership with Young Life’s Institute in Youth Ministry. IYM attendees, professors, and their respective families all lived in community at Hope College in Holland, MI, with classes held at Western Theological Seminary. We attended classes in the morning, all had lunch together, then hit the library to study for about 8 hours.

The course was taught by Dr. Terry McGonigal. He started our journey together by reminding us that everything we would discuss in the Old Testament pointed to Jesus. Theoretically I knew the truth of this statement, but never had anyone who could explain it to me.

Dr. McGonigal, another professor, and I went for long runs every evening around 9:00 pm. Terry could run the 6+ miles at a sub-7:00 minute/mile pace, a little faster than my norm. The solution? I would ask Terry questions that surfaced from class or my readings to which he was more than willing to expound, slowing him down and providing me with amazing tutorials. I learned more from that course than a typical three credit class. During the coursework, I was introduced to a couple Hebrew words that have impacted my reading and life the past 35 years – hesed and emet. Let’s look at hesed

The Hebrew word hesed (sometimes transliterated as chesed) is translated into English as either steadfast love, lovingkindness, mercy, love, or unfailing love, depending on the translation of the Bible. Looking at Psalm 85:10, we see the treatment of hesed by various translations:

  • Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other. (NIV)
  • Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other. (ESV)
  • Lovingkindness and truth have met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed each other. (NASB)
  • Mercy and truth have met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed. (NKJV)

Hesed is such a rich and robust term that no single English word (or two words, in the case of “steadfast love”) captures its essence. Hesed is not just mercy, but covenant loyalty and relational fidelity. It is freely given, often unexpectedly, without requiring anything in return. Even though hesed stems from covenant (contract) loyalty, there is a sense that the loyalty surpasses the letter of the law. In Hosea, God said that he desires mercy (hesed), not sacrifice (law), which Jesus reiterated (Matthew 9:13). Jesus further reinforced this thought when addressing the Roman law forcing locals to carry soldiers’ packs for a mile; Jesus suggested going an extra mile (Matthew 5:41).

Hesed, you can see, describes the rich and robust depth of God’s character.

Though hesed is usually directional in its Old Testament usage – from God to his people – there is a sense that it was to be practiced ethically in the the way people treated each other, be it relatives, friends, or foreigners. Boaz recognized hesed (kindness) in Ruth’s character (Ruth 3:10). One also thinks of God’s desire that his people not seek vengeance, but show love toward their neighbor (Leviticus 19:18) which Jesus reinforced, as part of “Great Commandments” (Mark 12:30-31). The author of Mark used the term agape (love), the Greek equivalent of hesed. Again, think “go the extra mile.”

Hesed is used 248 times in the Old Testament, 50% of its usage is in the Psalms, so it isn’t difficult to spot. As you read, be looking for it. Pay attention to the context in which it is used. I find myself translating the English back to Hebrew, knowing the richness and robustness of the word. I recently read Psalm 85 (above) and wrote in my journal, “Hesed and emet meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other.” As in Psalm 85, hesed and emet are often found together, increasing the richness and robustness of the description of God’s character. May you experience the hesed of God as you spend time with Him in Scripture.

Next time, we’ll look at emet.