Life Under the Roman Empire in the 1st Century

 

This essay on the first century is meant to provide a simple surface level overview of the context in which the New Testament was written. It’s not riveting, and it wasn’t meant to be. But I believe it is incredibly important to understand that Jesus and the early Christians lived and wrote in a very different world form our own, and our understanding of scriptures will change based upon our understanding of its context.


The Cultural Background of the New Testament:
Life Under the Roman Empire in the 1st Century


The Roman household was highly patriarchal and centered, not around blood relatives, but a cooperation of men and women brought together under the authority of one man called the “paterfamilias”. He was the father of the unit called a “
familia”. He held ultimate power in the house and could buy, sell or even kill his slaves. Everyone in the familia worked for the good of the paterfamilias and their own success in life was dependent upon his own.

Children were expected to display unconditional obedience at all times. Children were governed by the Roman family law patriapotesta or “power of the father,” which gave him absolute power to punish as he liked, to put them in chains, to sell them into slavery or kill them in their youth*. Children were to honor their fathers as one would honor a god. Fathers were strict as an expression of love, and mothers were to be more sensitive and nurturing**.

Marriages were arranged, and women were commonly married in their teens and were usually married to much older men. The woman was considered the property of her father and ownership passed from the father to the husband upon being wed, a custom that was rooted in the Roman Patria potesta. Marriages were usually economically motivated, and contracts were drawn up beforehand which dealt with financial issues such as inheritance***. 

For the Roman citizen, honor was held in high regard above all else, and it was defended at any cost, even his very life. The accumulation of honor meant the furthering of your career and stature among your peers. The Paterfamilias’ honor was held in high regard by the entire familia and they all worked to maintain the honor of their leader. Being challenged by a subordinate was a challenge to your very honor, and brought great shame. A man would feel a great responsibility to recover honor that was lost or shame that had come upon them.

Patriotism was also held in incredibly high regard amongst the Romans, especially for those in the service of the Empire like an official, a governor, or a soldier.  A Roman who was loyal to the Emperor was called “amicus” to them and was considered trustworthy. Friends of Rome, or “Amici Populi Romani,” were people or states who had loyalty to the Emperor. And any who were not regarded as friends of the Empire could not advance in status and would find their career in jeopardy. Even the rumor of disloyalty would be devastating.

Roman life centered around the cities and the Empire went to great lengths to encourage urban life. Large amounts of money were spent on public plays, feasts, and on arenas where the people could be entertained by violent gladiator matches, all in the pursuit of keeping the Roman citizens happy.

Citizens of Rome were entitled specific rights that slaves, resident aliens, and Jews were not. Citizens could vote and appeal to Caesar when they felt they were being mistreated. Moreover, they were exempt from certain types punishments that were considered humiliating and thus beneath that of a citizen of Rome (like crucifixion)*4. 

The Jews in the first century were under the occupation of Rome. They were monotheistic and worshiped their ancient God, Yahweh, rejecting the pantheon of gods of the Gentile world. Idolatry was a great offense to the Jews and they considered any sculpted images, whether of deities or natural beings, to be idols. The Gentiles were quite fond of art, especially sculptures, and decorated their cities with the statues and paintings of, not only created things, but also the divine beings whom they worshiped. The presence of Gentile craven images in Jewish cities was a source of great friction between them.

While there were Jews in the diaspora who had learned to live quite comfortably under the empire, most lived in Jewish communities that made concerted efforts to separate themselves from their barbarian counterparts. They did not take part in Roman life. They did not wear the same clothes, shave their beards, worship Roman gods, or enter into Roman houses. Doing so would make them “unclean,” meaning that they could not continue with their usual worship habits until they were ritually cleansed again, according to their Mosaic laws. 

The Jews believe that the Romans were making their cities unclean just by living there and different sects of Judaism had different solutions for this problem. The Zealots concluded that the answer was to wage war against their occupiers, and would regularly commit assassinations by hiding daggers in their clothing and attacking individual soldiers and officials who were in large crowds in public spaces, slipping away in the chaos that ensued. Others, like the Sadducees, believed that they could partner with the empire and negotiate a better life under the umbrella of their safety. In Jesus day, they controlled the priesthood and most of the political affairs. They were more open to Hellenistic influence than most of the other sects*5. The Pharisees were vocal in their dissent of any Gentile occupation and sometimes resorted to outbursts of violence. They managed the synagogue life *6 and were the leaders of middle and lower class peasant Jews.  The Essenes, while holding views similar to those of the Pharisees, separated themselves altogether by moving into the wilderness to practice their religion unabated. Almost all believed that one day they would be free of their oppressors and would have their own nation where Yahweh would finally rule, the questions was whether to wage war themselves or wait for God to accomplish it.

Outside of those four main sects of 1st century Judaism was several smaller sects that are lesser known but do offer some significant to NT context. Among them are the Herodians who were supporters of the pro-Roman Herod dynasty*7, and the Am-ha-Eretz, or, “the people of the land” who were mostly poor farmers who were against Roman rule and supported the Pharisees. 

In addition to these sects, there was a group called the Samaritans, an off-shoot of the Jews who remained around Schechem when the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed.  They revised the Hebrew scriptures to argue their own place in Israel’s story and built a rival temple on Mount Gerizim that could be seen from Schechem. They were rejected by the Jewish leaders as discredited and there were significant hostilities between the two.

