“Give Us (Me) a King!”

The people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles. (1 Samuel Ch 8)

That’s a pretty key moment in the long narrative of the nation of Israel. Up until that moment, though they have been “ruled” by men and women called “Judges,” God—YHWH—has been their king.

But then they make a different choice. They look around, at the world around them, and ask the current judge, Samuel, to find them a king.

After all, everyone else has one.

Samuel tells God what they want, and God actually says to let them have one. He knows what this means…

He knows they are rejecting him as their king… 

When I think about this, it makes me pause: what kind of love and security does it take to accept a rejection from someone so dear?

(From my ongoing counseling, I know that these are some very, very healthy and strong boundaries.)

God can take the rejection (though it certainly hurts). What’s more, on top of the shock of knowing that God can allow His people to turn their back on Him, He is also capable of feeling that pain.

There’s a glimpse here, a hint of some deeper reality:

Maybe, rather than God being a distant far off deity who is eternal and unmovable and utterly unlike us…

Maybe, just maybe, God knows what it’s like to be rejected, AND He knows how to feel it. 

HE FEELS IT. 

This little passage of scripture also says something powerful and poignant about us—or, let’s be honest: about me—and that is simply this:

Kings are always the easy way out. 

Samuel tells the people what a monarchy is going to bring: among other things, standing armies (institutionalized violence) and taxes (economic disparity).

But the people say, “Bring it on.”

And so do I.

I recognize something of myself in Israel’s response, namely that it’s always easier to opt for systems and rules rather than the radical grace and love of God. 

It’s always easier for me to turn my back on God’s radical love and on the idea that everything is grace and instead embrace a subtle tit-for-tat existence with God:

… When I “behave” my life goes well; God makes good things happen.

… When I “sin” my life goes badly; God punishes me by “making me” lose my job, or my relationship, etc., etc.

Why do I do this? For the same reason Israel wants a king: because it’s always tempting to want to be like the world around me. 

The world works this way: when you do well, you’re rewarded; when you blow it, you’re punished.

But, just like in this story, God doesn’t work like the world does:

… When I “behave”, God loves me, but I’m not like a star pupil that gets to sit at the head of the heavenly class. God loves me because His essence is to love. He can’t help it.

… When I sin/stumble/fall/mis-behave/etc., God still loves me. He doesn’t punish me by withdrawing His love, or “making bad things happen” to me.

(This is not to say there aren’t human, real consequences to bad decisions: this is just to say you can’t attribute these things to some kind of heavenly system of justice and scales.)

By the way: this “being like other nations” comes out whenever we post something like, “Got a new car today #blessed.”

Because whether you got a new car today, or your car got re-possessed, you are still #blessed.

All of life is a blessing. We just don’t often see it.

Because that’s the way the world works.

And we want to be like all the other nations.

I woke up this morning to a #blessed reality.

My breath, right this very minute, is a blessing.

It’s all grace.

 

Maybe what you can do, right now, is to pause and acknowledge the ways that God is blessing you.

Your home or apartment? Blessing. 

Your friends? Blessing. 

Your job? Your school? … You got it: Blessing. 

Your life? This moment? 

Sure: the world might think you’re crazy to think this way. But guess what?

You don’t have to be like the world. 

 

Under the mercy,
+e

 

As always: thanks for commenting, sharing, etc.

 

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“Give Me That Old Time Religion…” 

“Religion”, in and of itself is not a bad thing. Remember: the word itself can mean “re-connecting” (re-ligature), and don’t we all need some sense of that?

Reconnection with our heart, soul, mind, bodies?

Reconnection with a power that is greater than ourselves? Reconnection with each other?

I don’t know about you, but I know I sure do.

I stumbled across this video this week, and it’s a powerful reminder of what “religion”, in the form of ritual can do.

A teacher at a school for boys in New Zealand passed away tragically and unexpectedly. As a hearse bore his body to the school for tribute, hundreds of current and former students gathered and performed a traditional haka—a traditional Maori dance—to honor his influence on their lives. To be blunt, I found this video profoundly moving. I sat with tears in my eyes, wondering at the power of this gathering.

Watch it. Watch it all. 

Here’s what I noticed.

  • It is simultaneously aggressive and tender. The haka is associated with war and warriors (the New Zealand “All Blacks” rugby team use it to challenge their opponents). It is meant to intimidate an enemy or opponent, and many of the young men are making aggressive, angry faces. Yet, at the same time, some are obviously sad and weeping. Religion and ritual seems to have a way of “baptizing” our pain and even our aggression. It names something—our teacher has died—but it doesn’t leave us in our pain. It channels it.
  • It is simultaneously ancient and now. The tradition of the haka is pretty old, but it has been sustained in Maori and New Zealand culture. It strikes me that this video is not 20, 30 or 50 years old. By all accounts, these young men should be staring at cell phones and cutting up. But they have given themselves to this “old time” practice and the results are sobering and arresting. Silence. Attention. Gravity and gravitas.
  • It is simultaneously individual and communal. The moves are coordinated and synchronized, but you can see variation in expression. Each young man is processing the pain in his own way while at the same time he’s a part of a larger collective.
  • It is simultaneously tribal and multi-cultural. The haka is decidedly Maori, but the students transcend ethnicity. Though there are some controversies with how the haka has been used, the ritual is not limited to just Maori people. When it’s good, religion and ritual can transcend our tribal, ethnic and cultural captivity and help us express joy and pain in a collective way, as human beings.

Sometimes, I fear that in our quest to be relevant and conversational our North American churches have discarded way to much of our traditions and rituals, and in doing so, we may have cast aside our most powerful tools for “re-connecting” people with their souls and with each other. Many Christian “faith tribes” have whittled down the number of rituals and traditions to two (Baptism and Communion), when there are so many to still choose from. Corporate worship helps, but even that is occasionally being cast aside as “performance art” rather than collective ritual.

