Weight of the World

Now, being smack dab in the middle of it all in this recent visit to Israel, I have to say that Israelis seem to have a weight on Them. There is a heaviness here that seems equal to the weight of the world. But, I don’t believe it’s a burden only current Jewish People carry. Through the Jewish advance through the ages, they haven’t just been prophetic at times. Or even only had to be a prophetic generation. The Jews have always been the Prophetic Civilization. This has marked them out as powerful people, but also as a People Persecutable.

Down through the millennia, as empires began to take shape with mutually-beneficial motivations, each civilization has offered different values to the world. The Roman Empire offered stability. The British Empire profit. American leadership has recently ushered comfort and ease into the world if you want to think of it as an advancement. But, the Jewish people have always done more than add. Their additions have more often been proddings. They bring morality. And that’s never an easy thing to shoehorn into the world.

Of course, we should give Israelis the A-grade they have earned for making the world a better place. Pound-for-pound, there’s likely no People that’s offered more to the world in advancements: they are second-to-none in irrigation technologies, their medical improvements are near-impossible to count, genetic engineering is just one in a long list of stuff that’s been on their to-do list, and they invented the world’s smallest camera—-to creepers-the-world-arounds’ delight. They’ve given all of us Einstein’s theoretical physics and even jeans and lipstick! They gave the world the atomic and thermonuclear bombs. My 4 kids have forever been changed by their flexistraw and every suburbanite in America uses appliances in stainless steal because of them. (There’s so much more, of course.) For goodness’ sake, over 20% of the Nobel Prizes awarded through the decades have been given to Jewish people—who only comprise 0.2% of the world’s population! These are not just above-average students. The Jewish People have always formed the Top of the Class in changing the world.

But, here’s the thing . . . all these advancements were mere handmaidens to the King they have most meaningfully revealed to us all. They haven’t just given Humanity monotheism, they have given us God. God! Not, mind you, a cheap version of a ‘god’ that a hack Comparative Religions course professor might foist upon us. Not a thin-sliced book telling us how superstitions have evolved “deities” into religions through the millennia. (Come on. Let’s grow up and get serious. The same “experts” also tell us that love is just synapses firing in the brain when all of us know it’s a thing deep in the soul and so much more than an evolutionary mechanism.) No.

The Jewish People have given every one of us the Living God. But, what a weight that must be. When you’d rather hold your tongue and mind your own business, the Jewish People have always had a Moses or a Deborah who realized they must say what needed to be said. They’ve been the Prophetic Civilization.

Christianity for our part has taken up from our Older Brother . . . a bit. Honestly, though, like a religious version of the Roman Empire, Christianity has almost always reflexively preferred to syncretize just to keep things stable. But, we’d do well to recognize that—like the Hebrew experience—we are a rebellion to the world . . . not a superstructure. We’re terrible as bureaucrats paving a second coat of asphalt on the highway of the World’s spirituality. We’re better at and offer so much more real value when we’re being prophetic to a World that desperately needs the wisdom our Older Brother passed on to us so long ago.

That said . . . the prophets often get stoned.

But it would be better to be stoned adding God to the world than be stone cold to the Human Condition and add only comfort and currency to one’s own bank account before the last synapse fires and we don’t get to take any of it into the next life.

We have brothers to bring into Eternity with us. Just like our Older Brother taught us.

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Jerusalem: Days 1 and 2 in Pictures

Jerusalem: Days 1 and 2 in Pictures

‘Acquire More Limitations’: Religion’s Great Truth and Devastating Mistake

A sign warning about personal holiness in the entrance to the Western Wall holy site.

I didn’t have to ‘land’ in Jerusalem to get the religious spirit of the Land I was headed to.  Accompanying me for the 14-hour flight to Jerusalem was a 60-something seat mate named Saul—a devout practicer of Orthodox Judaism. He, like me, was headed to the Holy Land for nourishment of his faith . . . though this was far from his first trip.  He had long been a resident of Jerusalem, though now he lived in the States.