 

* Barclay, William. The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians. 3rd ed. edition. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002. p. 202

** Burge, Gary. The New Testament in Antiquity: A Survey of the New Testament within Its Cultural Context. Zondervan; unknown edition (February 2, 2009), n.d. p.91

*** Ibid. p.90

*4) Ibid. p.  87-88

*5) Strauss, Mark L. Four Portraits, One Jesus: A Survey of Jesus and the Gospels. 3.2.2007 edition. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2007. p.131

*6) Ibid. p. 132

*7)  Ibid. p. 132

 

 

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There are no Logos on Tombstones

When I was twenty two I had enough interest in God not to get myself into trouble, but not enough to understand what life is about. In your early twenties the world is ahead of you, the great accomplishments of your life are yet to be accomplished, your story could go anywhere.

Half way through your thirties you start to wake up, if you are lucky. You start to realize that you might actually be, at this moment, what you will ever be. Some  respond with divorce, some with faith crisis, some with apathy, some with nostalgia and attempting to prolong adolescence even longer.

But there are some who awaken to something altogether different. Some who understand what The Teacher, the author of Ecclesiastes is saying, and those who grasp the story of Jesus and the gospel awaken to something incredibly important. It is something that you will notice when you walk through any cemetery on earth. There are no logo’s on tombstones. There are no corporate symbols, company names, or government seals. No slogans, no church names, no non-profit kudos. And there will not be one on yours. What you find on tombstones is the description of those whom you loved, and who loved you. “Beloved Father”, “Beloved Daughter”, “Loved by all who knew them”… and so on.

My tombstone will not have the Watermark Logo on it. It will have the inscription that my loved ones put there.  People are more important than organizations and brands. People are eternal, organizations expand and dissipate and disappear like the morning fog. tombstone

In your early twenties you want favor in the eyes of people, you want favor in the eyes of God, and you want happiness. The problem is that you have been told that what you build with your hands is how you find meaning, purpose and favor, but it’s not. It is what you build with your heart.

King Solomon wrote:

“Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. 4 Then you will win favor and a good name in the sight of God and man.”

At the heart of the gospel is a reminder that you are not the sum of your actions or deeds, yet most people’s lives do not reflect that. Love and faithfulness to God and others will give you everything that you are seeking from your accomplishments, but it will also bring you happiness and joy that can not be found anywhere else. We know, deep down, what matters, but we don’t live like we do.

Protect what matters. For those of you in your twenties, practice love and faithfulness. When you wake up in your thirties, forties, or fifties, you will have found what your heart was seeking, but you will have obtained it in a way that you never thought you could. And it will stay with you.

Evangelicalism’s Life or Death Moment

Euangelion. It is a simple word that means “good news”. It was, from the mouths of Jesus and his band of disciples, a message of hope. That God, through Jesus, is fixing everything that is broken and setting all things to rights again. Not through the power of earthly might, but by the cross.

In the 1960’s a group of prominent former fundamentalists resurrected a term (evangelicalism) that had been used to describe a movement in 19th century Great Britain that was centered around reforming an increasingly hopeless society by the simple act of teaching them what Jesus taught. Jesus message of reconciliation, grace, mercy, love and salvation coming through Jesus own life being poured out for us took root in the hearts of people and was instrumental in the healing of society in that nation. It was believed that the good news of Jesus could do the same here.

In the last 2 days I have received emails from family, friends, acquaintances, church members, and other pastors linking to videos of politicians, pastors, and various leaders, all evangelicals, and their message is the same: “Do not bring the refugees fleeing the middle east into our nation and our states”.

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In the last several decades evangelicalisms message has shifted from “good news for a hurting world” ever steadily towards “news”. And the news is not good.

The “news” is that we no longer believe that God is in control, we believe that we are.
We no longer believe in Jesus when he said:

“Do not be afraid”.

We no longer believe Peter when he said:

“the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment…”.

We now believe that when Jesus said:

“he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor”

he meant “the righteous poor from our own country”.

We now believe that when Jesus said:

“He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed…”

He really didn’t mean all captives, and he didn’t mean all who are oppressed.

And we think that when Jesus said:

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. 31 And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.”

that none of it applies to us.

I hear Christians say “But they hate us”, which is exactly why Jesus said:

“for [the Most High] is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. 36 Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”

The fact is that we are in danger of turning away tens of thousands of people who are actually homeless, actually starving, actually sick, literally outcasts, very very poor, extremely persecuted, utterly rejected and totally unwelcome in, not just their own country, but in almost every country in which they have sought asylum. Surely the people who, for decades, have claimed that we are a Christian nation built upon Christian values can remember what Jesus said about the poor, the immigrant, the starving, the naked the hungry and the persecuted. Surely the same evangelicals that spent millions of dollars to legislate morality understand the immoral act of locking the doors on these people when we have so much and they only have each other! Surely we understand the demand that our scriptures lay upon us to take in these people, to love them, to welcome them into our communities and our shelters.

Do we not understand the significance of God using the cross to bring salvation to a world that believed that it could only be done by the sword? Do we really think that our walls and our guns can save the world this time? If that is so, then evangelicals have traded their crosses back in for swords.

In case you haven’t noticed, millennials no longer trust evangelicals. Time after time the hypocrisies in our message have ensnared us and repelled them. For the most part, they have been rather gracious to us in all of our glaring faults, our conflicting messages, and the way that we have cozied up to the empire. But this will pull, whatever fragments of wool are left, away from their eyes. They will finally see what american Christianity has become: “Anti-Christ”.

If I may channel the ancient prophets for a moment, I would argue, as strongly as I can, that the fate of evangelicalism and the fate of the Syrian refugees are bound together. We will never recover from the decision to turn them away. Our sins will light up the sky. Our heartlessness will be our downfall. The lampstand will be removed and we will be sent into the exile of irrelevance until we are either replaced or until we are repentant and Jesus once again sits on His throne in the heart of the evangelical movement.