Practiced rightly, Christian “ritual” like communion can do all of the things listed above: it can gather us up in a collective but individual experience, simultaneously acknowledge pain, joy and hope, and transcend our ethic and cultural differences. It is certainly ancient and current (and even future, as it proclaims Jesus’ return).

And communion isn’t the only place this happens.

So a thought for you is this: how much ritual is in your life? In particular, how much religion and ritual do you participate in, and do you look at it as a way to give your life (especially your joy and pain) meaning?

Many of us discard ritual and religion, and treat them as disdainful things; things that we did “in that boring Church.” Many of us instead have embraced a conversational, casual faith that is pregnant with emotional engagement and spiritual mountaintops.

My response is, how is that working for you? 

If the main point of spirituality is change and transformation (and I believe it is), is your casual, conversational faith changing you into the likeness of Jesus Christ?

Are your mountaintop experiences accompanying you though the valley of the shadow?

Sometimes I think for a realistic, day-to-day faith and spirituality, we need the old stuff.

The vintage gear.

Not so that we can retreat back into 1950 or 1850 or 1500 or 150CE, but so we can move through today with faith and transcendence.

Is “Religion” REALLY Opposed to “Relationship”

I’m tired of playing off “religion” against “relationship.”

The notion (as defined by my tribe) is that Jesus came to save us from “religion” and invite us into a “relationship” with God.

This is a false dichotomy for a few different reasons.

First of all, it’s generally understood by Biblical scholars that the Jewish faith of Jesus’ era was immersed in “relationship”. The Jews (probably even moreso than most modern, western Christians) were intensely aware of the all-encompassing nature of God. They lived in a God-soaked, God-bathed world. God pervaded their politics, their art, their social structure.

They did not compartmentalize.

This God that was everywhere lived in a vital and dynamic relationship with them through a Covenant relationship that looked something like this: God committed Himself to Israel in a binding relationship; Israel would wander away, and God would pursue, invite and even “woo” Israel back like a lover who had betrayed her true love and left.

This God—YHWH, or even “The Name”—acted time and again to bring back and restore Israel, not because they kept the Law or were perfect, but simply because He loves them. (Read the Exodus: when does God rescue? before Israel has a chance to even hear the Law, much less obey it. God acts while His people are helpless and enslaved. For those of you keeping score at home, this is what grace looks like.)

Now, had some people in Jesus’ time forgot about this? Had some of them turned the vital faith of Abraham and Isaac into rote performance and rule keeping?

Sure. But look around us: we are just as adept at doing that in the 21st century as they were in the 1st.

What Jesus was up to was (among other things):

… showing what an “eternal life now” could look like
… welcoming in the outsiders to the Kingdom
… conquering evil through suffering love
… providing a ransom for our sin

It’s simply too narrow of a statement to say that Jesus saved us from religion.

Furthermore, by playing this “binary” game (black and white, on or off, etc), we are missing a vital part of what “religion” actually means.

Though the etymology is slightly unclear, the root of religion could be understood as a coming out of the Latin root legare, which means to “connect or bind” (it’s where our word for “ligament” comes from as well). In other words, “religion” at its best re-connects us. It should literally “knit us together”; it should connect us with ourselves, the world around us, and with God.

It should not fragment us, or make us small-minded.

With these thoughts in mind, what I’d actually say that Jesus (and the Prophets, and Paul, and the church fathers and mothers, and the great saints as well) was not trying to save us from religion as much as he was trying (still is trying, actually) to save us from bad religion, that fragments, fractures, and reduces our world.

So I’ll take both. I like my relationship (with the Triune God, with the world), but I can only have that relationship through my religion (my efforts to re-connect with God through His Holy Spirit).

It’s Not About Religion … It’s About (a really crappy) Relationship

Hope that’s not too crass.

For the past 15-20 years, there’s been a very popular catch phrase amidst my faith tribe:

“It’s’ not about religion; it’s all about relationship.”

(Meaning relationship with Jesus.)

So people say things like, “Well I used to go to a church but it was all about religion and not about relationship, so I left it and now I go someplace else.”

We create sermon/teaching series called, “The End of Religion.”

Mostly, that’s great: we want people to know this Jesus, and to be “in relationship” with him.

But I think there’s another dynamic at work.

At some point, I think what people mean by “all about religion” is that a church is demanding behavior from people. Externalities.

And yes: this is not a great thing.

But what troubles me is how people then try to define “relationship.”

Occasionally, I ask people who are “all about the relationship” how they work on their spiritual lives. What I hear is…

  • “Well, my spiritual life isn’t so great…”
  • “I really don’t have time to pray/read my Bible/meditate…”
  • “I pray when I think about it… (which isn’t often)”

In the end, I’m left wondering if people left churches that were “just about religion” just because they didn’t like being told what to do.

To put it another way, religion is not—in and of itself—a bad thing.

In fact, what if we actually need “religion” of some sort to lead us to “the relationship”?

I need the “religion” of communication to maintain the relationship with my wife. I need the “religion” of coffee with friends to cement and deepen connections with them. I need the “religion” of hearing stories about my childhood from my parents to remind me of who I am at my best and most innocent.

What if it’s not so much a matter of “religion v relationship” as it is “good religion that leads to relationship v bad religion that leads nowhere”?

What religion does at its best is to help lead us to the relationship, and then frame that relationship in the most fully-formed beautiful way. It’s easy to just throw the frame away, but it does no good to substitute a “relationship” that you think makes no demands on your time, your self, your thoughts, your attitudes.

That’s not love.