Keeping Up with What?

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.vom

Gentle Reader,

I have a confession.

You should probably sit down.

Here goes.

I got sucked into the world of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

It’s okay if you judge me. I judge myself.

Don’t even know how it happened. Some random, black, internet hole pulled me in without warning.

The family is weirdly entertaining. Sure, they’re materialistic, out-of-touch with the real world, are publicly naked far too often (once is far too often) and have zero sense of style or fashion. Kris Jenner probably pushed her children into the limelight. Certainly she gave her youngest daughters far too much freedom. At the same time, the petty fights and bizarre conversations they have – it’s like any other family. They’re in each other’s business, push each other to do better (their version of better, anyway) and come to each other’s defense if anyone on the outside dares to attack. Though I doubt they reveal their true selves on television or social media, one thing shines through the layers of make-up and spray tanner: They genuinely love each other.

Elements of horribleness and elements of absolute normalcy.

And humor. There were some genuinely funny moments in the episodes I watched.

I know. I write about theology, history, logic, chronic illness. How can I also be so low-brow?

I’m a complicated person. What can I say?

What truly fascinates me about this family is how easily, casually even, they throw around references to God, church and Christianity. In one episode, the oldest daughter, Kourtney, tells her friends that they will be going to church that evening – after they’ve spent time getting drunk and playing pinball at a Korean barbecue joint.

What?

How do those things possibly go together?

As I sit here, knowing I need brain bleach and some time meditating on Philippians 4:8, I am reminded of this article that Karen Swallow Prior shared on Twitter over the weekend. I quote:

Instead of an intellectual tradition, it is a church built on emotion. Every sermon is a revival stump speech about the evils of the world and the need for salvation. Every sermon ends in a sentimental pop song/worship chorus to accompany an altar call in which the same handful of members weeps at the altar (these people are subsequently held up as the most exemplary Christians. I had a friend in junior high who could cry on cue; she cleaned up on attention in this system). …

…you have membership with no theological or doctrinal depth that you have neglected to equip with the tools to wrestle with hard issues.

And there’s the answer.

We have such a hard time getting church right, don’t we? Across this country, there are thousands of churches that are built on either legalism or cheap grace. Both ends of the spectrum appeal to the emotions; oddly, it’s the same emotion – pride – that they tap into. “Do these 375.32 things and God will be happy with you” or, “Do whatever you want and God will still be happy with you because love.” Either way, it’s not really about God being happy. It’s not about walking in close relationship with Him, learning to wholly submit to His will each day. No, instead, it’s about pouring the infinite Lord into some ridiculous, man-made box. “He will behave this way, because I want Him to.”

How interesting, to realize that legalism and libertinism are two sides of the same coin.

Oh, idolatry. You’re just lurking around every corner, aren’t you?

The Kardashians aren’t the problem. They’re the symptom. There are many people who live exactly as they do, just with less money and without television cameras documenting every move. They believe that God must bless whatever it is they do, because…because. It goes no deeper than that. It’s “your best life now” and “God wants you to be happy.”

Sanctification, holiness, righteousness.

What happened to those concepts?

Please, church, stop trying to be relevant. Stop trying to be cool. Stop trying to “fit in” with the people you want to reach. The true Gospel transcends time and culture. Preach that. Give people what’s real. Call them to something higher and better found in humility before God and hiddenness under the shadow of His wings. Show them that true happiness is found in obedience. That God’s law is for our good and protection.

The Kardashians need the truth. At the end of the day, when the make-up slides onto the washcloth and the extensions are removed; when the cameras are off and the silence of night descends, what are they left with? Near as I can tell, only the sorrow of believing that their value lies only in the sexiness of their bodies and the deception of a false faith.

God made these women and He wants so much more for them.

It’s our job to show them – and all the rest – that more.

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Get Off Your Butt

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com (2)

Gentle Reader,

Context before we begin:

Many thoughts swirling in my head.