But if we have compassion, if we open our eyes to the opportunity that is laid out before us, to be the arms and eyes and hands and feet of our risen Lord, if we die to our old ways and repent, then resurrection awaits. These people need Jesus, and never before has the church had this kind of opportunity. Instead of going to them, they are coming to us!

If we respond in love it will be as Isaiah 11:16 describes Gods people coming back to Him: “There will be a highway for the remnant of his people that is left from Assyria, as there was for Israel when they came up from Egypt.” Isaiah is saying that every obstacle will be removed, and Gods people will come running to the temple to worship.

Is it risky? Is it a little scary? Is it a little dangerous? Of course, love is always risky, a little scary, and dangerous. No one knows this more than Jesus Himself, who’s love for you sent Him to the cross. But remember his words, over and over: “Do not be afraid.”

You Can’t Go Back

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You Can’t Go Back.

This morning I tried. I really did. I knocked on the door of the first place on this earth that I can remember being. At the end of a peaceful cul-de-sac, across the street from a park. The house felt smaller than I remember but I guess when you are ten years old everything seems huge. A young woman in her early twenties answered the door. I think she might have been high, either that or I woke her up. Either way, it is probably annoying to be interrupted in either of those situations.
“I’m sorry to bother you”, I said. “I grew up in this house and just wanted to take a couple pictures and didn’t want anyone to look outside and get creeped out”. She stared blankly. “Yeah, do your thing”, she replied. I backed away and turned to walk back out the the street, on my way I pointed at a huge tree in the middle of the yard, “my family planted that tree” I said over my shoulder as I glanced back at her. She looked at the tree, then back at me, then shut the door.
I took a few moments in the driveway to take it all in. The fire hydrant that used to be the base for my G.I. Joes. The grass spaces between ours and the neighbors driveway that I was so proud of jumping over on roller skates without falling. The basketball hoop that my dad and grandfather had erected that used to stand right at the edge of the driveway (now missing, but an obvious patch where it was taken down).
Somehow I expected it to seem much more magical than it actually was when I stood there. I mean, I haven’t stood here in 25 years. But here I was. And I remember everything. A flood of memories. I stand there for a couple more minutes and think to myself “So this is it, huh? Hmmm, wheres the magic?”.
I walk across the street to the park where I used to play little league games. Past the playground where I learned to be brave and climb. The field where I have memories that are as clear as day of my dad chasing me across the grass while I ran full speed with the football under my arm. Again, wheres the magic? A million more memories flooded my brain with every bench and hill and baseball backstop. But it wasn’t magical. It was just a park.
I learned today what I think everyone comes to learn in their adult years. It’s not the place. Its the people.
It was my childhood home, but my brothers weren’t there to pull me on my skateboard behind their bikes. My mom wasn’t there to yell “good job T!” everytime I climbed higher. My dad wasn’t there to cook burgers on the grill. Family, that is what made it magical. It isn’t the house, the field, the playground, or the yard. It was love. It was the human beings that shared it with me. Yes, the magic is gone away from this place, but it has not gone from my life, or even this world. It has gone to New York, and Indonesia, and Tampa. It has gone everywhere where the people who made it joyous have gone.
Many of you have fond memories of your life. The places, the people, the experiences. You might even have the urge to try and return. I want you to know that even if you did manage to return to the location, the house, or the city, the magic is not there.
The fondness that your soul has for certain memories and periods in your life will often times disguise itself as an affinity for a place or a time. Sometimes when we look back, we make the same mistakes that we so often make when we think about the future: we think fondly about a house we will buy, or a place we will live, or a thing we will do, and we think our pleasure will be there. It will not.
The truth is that the fondness that your soul has is for other souls. Family, friends, community, and God. We were created this way. The connections that we form is where the actual magic and joy deep within our souls resides.
My job is not to go back and try and enjoy those times again, it is to bring those times into the present. To do everything in my power to ensure that my children feel these same experiences. When I am old I want to hear them talk fondly about all of the amazing memories that they have with their father, mother, sister and brother, grandpa and grandma. I want them to, one day, go back to their childhood home (that they live in at this very moment) and to realize the full truth that what made this place great was not the toys or the basketball hoop or the parks, it was their Father and their Mother and the fact that we took every opportunity to enjoy their youth alongside of them.
Your job, parents, is not to give them a great childhood, it is first and foremost to enjoy them. To reflect back to them their joy and their pain and their laughter and their imagination. And to make sure that they understand that this is what God does for us. It started with the first man and woman, Gods first son and daughter, whom he dwelled with and enjoyed. And then he taught them to be fruitful and multiply that love and communion and enjoyment generation after generation for thousands and thousands of generations until this very day.
It is in the intrinsic things that life is found. Pour yourselves out for your children, your neighbors, and the world around you, and you will find true joyous life. You were created for this. Created by a God who does this for you every day.
You cannot go back. It wasn’t the time. It wasn’t the place. It wasn’t the activities.

It was love.

So may you look back and move forward, remembering and resurrecting Gods love. For generations to come.

P.S. – Its time to turn off your screen and be present. Starting now.

Fake Sunglasses are Bad for Your Soul.

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There has been much written and learned in the last decade about “wholeness”. The movement towards “whole” foods is gaining ground so quickly that the fast food industry, as well as companies like Monsanto that genetically modify natures seeds, are beginning to suffer. People are beginning to believe that things should be “one”. One thing. A seed should be seed, naturally and without modification. Meat should be meat, not a mixture of things that look like meat.

When something that we take into our body is “one” thing, studies have found that our body can use all of it, and not just some of it. Our bodies are able to heal faster, to repair damage that has been present for years, even decades. We also know that when something is “whole” we are not being deceived. We know what it is. We know that someone is not trying to trick us.