Saul was vivacious and, dare I say, even evangelical about his Judaism–which did not make him a little compelling and curious to me.  Along with giving me a primer on Israel, Saul offered much more than a peek into today’s Orthodox Judaism.  As I had decided I was coming to the Holy Land as more of a learner than a missionary (this time), I have decided to mostly listen and absorb.  And Saul did not disappoint.  At one point, Saul mentioned what is the defining view of the Orthodox Jewish belief:  if God’s People would be holy enough, Messiah would come.  (I recall in my study of the Torah, a long-spoken-of tradition of the Mishnah that said that if every Jewish family practiced the Sabbath on the same day, the Messiah would come. These two ideas reveal a similar heartbeat in the Orthodox Jewish faith: Messiah hasn’t come because of lack of holiness in God’s Chosen People.)  

After fourteen hours on the plane and a steady stream of this belief, I asked Saul a question that ought to confound and perplex every Faithful Practicer of Judaism (along with anyone religious, Jewish or not):  “If everyone had somehow already become good, why on earth would the Messiah need to come to ‘save’ anyone?  A Messiah is a Savior.  Who needs saving if everyone’s moral . . . enough?”  It occurred to me that Saul’s assumption of religion amounted to having the cart before the horse.  Religion tries to put things backwards.  Who personally needs God if they’re already good enough? And what world needs God if everyone’s moral . . . enough?  In Saul’s case, he looked at me puzzled and moved on to other ideas since there wasn’t an answer for that question. (And, as I’ve very rarely found someone religiously Jewish to be not certain, I had hit religious pay dirt with Saul.)

This conversation with my new friend would only give me a quick introduction to what I would see on full display during my first full day in Jerusalem. I walked the entire circumference of the Old City on Day 1, but the one place I just couldn’t get enough of in the Old City was the Western Wall–the holiest of sites to the Jewish Faith until the Temple gets rebuilt. (The Western Wall—sometimes also referred to as the Wailing Wall—forms the westernmost wall of the Temple Mount where the Jewish Temple once sat before the Romans ripped it down and Islam later placed a mosque on top of.)  Here, many people come to pray, but the prominent worshipers are the Orthodox Jewish–and, most notably, the rabbis. (It would be even easier to pick one of them out by their garb than it would be me as a tourist.)

The Western Wall

I knew praying at the Western Wall would be one of my primary delights on this trip, but I wasn’t aware of something I would end up stumbling upon in my visit. There is a synagogue to the immediate left of what most would see as the termination at the northernmost end of the Western Wall. There, in that incredibly holy place, the rabbis and the intense Jewish worshipers come to make their daily prayers, recite the Torah, and read the Hebrew Scriptures aloud.

Synagogue on the Western Wall

Due to its architecture, the slightly-arching wall in that synagogue leads you to hear the profoundly beautiful cacophony of many prayers at once. It’s inspiring to my devout spirit, but also strikes my soul with a strangeness. No one welcomes you into the synagogue—as it’s a place that people move in and out of after they make their public prayers. No one makes eye contact with you. Well, they kind of do. Wary eyes are more common than one should feel comfortable with in a place where God’s Presence is being prayed for. There, you don’t get a feeling of disinterest from the religiously-overzealous, but of somewhere more between disapproval and disgust. This impression you experience extends to the street experience of the highly-religious, too: “We can tell you are looking on curiously to what’s going on here, but you are impure. Unworthy to be here. You are not counted among the Faithful.” On more than a few occasions, I would notice a rabbi passing a non-Orthodox person and turn their head wincingly away. (More than one rabbi turned away from me, too—disturbed by, in his estimation, my non-Faithful presence. Sinners are part of the problem—in their belief. And, believe me, I’m a sinner. Just not sure if I’m wincingly-level horrible . . . but I do my best.)

Why do I mention this? Well, let me bring you back to my conversation with Saul on the plane. Refreshingly, he did not share the same sense of disgust at talking to a non-Orthodox person—even if he believed the same thing as them: “The world is sinful . . . and, frankly, repulsive to God.” And, as I mentioned at the start, it’s this Human sinful repulsiveness, they assume, that keeps the Messiah away. Because those of Orthodox Jewish faith missed Jesus as the Messiah—He who was without sin and whose sacrificial death obliterated this Human problem with sin—they are certain that holiness is the only way to bring it about the arrival of Messiah.

