Sunday, February 6, 2011

Meeting God in the Margin

Holistic Salvation and Hospice Care

I knew it would be hard; it was something that I had hardly experienced and something I never really wanted to think about. Of course dying has never been popular, and death is something that brings a reflex of sorrow and fear and loneliness, so when is it popular to share these emotions with complete strangers? As a volunteer at Hospice I’ve been given the opportunity to meet firsthand the staggering seclusion of looming death and I’ve looked into the eyes of a soul trapped behind the bars of a broken mind. I say these words not to sound poetic or pretty, they are the raw emotion that I felt when I was introduced and subsequently tapped into their stories.

Who I was the day I first recognized the mercy of God and the man I am today is different. I asked God to show me how He sees people and as a result I have had to forfeit my right to judge any man. I have had to recognize that in each person is an individual who has a history that I can never know completely, scenarios in life that I could never weigh or comprehend but God does have that ability. He is the Just Judge and for every sin that any one of us commits, God, who knows fully, can and does see the root cause or affliction that leads to the symptom or sin. This realization hit me in the way a movie does when there is a really good twist at the end, my internal voice says “Wait. Sin isn’t the bad guy?” I grew up thinking that if only I didn’t sin so much than I would be loved by God. But sin is only a symptom of the deeper problem; there is a darker bad guy behind the sin. Sin is the henchman standing between what is good and what is the real problem. The real problem is hard to define, it could be described as corruption, or brokenness, or simply fallenness.

The real problem is at war within every choice, not just when we sin but how we live, how we communicate, how we do or do not love. I believe that the bible tells us that man has a choice in every decision, the choice to choose life or death. When we choose life (which is following the way that embraces humanity), we become more human. And when we choose death (which is the way of denying humanity), we become less human. So in essence, life is a series of choices in which we decide to embrace humanity or reject it. When we die we will enter into the choice that our life has continually made, we will either become fully human or fully inhuman, it has been our choice the whole time and we have been making it not with one decision at one time but in every decision at every time.

So why do I write of choices in life when writing about my hospice experience? It is because I have come to see salvation not as a spiritual decision alone, but as a conversion of the whole person in relation to God and to others. Salvation has always been about humanity. I have found that what I choose to do matters. God invites me not to save the world but to be a part of His saving the world in my community. That series of changes in my understanding of salvation has developed over six years now and has brought me to another place of decision, I have to decide if I’m going to act accordingly or not. If I take this seriously I have to act, without action what am I doing? And looking back now I am astonished how God has led me to this place, reshuffling my landscape to facilitate the decision to embrace this view of salvation. What is really interesting is that He has taken me out of professional Church ministry to do it. I was a Youth Pastor with a new family and plans that I thought honored God but instead He led me on a path that striped me of my title, put me in unemployment, taught me humility (on the verge of humiliation), and set me (and my young family) on a path that had few smooth patches. I still find myself acting like the wandering Israelites asking God why He brought us out of our security in Egypt and into the desert.

I went back to school in the summer of 2010 and began pursuing a degree in Mental Health/Social Work. This field of study became apparent to me as a way to pursue salvation for the whole person in my community. A way to help God bandage the wounds that brokenness causes and of which sin festers. A way for me to promote life as a choice toward restored humanity. Which brings me back to Hospice, Hospice wasn’t my first choice when picking my internship but it may well have been my only choice. I sent my letter of interest to multiple fields of Social Work: Department of Human Services, Oakland Family Services, Foster Care and to a Hospice facility. Hospice was the first and only call back I received and it was then and with a conversation with a friend about the reach Hospice has to families in need that I realized this is the first experience that I needed as I plunged into this new field. I understood it would be difficult, even uncomfortable; working with dying patients and their families, I didn’t realize how drastic a wound to humanity I would be introduced to.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Zeal for the LORD

Jesus primarily did ministry in Galilee, He grew up in Nazareth and the Bible says that He had visited all the towns and villages of Galilee and taught in their synagogues. Part of the reason, I believe, He spent so much time there was that the people who lived there were passionate for God and for His return to Israel, they were eager for Him to kick the Romans out and to cleanse the Temple from the corrupted priesthood. The Galilee was in northern Israel with Samaria in the middle and Judea in the south. They lived here because they were a relatively new community in the first century who had just returned from the Babylonian exile in the Old Testament period. They stayed in Babylon when Nehemiah returned because they knew that they would still be under foreign oppression and they had a decent life in Babylon. When Judas Maccabeus led his resistance against the Seleucid oppressors in the first century B.C. the Jews in Babylon returned to fight and eventually settled to the north.