In the same way that whole food has positive effects on our bodies, much work has also been done to explore what happens to our mental and spiritual health when we do not practice a posture of “wholeness”.

Both Duke and Harvard University have done studies on the impact of what they call “Fake Adornments” on our ethics. The study was quite simple, but effective. A sampling of 500 women were given expensive Chloe sunglasses and 50% of them were told that the sunglasses were fakes, cheap knockoffs. The women were then asked to complete several complex mathematical equations that could never be realistically completed in the time allotted for them to be completed. They were told that they would be paid money for each math equation that they completed correctly. The payment, however, was based on the honor system. In other words, no one would be checking their work.

The study found that about 70% of those who believed that they were wearing fake sunglasses lied and stole money from the researchers by saying that they had completed the impossible equations correctly.

In other studies they also found that women who believed they were wearing knockoff sunglasses judged others more harshly than those who knew they were wearing the real deal. They were also more cynical, and viewed others in a much more negative way.

It turns out that when we fake it in life, when we pretend that we are something that we are not, it actually effects us at a deeply spiritual and moral level. We fake it to make ourselves feel better, more glamorous, more attractive, wealthier, cooler, more intellectual… but then we begin to feel like a phony and we become more cynical, more deceptive, and this negativity pushes outwards and begins to affect how we look at the world around us. We begin to think that everyone is lying and deceiving, but it is really just us. 

Christians often times talk about “Integrity”. Integrity comes from the word “integer”, which means one. It is a whole number. When we have integrity, it means that we are the same person, one person, all of the time. It is someone who is whole. They are not like the modified food, claiming to be one ingredient, but really made up of several different hidden things. The person who has integrity is one personOne ingredient. They are who they appear to be, and they are not trying to deceive you.

The soul desperately wants to be one person. Its desire is for the mind, body, and soul to be the same person. Most of us are not one person. And our souls know it.

We are married, but have eyes for other people, or another life.
We are poor, but weighted down with debt in order to appear wealthy.
We are doubting and skeptical, but pretend that we fully understand and believe.
We are addicts, but we pretend that we have it all under control.
We are one person, but we are two people.

The soul will not stand idly by and let you be two people. It wants a center. It will move you towards whatever person that you are nurturing. If you are nurturing your lustful thoughts, you soul will push you that direction. It will push you towards being a whole person, meaning an adulterer. You will eventually find yourself at the point where all you are lacking is a proper opportunity to fulfill the desires of your heart.

Oscar Wilde experienced this. he writes:

“I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetop. I ceased to be lord over myself. I was no longer the captain of my soul, and did not know it. I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace.”

Peter wrote to the church on the run from Nero and he urged them not to let their guard down, not even against the little things. He knew that the little things actually have a pretty profound impact in the person that you are becoming. he says in 1 Peter 2:11:

“Beloved, I urge you … to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.”

The passions of the flesh.
Riches and images of success.
Fame and accolades.
Convincing people that we are something that we are not.
Fake sunglasses, fake prayers, fake chastity, fake you and fake me. THAT is what is warring against our souls.

We want to be one person to them, and yet be another to ourselves. We are feeding our souls spiritual fast food. It is not what it appears to be. It is bad for us, and we can feel it. It will kill our souls.

It is out of this double-mindedness that God gave us the church. The community of confession. Where we come, we sing, we worship, we listen, we hear, we repent, and we take communion. We ask the gospel to touch the innermost parts of us that we have kept hidden from it’s view.

We bring our fakeness and sin into the light and we say “Here it is. Here is my stuff. My lies and phoniness”. And we confess it, and we lay it down.

Strive for integrity. Become one person. Be whole. Even if that one whole person is not yet as good as he/she should be, he/she can still be whole by being honest. And that is the first step to your soul finding healing and growth.

Where Does Happiness Come From. Part 2

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This week I’m going to build off of what I wrote in my last post about finding true happiness in this world, and today I want to start with a passage from the Psalms.

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures…

I have always loved this Psalm and it is has always been a favorite amongst Gods people since the day it was written. I have even written songs about this passage and we sing them regularly at the congregation that I pastor here in Tampa.  It is a passage that we read when we need provision, when we need God to intervene, and when we need a little bit of peace in a chaotic world.

But, like much of the scriptures, this passage has been divorced of it’s original context. And when we remove a piece of writing form it’s original time, place, and audience we tend to miss some incredibly important things that we desperately need to hear.

Usually when we think of this passage we picture big fat fluffy sheep grazing in a field lush with green grass up to their mouths. In fact, if you do a quick google search of Psalm 23, this is exactly what kinds of images are conjured up. As if the sheep barely need to even lower their heads because the grass is so thick and healthy that they can almost wander with their eyes closed and open their mouths and be fed.

But the reality of that passage in it’s original context was actually much different, and it should have a profound impact on the actual meaning of the text. The “green fields” that the sheep were supposedly wandering in did not actually exist like we have just described them here. In reality, they looked more like this:

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Not quite the same, I would say. The food that was available for the sheep was not really all that abundant. In the morning, as the sun was rising, the dew would settle on these tiny sprigs of grass, and they would soak up the dew like a sponge. They would indeed turn green, but only for a short time. By noon there would be a scorching wind coming in from the east that would cause the grass and it’s flowers and greenery to wither and fade.

Without a shepherd the sheep would never eat, because only the shepherd knew where to lead them to find the food that they need. The shepherd knew that at different times of the day there would be grasses good for eating in certain parts of the valley, and he would take great care to lead the sheep to exactly what they needed to eat at the exact time that they needed it.