Now, here’s how Saul worded it. “We must be holy. We must leave the stench of the world’s ways. For Messiah to finally come, we must ACQUIRE MORE LIMITATIONS.” Wow. We need to deny ourselves so that we get all God wants for us in this life. Saul was 100% right and fully wrong at the same time. But, the valuable and redemptive part of this kind of morality he was introducing struck me hard. If I am going to acquire anything as I grow in this life, it should be to need less. I need to acquire the need for less. I was blown away by the partial wisdom of my new friend, Saul . . . even if he believed it was the whole religious enchilada.

Small notes of prayer stuck into the Western Wall

But, the problem is that no one can ever limit themselves into perfection. So if human righteousness is the only thing that brings about the Messiah—as Judaism’s foundational belief holds—the most knee-buckling truth to render upon how Saul meant what he said was this: even if we could become perfect by wanting less of the material world, why then would we ever need the Messiah to come and change us with His salvation? He’d, what, save us from being too good? You catch me? As Messiah Jesus taught: “the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are LOST.” Our sense of humble lostness and a hope to see our Human brokenness healed is the thing that brings the Messiah to us—not a self-acquired righteousness.

But, I would like to take the shells of Saul’s amazing ideas and reorder his core thoughts back into a better sequence: When God’s love does find me and I let Him in, it should transform me and my worldview and my lifestyle. When God gets a hold of a sinner, He changes how that sinner sees the world. They begin to see God and the world in more “righteous” ways—like Saul so sweetly taught me (backwards in order as it may have been). Our greatest acquisition in life will be to become men and women who only covet the joy of God in others. We will need less and less artificial pleasures—as sin and the material world always offer but painfully under-deliver. The only indulgence we’ll need to allow for would be a coveting that others can have more and more of our generous God that they discover in us. The only way we begin to understand our need to acquire less is when we’ve, first, experienced all of the Messiah’s forgiveness.

And that’s been offered to each of us in Jesus if we (1) humbly ask for His grace and (2) stop trying to be good enough. The first places us only one simple decision away from God’s Kingdom. The latter is religiously futile. Jerusalem is proof perfect of this on global display.

The Approach to Jerusalem: Song of the Ascents

There are a number of psalms that the People of Israel would sing as they made their way up to Jerusalem—on their way to celebrate God (during the Festivals God outlined for the Hebrews in the Torah). These special psalms designed around this approach to the great city are called the Songs of Ascent. (As you might imagine, this is a particularly poignant name in my estimation—as a pastor at ASCENT Church.)

As I write this, I am moments away from boarding my plane to fly into Tel Aviv, Israel—where I will immediately be transported to my hotel near the Old City in Jerusalem. I now join the Faithful of the Generations in making my way to this holy place singing my own song of ascent. In the coming minutes, I will be ascending the skies so I can then ascend the road to Jerusalem. For the first time.

What a rich privilege to be able to near the city in which the Savior, Jesus, came to love and redeem the whole world. To approach Her gives me the opportunity to approach Him in a fresh new way. It helps in my own ascending.

I’ve been meditating on what might be the best way to approach God on this ascent. Psalm 131:1-2—one of these songs of ascent—helps me answer this question: Lord, my heart is not proud; my eyes are not haughty. I don’t concern myself with matters too great or too awesome for me to grasp. Instead, I have calmed and quieted myself . . .

The Wholly Land

I can count it in hours now how long it will be before I make my way to Israel–or to what the Faithful often call the Holy Land. The anticipation is palpable and powerful. It’s hard being present where I am and with whom I am when my heart is moving there as I write.

Well, because so many have shown interest in this journey I’m about to embark upon and so many have also contributed so generously to my being able to experience the Holy Land, I am going to document this spiritual trek so that others might be able to see, feel, and hear what I am. What a thrill it will be to touch the same rocks and the same walls . . . to smell the same food and the same fragrances . . . and to peer in the same wells and feel the same waters as the Patriarchs, the Victorious, Samuel, Deborah, the Wandering Nation, Joshua and Caleb, high priests for generations, David, the wise and frequently foolish Solomon, Ezra and Nehemiah, Jesus Himself, Mary, the Apostles, both the Johns and the Judases, along with those who launched Jesus’ oft-Broken and always-Beautiful Church. To step where both the Heroes and the Hell-bent have, along with the Faithful (and even the Unfaithful) . . . to be joined to those who have walked these paths and narrow alleys and dreamed of what these movements called Judaism and Christianity would transform in the world.