I’m a teacher. No, I don’t rule a classroom. I don’t have a degree in education. I simply love to learn and can’t help but share what I’ve learned with others. I have been told more than once that I have the ability to distill complex subjects down to their basic parts, something for which God gets all the credit. I love digging into Scripture and my brother told me just last night that, if I ever tried to preach, I’d probably start by saying, “Okay, so we’re going to go over the entire Bible.” (I laughed. It’s true. And it would be so fun).

For better or worse, this is how God has chosen to gift me.

So let’s talk discipleship. Let’s talk learning.

A disciple is a follower. One who submits to the authority of another (in the Christian context, God), learns his ways and passes that knowledge onto others. As we hear so often, a disciple makes disciples. Basically, it’s, “Hey, Jesus saved me and I love Him and you should join me in this because it’s awesome.” Really, there’s no neat formula in this disciple-making. No, “Do x, y and z – then you will have arrived.” It’s messy. There are steps forward and steps back. There isn’t a single person who gets it right all the time. Never, ever, should it be about one human being looking to another as the be-all, end-all, but rather the one who’s a little farther down the path pointing the newbie to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord. It’s every believer everywhere becoming more and more enraptured with His presence, rather than seeking only what He provides. (There is a difference).

As Paul wrote:

Copy me, my brothers, as I copy Christ himself.

– 1 Corinthians 11:1 (Phillips)

Discipleship, then, is the process of growing in Christ. It’s mature believers putting their arms around the spiritual babies, helping them learn to walk God’s path. Those babies grow and strengthen, eventually putting their arms around those who nurtured them in a display of mutual love and support, then going on to repeat the process with new babies. It’s the Body doing what the Body does, in all its stumbling and variety. It’s deep, rich Bible study and doctrinally correct songs springing from tone-deaf but joyous congregations and hard conversations and liturgy and people not always getting along because we’re human and we suck sometimes but figuring out how to not get along in a Christ-honoring way (it can be done). It starts with God, centers on God and ends with God.

At least, it’s supposed to.

I am heartbroken over the state of discipleship in churches across the United States. (Really, I’m heartbroken over the church in general. When evangelicalism is known for its support of, at best, a deeply and troublingly flawed president, rather than for the spread of the Gospel, then it’s time for some sackcloth and ashes). It bothers me greatly that men and women abandon their Bibles as “boring” or “too hard” (or, perhaps worse yet, “irrelevant”). It sickens me that so few seem interested in doing the work of spiritual motherhood and fatherhood, picking those babies up when they fall and raising their down-turned faces to look upon the ultimate Father who smiles upon them. I roll my eyes at “rah-rah” women’s events aimed at inflating the self for a few days instead of teaching women to get in there, roll up their sleeves and finally get beyond the surface, a surface that infantilizes us more and more each day. I sigh when men lament the “feminization” of the church because nobody can really explain what that means and if a man doesn’t go to church, it’s because he doesn’t want to. My mouth drops when I hear someone dismiss a certain Scriptural tenet or command, for he fails to see how that dismissal logically leads to other dismissals and the entire thing falls apart. My lungs drain when I hear of some Christian leader not having the sense to recognize that praising a Mormon “prophet” isn’t good. I loathe how services are timed just so because we’ll be damned if anything goes past noon and interferes with lunch, no matter how the Holy Spirit might be moving. I hate that people can manage to make time for favorite television shows, movies or hobbies but are “too busy” for Bible study. I think it’s stupid that few are willing to lead Bible studies, or even to serve in any way at all, because they’re “not knowledgeable” enough or “there’s just too much else going on.” It disgusts me that much of what passes for Bible study is just pop-psychology laden, relationally focused, fuzzy-wuzzy gobbledy-gook. Or straight-up gossip time. I’m dismayed at how the sick, infertile and unmarried are often cut out of church life by default, because they don’t fit into “what works.”

There are thousands of think-pieces on why the church stinks. I can summarize them all in one sentence:

The problem is us.

I know that spiritual abuse is real; I’ve experienced it. I know that there are many unhealthy, unsound churches; I’ve been in more than one. I would never tell anyone that she should stay in a church just because. I definitely don’t think that church attendance is a factor in entering Heaven. There are real issues of misogyny and racism and false teaching.