Think about that for a second.

The shepherd didn’t lead them into a land of plenty where they never needed to think about food anymore. He didn’t lead them to a place where they had such abundance that they could relax and no longer worry about being fed for the rest of their days… that kind of place did not exist!

Instead, the shepherd would lead them to exactly what they needed, exactly when they needed it. It was their “daily bread”. It was not year by year, but moment by moment.

If the sheep wanted to live, they had to keep their eyes on the shepherd. In fact, to take their eyes off of the shepherd was the most dangerous thing they could do. And all first century nomadic peoples knew the context in which this passage was written. Peter, Paul and James all wrote about it. Here is what James said in chapter 1:

 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.

That word for “scorching heat” is the Greek word “καύσων (kausōn)”, also called the simoon”. And it’s heat could killed a healthy man who did not take shelter under a tent, tree, or at least a turban.

So lets reevaluate how we are to read this text.

I know that we want God to lead us into a place where we are at perfect peace. Where there is plenty to feast upon and no lack of abundance. But that is never promised to us in this life. Instead, we are told that we have a shepherd that we can trust, who knows the way through the fires of life, who has gone ahead of us and calls us to follow Him. He knows the way. He is paving and has paved a way for us to be fed and nourished. A way for us to find peace. Not a storehouse of peace, but a fountain of it. Constantly flowing.

Peace is not abundant food or money or shelter… it is abundant trust and faith that, if we follow our shepherd, we will always be given exactly what we need when we need it.

In fact, it is when we receive too much abundance that we tend to fall into misery. When we have too much of a good thing, we find ourselves alone and heading towards destruction.

Pay attention to exactly what God said to the Israelites when he was about to lead them into abundance. He is not telling them that it will be what they need, instead He warns them that it of the dangers of it all. Read Deuteronomy 6:10

“And when the LORD your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers…with great and good cities that you did not build, 11and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant—and when you eat and are full, 12then take care lest you forget the LORD who brought you out of bondage…

It did not take long for them to forget about the God who fed them in the wilderness day after day. It did not take long for them to fall into idolatry. It wasn’t long before they found themselves back in bondage once again.

Usually it is when we have too much that we forget our shepherd. He becomes unnecessary. We find ourselves self sufficient, and so we isolate ourselves.

Sometimes the things that we are praying for, that things that we want, that things that we look at and say “If I only had THAT, then I would be HAPPY!”… THOSE are the thing that will be our undoing.

Sometimes the most loving thing that God could possibly do for us is to say “no, you don’t need that, and I will not be giving it to you”.

Sometimes the most loving thing that god can do is to give you just a little, right here, right now.

Sometimes when we are receiving all of the things that we always wanted, we should be terrified because perhaps we are actually being chastened and disciplined.

Happiness comes in the providence. It comes from posture of thankfulness.

Perhaps the best way to put it is in the lyrics of a beloved song from The Muppet Christmas Carol:

Yes, and every night will end
And every day will start
With a grateful prayer
And a thankful heart

So may you wake up tomorrow in want and need. Because only in the seeking and finding, day by day, do we really understand that love is real and that we have a shepherd and a guide who sees, who understands, and who is capable of granting salvation in every moment. Not just later, but NOW.

Where Does Happiness Come From?

Hello all. I took last week off to rest my brain as I felt like I needed to fill myself and not pour out for the day. As C.S. Lewis used to say “All things in moderation, including moderation”. Anyways, I have been pondering happiness and joy lately and I thought I would spend some time writing down my thoughts on where I believe these things come from, and some of the ways that our thinking can go wrong in regards to finding and maintaining a joyous attitude.

I want to start with a bit of a grizzly scenario.

Lets say that you find yourself alone and freezing to death, and you are becoming increasingly convinced that your demise is steadily approaching. How would you feel? I know it’s a dumb question, we would all feel pretty awful about the whole situation. Hopelessness is saddening, pain is never fun, and being alone while feeling hopeless and in pain only piles on more misery.

Now, lets say that the situation changed. Someone comes to you and gives you a jacket that was of such high quality that your body was warmed and your life was saved. How would you feel then?  I dare say that you would probably feel quite happy. And the jacket had allot to do with that.

A jacket, when you are cold, makes you happy.

Now, if this statement is true, what could be said of ten jackets? Would ten jackets make you ten times happier? Would a hundred jackets make you a hundred times happier? Would a thousand jackets make you a thousand times happier?

Mextures

No. It will not.

Happiness is not about having an overabundance of one thing. Studies have proven that, in fact, an overabundance of anything is almost always harmful.If you’ve read the recent reports about people “binge watching” netflix, you will find that this type of behavior actually causes depression. A well crafted show is a good thing. But binge-ing on a good thing is destructive and will actually bring about the opposite of what you are seeking. Happiness and genuine joy come, not from having more and more and more of a good thing, but from receiving just enough of the right thing.

We know this. Deep down inside, we all know this.

This fact, however, does not keep us from trying to acquire a whole bunch of the same thing. A good meal brings us joy, but too much of that meal will leave us miserable, overweight, with low self-esteem and will eventually contribute to an early death. Studies have also recently found that running as exercise is healthy in moderation. But in fact, people who run every day for more than 45 minutes have the same death rates as those who do not run at all.

You are happy when your needs are met, and become saddened when you live in too much abundance and excess. That drive that is inside of you for more and more is a clue that your other parts do not have what they need… namely, your soul.

Your soul has an insatiable desire for more. Theologian Hans Walter Wolff wrote a book called “Anthropology of the Old Testament” and in that book there is a chapter about the “nephesh”, the Hebrew word for “Soul”. In this chapter he repeatedly refers to nephesh as “The needy man”. Wolff uses dozens and dozens of passages of scripture to show us just how needy the soul is. It has a constant desire for more and more, but unless it is fed exactly what it needs, it is never filled.