Now, I firmly believe in a Sacredness of Place. No, I don’t think the inside of a cathedral is any holier than the inside of your kitchen, but I do believe people bring sacredness to those places when they are inviting the Spirit to reveal Himself and move in us. People have found hope and redemption in the dust and in the most desperate of places–which only proves that sacredness of place has everything to do with the holiness and the WHOLLY-ness of intention.

It’s my firm prayer and intention to bring my WHOLLY-ness to the Holy Land. To be fully present to listen for God. To hear the generations. To remember where I am from. To recognize that I will be only feet from that part of the ancient Temple called by God as the Most Holy Place . . . but I will do this all recognizing that there is no distance between me and God since our Heavenly Father never intended to have any one room be the only place He ever lived. All along, He desired to make you and me His Living Temple. If we would be but humble. If we’d open the doors of our heart. If we’d seek His grace. If we’d invite the Messiah inside what is our most sacred place–the Innermost Temple of our hearts.

To be intentionally and Wholly His is to experience the Holy Land. (Whether we’ve ever been there or not.) That said, in going to the Holy Land, I am confident I will be able to understand the Patriarchs and the Prophets better. The Savior and the Saved better. You better. And myself, too. To be Wholly who God made me. Which is my prayer for you, as well.

Please check back here in the coming days as I share so much more about what Israel and God have shown me.

last-ability

“In their righteousness, they will be like GREAT OAKS that the Lord has planted for His own glory.”

(Isaiah 61:3 NLT)

Trees aren’t really meant for moving, are they?  Frankly, if you think about it, there’s only one kind of tree that ever moves.  A decorative one.  Yes, they’re undeniably a part of some landscape, but they end up being there only for looks . . . never for fruioak-tree2t and never offering the valuable comfort of real shade.   You see, they’re too little for that.  And, yes, they’ll offer occasional color, but it’s not a virtue to do what one can’t help but do just by sitting there for more than a minute.
But trees aren’t meant to be decorative, really.  It’s like telling a football player he looks cute in his equipment and jersey.  (It’s not how they’re to be viewed or would ever want to be viewed.)  Trees are big.  Powerful.  Impossible to move.  If trees—like the Ents in the Lord of the Rings movies—could ever be spoken to and someone called them “decorative,” they’d be insulted at the insinuation.

The righteousness and virtue of Trees is that they stay put and offer their faithfulness, fruit, and shade to an increasing number of others.  And they last.  They’re faithful through all kinds of seasons.  They weather storms, carry the weight of winter’s brutal snows, and take the summer sun’s beating so others can catch their breath in their shade.

Trees are heroic simply for their faithfulness.  A word lost on our culture.  You see, we move too fast for that sort of outdated quality.  In our day, it’s not just seasons that change, but news cycles, fads, and the latest things.  In our culture, even seasons have begun to take too long!  People pivot-and-cut multiple times during a season now.  Trees never pivot and cut, though.  They’ll trade being nimble for being faithful because they quietly teach us all something about last-ability.  And in offering us daily lessons, seasonal lessons, and lifetime lessons in this virtue, they, apparently, also teach us about righteousness, Isaiah the prophet explains.

I have occasion to often catch the difference between decorative and dependable trees.