Over time the priesthood became influenced, as did most of the people on the known world, by Greek Hellenism. The priests morality became lax, they attended the Greek Gymnasium to watch the nude wrestling... It was frustrating to the Galileans who had just returned and found their spiritual leaders acting as bad as the pagans they had just helped kick out. At that time they resisted the priesthood with their words and their will to stay committed to God and His Torah. This was bad enough to them but it was about to get worse.

Soon the power of Rome would conquer the world and with it went Israel. The Roman rulers were friendly to the nations who did not fight their take over, the Hebrew people were one of these groups. Instead of ruling them with an iron fist, they allowed the priesthood to stay in power as long as they said prayers to their God on behalf of Caesar. They also put a King in power, King Herod, who would report back to Rome but for the most part ruled the people autonomously. This situation benefited the priests and they took full advantage of their power laying heavy taxes on the people while they lived rich lives, putting heavy burdens on the people spiritually and helping Rome stomp out any would be Messiahs. This became too much for many in the Galilee and would push their rebelliousness to the extreme and formed a sect of Judaism known as the Zealots. When before they rebelled with righteous living, now they used force taking any chance they would get to kill Romans, tax collectors, Sadducees, and priests. They went around with a six inch curved blade that they could conceal and would assist them in assassinating the enemy by approaching from behind and quickly slitting their throat or piercing their heart. Another common act of violence was to find a priest or Levite and cut off a part of their face, an ear, nose or eye. They did this because the Torah says that anyone who is missing a piece of their body was unfit to serve in the Temple.

It was from this sub-group of Israel that some prominent New Testament figures come from. We know of Simon the Zealot, who was called by Jesus to be one of His followers; Barabbas, the terrorist who was freed in place of Jesus; and even Judas Iscariot has links to this dangerous group.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Truth that Dismantles Sin

Ephesus was very religious; it was in their city that the temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, was located. Ephesus was in fact considered the world center of Artemis worship (Artemis of the Ephesians) and the whole city was devoted to her. Artemis was the goddess of fertility and prosperity, she was the one, the people thought, that brought the wealth to Ephesus. If you were a man trying to make a living for your family and wanted to be blessed by Artemis you had to make sacrifice to her and attend her festivals. If you were a woman who was pregnant and wanted protection, it was to Artemis you would go and bring offering, many pregnant woman would put figurines of their goddess above where they slept. If you did not participate in the worship, you were excluded from society because Artemis’ followers wouldn't want to associate with someone who may have the curse of Artemis.

The goddess had two festivals, both very erotic. The first was in April, it was called Atremisia and the second celebrated her birthday in May and was called Ephesia. They would celebrate Artemisia by going to the temple and all of the idols depicting Artemis would be brought out and placed on carts and hauled off to the harbor. Once there the idols would be ceremonially washed, representing her restored virginity, Artemis was considered a perpetual virgin. Once the washing was complete the idols were loaded and put back in the temple and the worship of Artemis would begin. There would be chanting and sacrifice but most importantly for the worship service was the engaging in sexual relations between the people and the temple prostitutes. It was believed that in this sexual act was the presence of Artemis, indwelling the “worshipper”. This was Ephesus.

And this is where Paul traveled to with the good news and the message of Jesus. Some scholars say that Paul went precisely to Ephesus because if he was successful there than he could be successful anywhere.

Rivers of Living Water

In John chapter seven we see that it was time for the Jewish pilgrimage feast of Sukkot, a time when all the men of Israel are commanded to appear before the LORD for seven days. The feast of Sukkot is a time to celebrate God’s promise of land and that it would be flowing with milk and honey. The idea of land was celebrated by building temporary shelters, called sukkah, to remember their time in the wilderness when they built and lived in sukkot. The promise of land flowing with milk and honey was celebrated with the Lulav (a bouquet of myrtle, palm and willow branches) and the etrog (a pleasant looking citrus fruit). These five species were held before God to remind Him of His promise. The promise of milk and honey was also linked to the people’s desperate need for rain which led to the development of a Water-Drawing Ceremony.