Thomas Aquinas wrote:

“We are limited in every way but one: we have unlimited desire, unlimited longing”.

When the makers of Netflix added the “autoplay” feature last year, causing shows to play continuously, one after the other, they knew exactly what they were doing. They had stumbled upon the same thing that made Youtube so popular… one more videoAnd Facebook… one more scroll down. And the snooze button… one more quick snooze. But none of it ever gives us what we are looking for… in fact, it takes away what we want. We have all lost precious time because of our insatiable desire for “just one more”.

“Simplicity is freedom, duplicity is bondage. Simplicity brings joy and balance. Duplicity brings anxiety and fear., as Richard Foster wrote.  The discipline of simplicity is an important one. I believe it was meant to remind us of these simple facts that we can readily observe, but rarely notice, every single day. Jesus said “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). I don’t think that we really believe this anymore. It is so ingrained in all of us to literally judge a persons life by the abundance of their possessions… which is why we tend to despise the poor and homeless. This is also the viewpoint of those who would abort a mentally handicapped baby, because we believe that our lives consist of our possessions, and a fully functioning mind is considered among the commodities of a developed society. But Jesus tells us that our possessions, wether it be money, intelligence, willpower, or marketable skills, do not determine a life.

Our request to God should be:
Not for more intelligence, but the simple wisdom to make the decisions that we currently need to make.
Not for more money, but the providence to meet the current need.
Not for more time, but the diligence to live what time we do have to the fullest.
Not for more friends, but the love, compassion, and empathy to be the best possible companion to the few that we have.
Not for more, but for better and more meaningful: moments/relationships/conversations/meals/experiences/marriages/work/etc…

Feed your soul what it needs first, and let the body and mind follow that. When you find yourself wanting more more more… stop and ask yourself where that is coming from. Ask yourself if more has ever really satisfied. Observe all the ways in which more has been destructive in your life and the lives of those around you. And reject the idea that more of this or that will really satisfy.

Ask God for what he calls “Our daily bread”. It is not a lifetime supply. It is right here. Right now. It is all you need.

More on this next week.

My 4 Rules for Responding to Nasty Emails.

Every so often I receive an email written out of anger, hurt, or any one of the various emotions that cause people to lash out against others. Sometimes these emails are specifically written to inflict pain and shut down communication, while other times they are written to elicit a specific response from me.  I’ve only ever been a pastor, so I’m not sure what other people endure, but I’m fairly certain that this can’t possibly be the only profession that invites these kinds of letters. I imagine that many of you receive them from time to time.

Today I want to address this seemingly new phenomenon of human beings launching virtual cannonballs from the comfort of their couch and pajamas. I imagine that the rise in this type of behavior is due in part to the easy access that we have to the people we are upset with. It used to be that when you had a grievance you would either set up a meeting and prepare your thoughts to be delivered face to face. You were forced to look into the eyes of the other person. Where your body language spoke far more than your words ever could. Where there is a sense of respect and decorum. That type of scenario is exactly what many people fear, and, until recent history, this is what has kept them and their emotional outbursts in check.

But in this day and age we can inject ourselves, our anger, our unhealth, and our spiritual darkness directly into the souls of the person who has become the object of our ire during their family dinner, their prayer time, or the busiest parts of their day, through email. And for the bitter minded, this is far too big of a temptation to pass up.

So what do we do? How do we respond? How do we interact with ungraciousness? Well, I can only tell you what I have learned over the years (through both my failures and successes) about how to respond to this type of behavior. So here are some simple rules that I follow. Rules that have helped me turn many of these interactions into helpful dialogue instead of heated and destructive breakdowns in relationship. So here we go.

Rule #1: Wait 48 hours before responding.

I make a general habit of trying to treat the majority of digital correspondence as if it were not digital at all, but tangible. Like a handwritten note that I received via old fashioned snail mail. Putting some chronological distance between the initial emotions, and the response.

This does 2 things:

1) It gives them time to think about the repercussions of their actions.
It takes time for information to be processed. They probably haven’t taken that time. They acted out of anger, combined with unfetered access to you. A couple of days of letting their thoughts settle will do them (and you) some good. Often times I will receive a follow up email a day later that will try and soften their previous letter, and sometimes even a request to meet in person… which is the best possible scenario. Regret and shame weigh heavy on people. It can drive them to the realization that they are in a dark place and need to draw near to people, not push them away. Time to think and to let the spirit of God do his work can soften the heart.

2) It gives you time to think about your response.
Your first instinct is to defend and fire back. You, no doubt, know about some easy jabs that you could throw at them: pointing out their struggles with some sin that you know about, stupid things that they have done, all of the misinformation that they have gathered. This is not only unhelpful, it throws more heat on the fire.
Remember, they weren’t thinking clearly when they wrote the letter and, at this moment, neither are you. Let things settle, abandon the scene of the accident and return when the adrenaline has worn off. You will find that you can easily look at things differently, and only then will you be able to respond with your integrity intact.

Rule #2: Do not defend yourself.

Let me quote a passage from my favorite book, “Celebration of Discipline” by Richard Foster:

The tongue is our most powerful weapon of manipulation. A frantic stream of words flows from us because we are in a constant process of adjusting our public image. We fear so deeply what we think other people see in us that we talk in order to straighten out their understanding. If I have done some wrong thing (or even some right thing that I think you may misunderstand) and discover that you know about it, I will be very tempted to help you understand my action! Silence is one of the deepest Disciplines of the Spirit simply because it puts the stopper on all self-justification.