  • As a pastor in a Church culture that’s begun to lean so commercially-competitive and to the attention-deficit, church people dart like eyes from one blast to the next in a fireworks and laser show.  The Church has become irrelevant because it’s so much less now about Christ’s brand of serving and others-ness and, rather, has become about brand names, tastes, the latest, and whoever-asks-the-least-of-me.  Church has increasingly become decorative.  (And that’s on the good days when there’s not a football game or a graduation party or a hike I want to take or a late Saturday night that trumps people’s Faith and whatever sliver of faithfulness they used to possess.) Pastors and church people:  Jesus!  Don’t forget what this whole thing is really about.
  • Husbands and wives grow weary, too, of waking up next to the same imperfect person and wondering if there’s something better elsewhere.  And, even those that don’t ever cheat or divorce, they live discontented, disconnected, and disengaged from the other (which can amount to a stealthier kind of unfaithfulness).
  • Parents, ever-sulking, move their kids from one travel team to the next because they don’t like the way a volunteer coach said whatever they said when they were left with no alternative in their wish to help a kid improve as both a player and a person.
  • Employees hop from job to job trying to find the opportunity where they can do the least amount of work for the most money and the most vacation time away from said job.
  • And volunteers will unsubscribe from the emails of booster programs at school because someone actually asked them to . . . you know . . . volunteer.  (I’ve been wondering of late if people think everything that needs to happen just falls from the sky and happens miraculously.)
  • The list of examples could go on and on . . .

Frankly, folks, this thing stopped being laughable a long time ago.  Faithfulness.  Last-ability.  And righteousness.  These aren’t words we know much of anymore and it’s getting dangerous.

We need to get back to being Trees.  We just celebrated our church’s 60th Anniversary of our congregation being the Planted Trees for Our Town–Evergreen, CO.  And there’s a beautiful saint here whose name is Anne Kemp–a sweet and godly woman we honored that day and who has been here for a lot longer than me.  Why?  She has been a vital presence and part of this church almost since that way-forever-ago start of the church; she’s been active in our church family for 55 years!  A single church.  Never budging, never leaving . . . just loving, worshiping, and serving.   I hadn’t ever met someone like that and I’ve been in church every day since I was born nearly 45 years ago (and a professional part of the church since I began pastoring in 1993).  That she’s an anomaly says something about the state of Culture and Church.  She’s become the Exception when this kind of living ought to be a Kingdom Rule.

Anne Kemp is righteous.  She’s a Tree.  That’s not to say that she hasn’t had to weather so many things:  personal challenges, the loss of both her husband and one of her sons, pastoral regime changes over 6 decades, scandals, style tweaks and full-scale style shifts . . . and everything else weird that happens in the American Church.  But she’s remained faithful.

She truly decorates our church with God’s glory, but not because she’s decorative.  But because she’s faithful like a tree who God planted on purpose.  But, we often let our roots get shoveled short as we transfer from one shallow bed to the next . . . and end up getting dirt on both ourselves and those around us in the move.  And we wonder why we feel unrooted and lonely.  It’s not been anyone else but us . . . because, had we made the simple decision to become immoveable, we wouldn’t feel like that.  That’s what faithful people do.  That’s how Trees live.

Why does God plant us in churches and in marriages and on teams and in jobs and and in towns . . . and plant us in everything else?  We often forget the role God has in planting us places.  Why does He do it?  Well, if we look at the surrounding passage that the “Great Oaks” are talked about above in Isaiah 61:3, we’d also find WHY God plants people in places:  they transform the place if they stay planted and change it one day and one challenge and one season and one life at a time.  The passage describes God’s People bringing good news to the poor and comfort to the brokenhearted.  They help their neighbors–who have been enslaved to forces crushing them for a lifetime–get free. They turn mourning into blessing.  They transform ashes into beauty, it says. They rebuild ancient ruins into vibrant cities.  And they reproduce their own tree-like faithfulness into others . . . and, in doing so, become a signature of God’s love and presence among them all.  The last verse of the passage says it this way:  “The Sovereign Lord will show His justice to the nations of the world.  Everyone will praise Him!   His righteousness will be like a garden in early spring, with PLANTS SPRINGING UP EVERYWHERE.”   A decorative tree just barely makes a front yard a little less ugly.  A great tree turns a desert into a beautiful forest.

Which will we be today?  And tomorrow?  And next week?  And next season?  And next  year?  And 10 years from now?  And during each flurry of life change?  And during the next uncomfortable conversation or the next difficult thing asked of us?  And when we disagree with someone planted next to us?

And at our last breath?

You see, the faithfulness of last-ability is, quite literally, our LAST ability to display.

Be great today, Tree.  And every tomorrow.