All of those problems continue to exist because we aren’t engaged in discipleship.

That is, of course, a very broad statement. There are many thoughtful Christians, men and women who take the faith seriously, love the Lord deeply and do their best to serve Him daily. These people are, I suspect, quiet. Hidden. Behind the scenes just doing the thing. Not seeking glory or applause. But…overall…

We aren’t knowledgeable.

We aren’t teachable.

We aren’t imitating Christ.

This is our problem. Our issue. Together, the bad and the good. The pain and the beauty. We no longer have time to pursue “feel good” things. We don’t need to “have a political voice.” (Oh, Lord above, please let the Johnson Amendment be preserved). We have got to put on our big kid undies and deal. Stop whining. Get on with it. Study the Bible, raise our voices in worship, invite others to ask us hard questions, submit ourselves to the authority of the Holy Spirit each day.

We aren’t supposed to stay babies forever.

The “too long, didn’t read” conclusion for all you ADHD folks: Christian, get off your butt and grow up.

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Photo credit: Aaron Burden

The Hard Things

Gentle Reader,

Following my month(ish) fast from social media, I’ve changed the way I use the medium.

If I’m going to be on it, then I want to share things of value. Hard things. Deep things. There are conversations that need to be had. Ugly truths to confront.

Selfies aren’t bad. Fun stories aren’t bad. For me, in this season, the balance is simply tipped toward the thoughtful.

I read a lot of theological stuff. And political stuff. So I’m going to share that. I’m going to offer my imperfect commentary. Because I see a church that isn’t dealing well with the world around us. Instead of grappling with ideas and opinions, we whine that we no longer have a place of privilege. Instead of accepting the consequences of our belief with integrity and dignity, we moan about civil liberties.

Is it hard to be rejected? Tough to be mocked? Yes. Get used to it.

We who long to see those around us come to Christ had better learn to ask them the right kind of questions. To keep our heads cool. To develop a thick skin. To earn the right to speak into their lives. We need to know what we believe, why we believe it and be able to present the Gospel with love, simplicity and logic.

We are each given a voice. I am choosing to use mine in a way that I hope draws those who call themselves Christians to consider whether the way they live that out is consistent. Because the world is desperate for our consistency. We cannot preach peace and then turn a blind eye to a massacre at a gay nightclub, twiddling our thumbs as evil men who dare call themselves pastors rejoice in murder. Nor can we preach sin and the Cross and then say, “Oh, that thing the Bible calls sin? It’s really not.” There is no end to that slide.

I also hope to draw those who are not Christians to consider the Gospel. The real Gospel. Not this “Jesus and…” crap that far too many promote. You know what? The God, the faith that most people reject – I reject it, too. Because it’s not what’s real, what’s true.

We who are indwelt by the Spirit of the Living God do not belong to this world, but we do live in it. We’d best start learning how to navigate that tension. We’d best shake off our spiritual stupor and wake up. Grow up. Learn to think deeply and well. God is all about your heart, but He’s all about your mind as well. About time the two began to connect.

My journey to faith. (15)

Photo Credit: Odyssey Online

 

The LORD Your God in Your Midst: Culture

The Lord your God in your midst,The Mighty One, will save;He will rejoice over you with gladness,He will quiet you with His love,He will rejoice over you with singing.” (1)

Gentle Reader,

Ancient national Israel, from its beginnings in the wilderness through the Divided Kingdom and Exile right up to the time of Christ, was a world very different from our own. Its members were people who struggled with the same sins and had the same hopes and dreams we do today, people we could probably relate to over a cup of coffee, but the way that struggle played out and the way those dreams were expressed is foreign to us. The Bible is a transcendent text inspired by the immanent God; its truths are applicable to every time and place. Nevertheless, we cannot understand a book like Zephaniah without coming to grips with the surroundings in which it was written.