Silence is a spiritual discipline, and spiritual disciplines are there to bear fruit in our lives. One of the ways that we can practice silence is to remain silent when our reputation and motives are under attack. The fruit of silence is freedom. Freedom to let God justify us.

If there are personal attacks, things specifically written to demean your character or bring pain and insult to your soul, say nothing of those. If they are true, then you have some internal spiritual work to do that has nothing to do with them. If they are untrue, then be at peace. Be silent. Rest. Your integrity is intact, and now you can enjoy watching God be your defender.

Rule #3: No negativity!

Diamonds and emails are forever. I have said things that have come back a decade later and sucker-punched me right in the kisser. Those negative and emotional words will live forever in someone else’s inbox. They will never be deleted. I know this because I have kept every awful email that I have ever received. I use them as a reminder to either set up boundaries in the future, or for when I find out later that there was sin that the sender was hiding that has come to light, and now I can read it through the lens of their pain and guilt. It is a reminder that most of the time they don’t hate you, they hate that you have reminded them of themselves… and they can’t stand themselves. That email, sent out of a sinful place, now becomes a warning sign for your future interactions with them. If you see them going down that same path again, you now know what to look for and how to help them confess, repent, and cope.

Sending negativity through email is akin to sending your kryptonite out into enemy territory. It will be forwarded to others, and your problems will only increase as more and more people see a side of you that you wish would disappear.

If you must respond through email, do so with positivity and encouragement. Express your desire for reconciliation and grace. Be hopeful with them that you can find common ground. Apologize if necessary. Tell them the spirit with which you are writing, and ask them to read it in that tone.

Rule #4: Look for substance. 

Print that nasty email out, and get a sharpie. Black out (redact!) all of the personal attacks and insults. Things that are unfounded and assumptions that are not grounded in actual reality. What are you left with? Is there a legitimate concern? Address it. Address it with dignity and grace and a desire to find a remedy. The entire email probably could have been boiled down to that one point, so pretend that it was and focus all of your efforts towards meeting that need.

Those are the rules that I have for myself, perhaps they can help guide you when someone is firing arrows in a fit of emotion.

Above all, remember. There is no reward in winning the argument. There is no joy in destroying another person. There are no spoils of war that will make you happy. Our God does not delight in the destruction of relationships. He is not proud of you for winning the argument, having a great comeback, or laying waste to those who attack you. He loves them as much as he loves you.

They might not ever fully enter into relationship with you again, and if the relationship was abusive then it is best to set up boundaries to protect yourself and the ones you love. I’ve had to let many relational seasons come to an end, and its okay. Seasons come and go, and sometimes unhealthy influences need to be removed from your life. But God is not willing that any should perish, and our desires should mirror His. Our desire should be exactly what God desires: “that all should come to repentance”. This is not only about eterna relationship with God, it is also about our relationships with each other here and now.

When the dust settles you will be left either standing side-by-side with them again, or standing alone. But then you will have to answer to God for your own responses, your own motives, and the current state of your soul. Will you still be at peace then?

I leave you with the words of Paul, who had far more attacks leveled at him then you or I ever will, and still had the purity of heart to write this in Romans 12:17-19:

Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. 18If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. 19Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord.…

Finding Your Way Home Again

Mextures

On the American plains in the midwest in the mid 19th century it was commonplace for farmers to hear stories of farmers working in the fields when a whiteout blizzard appeared on the horizon. These storms were known to swallow up vast farmlands in a matter of minutes, and there were countless tales of farmers who died in their own yards unable to find their way in the midst of the storm. Many of them, less that a hundred yards from safety, never found their way home.

With this warning in mind, many of them learned that when the weather was still good, they needed a lifeline. They would fasten a rope from their porch to their barn. The rope would lead them home when they could not see where to go or which way to turn.

Likewise I can recall stories of people that I have known that that, when the storms have descended upon their lives, they were spiritually lost. I can’t count on both hands the number of people that I have seen who’s faith has died in the midst of storms. When skies were calm they seemed to live with such spiritual ease and surety. But when things went dark, they were lost. Their bodies lived on, but their faith was abandoned and left to die in the place where the storms arose.

Many people never fathom that life can turn very dark in the blink of an eye. That loss will come their way. That great pain and confusion will arise.  That you might suddenly find yourself alone in a terrible storm.

This is typical of the young people and families that I work with. They are immortal, and nothing bad will ever happen. The thought is never entertained that storms will arise, and no preparation is made for the storms of life.

Your soul needs a rope. 

You must build that rope through regular spiritual intake. The regular practice of spiritual disciplines, the quietness of solitude and meditation on scriptures and the teachings of Christ, a routine practice of sabbath. These are the things that will lay the groundwork for the path that your soul will take when things are dark.

Our regular practices during peacetime become habitual responses in times of conflict. A person will always long to return to the place where it has learned to gleam nourishment. And in the midst of the storm, the unfed soul will wander to and fro aimlessly looking for answers and finding nothing.

In 1873 Horatio Spafford received a telegram from his wife that would have slain the soul of many-a-man. He was a real estate investor in Chicago, successful by any standards. Two years earlier he had lost his only son to typhoid fever, and the following year lost every bit of real estate he owned in the great Chicago fire. He sent his wife and daughters home to England the following year while he stayed back and focused on rebuilding his life. Two weeks later he received the message that would change everything:

“Saved alone. What shall I do?”

The ship had suffered tragedy and went down with his remaining children, leaving only his beloved wife.

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Spafford quickly boarded a ship headed for england and as he passed over the very spot where his daughters had perished, he penned the words of the famous hymn “It Is Well With My Soul”.

“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.”

Needless to say, this was a man who had prepared his soul, who had strung a rope to lead himself home again in times of storm and peril. And when those times came, he found his way to the comfort and safety and nourishment of his savior. He was able to drink of that well and his soul, though undoubtedly damaged and scarred, survived.

I wonder if mine would do the same, or if it might simply die in the storm. I wonder if my faith would survive, or if I would leave it behind.

The salvation of your soul is not just about the afterlife. It is about the present life. Salvation means healing and deliverance at the deepest level of who we are in the care of God through the presence of Jesus.

Sooner or later, your world will fall apart. For some of you, like Horatio Spafford, it will happen while you are still alive… but for most it will happen when we die. What will matter then is the soul you have constructed. It will be what you are left with. Your empires might fall, your loved ones, your accomplishments and your riches might be lost. But your soul will remain.

If you focus on building your life alone, then you will run the risk of losing everything. But if you build your soul, you will find that your life is filled with all of the things that you have always wanted. In addition, your soul and your life can be a light that others will find direction in, and a rope that can lead them, and yourself, home again.

Matthew 16:26
“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” ~ Jesus of Nazareth.

Stones in your Garden.

A few years back my wife and I bought a fixer upper and we worked on house until it was exactly what we wanted it to be, on the inside that is. One day we decided that we would start working on the yard and it was entirely different territory to us.

The yard had not been worked on in years, and the house is 85 years old. Which means that there are 8 decades of yard projects that had been buried like ancient ruins. One layer on top of another. The most prevalent object in each layer was rocks. Subsequently when we started raking the yard in preparation for making a garden we realized that there were far too many rocks to plant anything.

Slowly we started pulling out the rocks one by one and a couple of hours into it we realized that (1) it was going to take a whole lot of work to get all of the rocks out, and (2) when we finish we are going to have a really large pile of rocks to deal with. We never finished the project, and we now park our car on that spot.

But all of this gets me to thinking about those fields you see all over the world where farmers have plowed the earth and gone through all of the preparation and the work involved in preparing the earth for planting. I think of places that I visited on tour last summer in Germany, and I think of pictures of places like Ireland where the earth is separated into vast fields separated by knee high stone walls that stretch the entire length of the field. There are also roads between the fields that are laid with the same stones used for the walls. They meander between vast green gardens and golden fields of wheat. They now play a very important role in the protection and care-taking of the garden. They ensure that the garden is not trampled, and they keep out those that would trample the life-giving fruits of the well tended gardens.

Stone_Walls_and_Hay_Fields_-_geograph.org.uk_-_525471

Do you know where those stones come from? I used to assume that they were brought in just to be used as separation for the fields, but I have learned that those stones which now protect the fields and define the boundaries of the gardens were actually dug out and removed from the place where the garden now sits.

This is an amazing thought to me, and it seems that there is something to be gleamed (pun!) from that.

We all have an inner garden. Many of us would like to till and plant in the garden of our souls, but when we actually get in there with the right tools (spiritual disciplines, prayer, study, sabbath… etc) we start to find all kinds of things that need to be removed before anything of substance can grow. 

Being a pastor, I interact with allot of people. And when you interact with allot of people, sometimes things can go wrong. People get hurt, and people hurt you. Sometimes it my fault and I need to acknowledge that and say “Here is something in my life that is a hinderance to growth, and it needs to be removed”. Other times the fault is not mine, but is cause by spiritual and moral shortcomings in the lives of those I am working with. When that happens, I need to point and say “That is something that is dangerous, or someone that is unteachable… etc”.

Yesterday I came across one of those emails that pastors sometimes receive. It was from a long time ago and it was angry. It was insulting and attacking and degrading. But wrapped up in it was truths that I needed to hear and things I needed to confront, both in my life and theirs.

Since then much time has passed and new information has been gathered and added to what I now know about that time. But perhaps the biggest thing that I have realized when coming across that old “stone” is that, instead of being a hindrance, these stones are now part of the walls and paths that are daily protecting the garden of my soul.

Some of the stones around the garden of my life and soul are used as barriers, walls. They have helped me set up healthy boundaries that protect me from unhealthy people. People that would trample my garden and destroy the life that is growing there. I have learned that there are healthy people who come and pour into me, and there are unhealthy people that are envious and destructive. In popular psychology they are called vampires (a term coined by Dr. Judith Orloff, and used by others such as Dr. Henry Cloud). They are people who need to be fed, but also need boundaries. I have learned that there needs to be well maintained paths that lead them to the wall where they can be fed from the garden in a way that is healthy and nourishing for both myself and them.

Some of the stone that I have pulled out have become paths that guide people. I point to the stones and say “Here are all of the ways that I have failed, that I needed to change, and the things that were keeping me from growth. Follow the path that I have laid, step on MY stones so that they won’t end up in YOUR garden!”.

My goal is to have a soul that is filled with an overabundance of life-giving food. Overflowing with love for the loveless, grace for the graceless, with peace for those who are constantly at war with the world around them. All of these things are found in Jesus of Nazareth who, many times in scriptures, is referred to as “The stone which the builders have discarded that has now become the cornerstone”.

Often times the things that we have discarded will end up being the same things that will ultimately lead to deliverance and freedom. Not only for you, but also for other people. Even the salvation of your soul was paved with the suffering of the Messiah. But the pain which you inflicted upon him through your sin became part of his path towards your very salvation.

So may you look back on the path that God has led you down and see that it was paved with great toil, but it was necessary to bring you where you are and where He has for you to go.

Further reading: “Necessary Endings” Dr. Henry Cloud. “Boundaries” Dr Henry Cloud”