Village Life

We already touched on the fact that the economy of ancient Israel (united and divided) was based on a system of bartering. Coinage existed and was certainly in use by the Roman period, but the change from “good for good” to “money for good” was gradual. The average person living in one of the many villages wasn’t going to have access to pouches and pouches of coins. He would trade a portion of whatever crop he had grown (remember, this was an agrarian society) with someone who had what he needed or wanted.

Water was a necessity, so groups of families would cluster around wells and from there villages grew. There were a handful of walled towns outside of Jerusalem, but these weren’t much bigger than the villages. Homes were small, made of baked clay, wattle-and-daub or straw brick materials. Often an outside staircase led to the roof, providing more living space during mild weather. Most families had a few animals, such as sheep or goats, who lived in the home with them (unless they were dedicated to the keeping of livestock, in which case the animals would have been too numerous, requiring a separate shelter, such as the one that served as a maternity ward the night Jesus entered the world in His Incarnate form [Luke 2:7]).

The average home looked something like this:

Here families would live and love and work and play and eat and sleep, just as we do today.

Men engaged in commerce, farming and the day-to-day governing of the towns. (The “town gate”in Ruth 4 alludes to this; this was where what we would think of as the “city council” would meet). Women had a lot to do in order to keep the home running:

…most of the women who lived in a village would probably have had some sort of garden as a source of food, flowers and pleasure.

Needless to say, the homes of the rich were more spacious and made of better material. A poor woman would have swept a beaten clay floor, while a rich woman would have had a servant sweep a tile floor. Only the richest would have been fortunate enough to live in a stone house despite the parable stressing the importance of stone for the foundation. The less wealthy would have had to do without a fireplace, but a simple brazier supplied all the heat that was necessary in such a pleasant climate; except for the supper rich all cooking was done in the outdoors.

The market was located just outside the walls of the town.  Unless she were rich enough to have servants, every woman would have to pay regular visits to buy the necessities. Civic business was conducted there also, but unless the woman herself was involved she would have no reason to be present.

While having children was a woman’s most important achievement, the bulk of her day to day life was spent in raising them, keeping the house clean and cooking meals.  The Jews were by and large light eaters, but they enjoyed their food and were happiest when guests were present. Bread was a part of every meal. Without modern preservatives, fresh loaves had to be baked every second day or so. Since flour did not come in a bag from the supermarket it had to be freshly ground between two stones every time new loaves were desired. Whether it was barley bread for a poor family or wheat bread for a well off one, it was the woman’s job to grind the grain and kneed the dough. The loaves were usually round and placed directly on the coals of an open fire. The best flour was mixed with oil, mint, cumin, cinnamon and even locusts to make a cake. A sort of honey doughnut was made by frying it in a pan.

Cow’s milk was known but it was not used very much. Sheep and goats were preferred and their milk could also be used to make butter or cheese. Honey was the most common sweetener, but juice from grapes or dates could also be used. A special treat was a meal of locusts. When boiled in salted water they tasted somewhat like shrimp.  If dried in the sun they could be kept for use at some other time of the year, when they would be ground into a powder and mixed with wheat flour for biscuits or simply moistened with honey or vinegar.

Dinner was expected to include lots of vegetables, beans, lentils, cucumbers and onions being the most common.  Middle-income families might supplement their bread and vegetables with some fish, kid or lamb.  Chickens were rare but pigeons were plentiful. Only the very rich could afford “a fatted calf.” Food was strongly seasoned: pepper was expensive but they used mustard, capers, cumin, saffron, coriander, mint, dill and rosemary. There was almost always a local wine to wash it all down. (1)

Both men and women would educate their children, largely through an oral tradition. The average person may not have been able to write well or at all, but literacy was widespread enough so that at least a few in the village, always the rabbi (they weren’t called that until roughly the time of Christ), would have been able to read the Torah, for it was important to know and understand its precepts so they could be lived out and passed on to others.

Tribes

Village life cannot be understood apart from the Tribes.

Jacob, whose story takes up several chapters of Genesis, had 12 sons: Reuben,Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin. (He also had at least one daughter, Dinah [Genesis 34]). As those sons had families, those families began to identify themselves as descending from a particular son, and thus the tribes were born (except Joseph; his descendants identified with his sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, because Jacob blessed them on his death bed [Genesis 48]. They were “half-tribes,” keeping the total number at 12. Just go with it).

After leading them out of slavery and through the years of wandering, God divided the Promised Land among the tribes, ensuring that each one had an appropriate amount of land. (Except for the Levites, who were the priests. They would be engaged in the business of worship instead of farming, so they got some cities instead). Numbers 32-36 records God’s commands regarding this process and Joshua 14-22 records how the commands were carried out, resulting in a map that looked something like this:

Division of Promised Land to the Children of Israel

Extended families living together were the norm:

Within the tribal structure, the family served as the core of Israelite life.  It defined the way each individual fit into society.  These kinship relationships could be biological or forged.  For example, land was passed down from one generation to the next, with one son–usually the firstborn–receiving an extra portion.  In the event that a male heir was lacking, the patriarch of the family had the option of adopting a son who would become the heir to the family estate.

In addition to adoption, kinship ties were also forged through marriage.  Such familial ties served as a means for Israelites to interact with one another, exchange goods, and settle or prevent conflicts.

As ancient Israel was a patriarchal society, the role of women was circumscribed.  While women’s experiences varied according to the communities and centuries in which they lived, ordinary Jewish women’s lives centered on their families. Jewish women married in their teens (the average age varies according to geography and time period, from 13 to 18) and went to live with their husband’s families. (2)

Religion

Above all, ancient Israel (and the Kingdom of Judah, to whom Zephaniah wrote and among whom he ministered) was a place of religion. There was no distinction between the sacred and the secular. God ruled over all. There were instructions, carefully laid out in the book of Leviticus, for how a person was to live her life. The calendar was governed by a cycle of sacrifices and celebrations, outlined in Leviticus 23.

Though it turns our stomachs, the people would have been very accustomed to the sights and smells associated with animal sacrifice. (There were grain and drink offerings as well). (3) Though we may not fully understand the reasons for eating kosher, they knew nothing else. Every part of their lives was lived according to God’s standard.

Well, was supposed to be lived according in God’s standard. In Deuteronomy 28, part of Moses’ lengthy farewell sermon, the blessings for obedience and the curses for disobedience are clearly laid out. In chapters 29 and 30, he calls on his audience to reaffirm the covenant made at Sinai. Unfortunately, it took only the death of Joshua and his generation (those who succeeded Moses in shepherding the people) for the nation to turn away from the covenant (Judges 2:10-11). Though there were always those who were faithful to God, the rest of Israel’s history as recorded in the Old Testament is one of back and forth and eventual slide into total rebellion before the Exile in Babylon.

Zephaniah ministered during the last upward movement toward God that the Kingdom of Judah experienced under the leadership of Josiah. His words, and those of Jeremiah, were God’s final offer before the destruction of Jerusalem. (4)

Reflection

  1. There are many differences between our world and that of ancient Israel. What similarities do you see?
  2. Read Deuteronomy 28-29. Was God, speaking through Moses, unclear? Could the people ever truly claim they “didn’t know?”
  3. Read Hebrews 9-10:18. What were the animal sacrifices meant to convey? To Whom did they point? Why are these sacrifices no longer necessary?
  4. Read through Zephaniah again, this time imagining yourself a member of that society. What stands out to you?

Until next time.

My journey to faith. (15)

Sources

(1) Daily Life in Ancient Israel

(2) Ancient Israelites: Society and Lifestyle

(3) Offerings and Sacrifices

(4) Note: God did not completely abandon His people, as seen in the during-Exile books of Daniel, Ezekiel and Esther, and the post-Exile books of Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggi, Zechariah and Malachi. He is faithful to His covenant. Nevertheless, His glory or felt presence left the Temple (Ezekiel 10) and would not return until the presentation of Christ (Luke 2:22-38).

Image: House in Ancient Israel

Map: Division of the Promised Land

For all entries in The LORD Your God in Your Midst series, go here.