The land of Israel has ten months of dry season, if it is not followed by a rainy season, the land would be unable to sustain life. Each day of the festival, the people would attend morning service at the Temple; at the close there would be a water-drawing ceremony, a time where they directed their focus on pleading to God for the rainy season. The ceremony would begin with the sound of the shofar and the Levites leading the people in a chorus of the Hallel, when they reached Psalm 118:25 the people would repeat the verse over and over. “Ana Adonai Hoshana, Ana Adonai Chatslihana! – O Lord, save us! O Lord, make us prosper!” As the people repeated this chant the Cohen would appear with a golden pitcher and make his way past the people, through the water gate out and down the Temple mount and make his way to the spring of Siloam. There he would gather living water and return to the alter encouraged with the still raging Hoshana chants of the assembled. Once at the alter the shofar would sound and the people would become silent as the Cohen would pour the living water on the alter which would send the people rejoicing. It is important to note that the water that is poured is considered living water, water that is moving and not stagnant. It is believed that God provides living water as opposed to stagnant water (cistern water for example).

This ceremony was held every day leading up to the final day’s ceremony called the Hoshana Rabba. This final ceremony would mirror the previous days until the Cohen returned with the pitcher full of living water. When he returned, instead of the shofar blowing, he would start circling the altar which was the cue for the people to start screaming their prayer to God – “O Lord Save Us!” As they prayed the people would beat their Lulavot on the ground begging God for rain and as the Cohen finished his seventh and final circuit the shofar would blow, the people would stand still and the water would be poured. It was at this moment, it can be deduced, that Jesus stood amongst the crowd and shouted “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”

Two reasons we can place Jesus at this moment when He spoke these words. One, His words speak of rivers of living water. At the ceremony the people were directing their pleas toward the Holy of Holies, to the place where they believed God lived, begging God to save them by bringing the rainy season, the source of living water. Second, John 7:37 says – “on the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out…” The last day of the feast was Hoshana Rabba or “The Great Hoshana”. Jesus could have picked any day to stand in the Temple and speak these words; John is clueing us in when he writes “The last day of the feast”.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Healing in Messiah's Obedience

In the Hebrew Scriptures, God tells the men of Israel that they must fashion tassels on the corners of their garments (Deu 22:12, Num 15:38). This was one of the many commands given by God to differentiate His people from the rest of the world so that when the world sees a Jewish man they will know that these are the one's who can lead them to the Living God, the one's set apart to bring the redeeming plan of God to fruition. These tassels were also used by the men holding them intertwined in their fingers to remind them to obey God.

The Hebrew word for the corner of their garment is kanaf; a word, as with most Hebrew words, has double meaning. kanaf can mean corner or fringes and on one occasion it is translated wings:

Malachi 4:2 - ...The sun of righteousness will come will rise with healing in its wings.

One reason for the double meaning is because when the man would lift the corners of his outer garment (which would happen when a blessing occurred) the image you would see would look like wings of a bird. So over time the two ideas sort of went together. When you think of verses about being in the shadow of God's wings, you're literally in the protecting embrace of your Father.

The verse from Malachi above was seen in Jesus day as an image used to describe what Messiah will be like when He comes, they took the word used for "wings" and gave it it's original meaning - corner. So they took it literally that when Messiah comes He will have healing on the corner of his garment. Does this remind you of a story from the gospels? Do you remember the story of the woman suffering with an issue of blood. With what we just spoke of, let's reread this passage.

You can find the passage here Matt 9, Mark 5, Luke 8

The story has three main characters in it, Jesus, the Sick Women and His Disciples. The location is on a road leading to the home of a prominent leader of a synagogue, Jesus leading his disciples and a crowd surrounding Him as He went. As He was on His way a woman who had been suffering for twelve years, a sickness that made her unclean and seperated from society, learned that Jesus was passing by and she remembered from the scriptures that if this man was Messiah, than there would be healing waiting for her in His kanaf. She took her chances, straining through the crowd, reached for the corners of his garment and was healed.

The story tells us that Jesus realized what had happened, that He began to look around for who "touched" Him. The disciples were puzzled as there were many people around Jesus, it could have been anyone who nudged or bumped into Him. But Jesus added, "Someone touched me, I know that power has gone out from me."

When the woman heard Jesus asking who touched Him she knew she had to respond, so she did. Jesus had only kind words for her, "Daughter, your faith has healed you, Go in Peace."

One thing I learn from this story is that the woman had a thorough education, we don't know anything else about her but we can glean from this that her family studied the scriptures intently. In the first century, the boys of the family would memorize the first five books of Moses, if they did well they would continue studying and the best of the best would have most if not all of what we call the Old Testament memorized. Girls on the other hand, would most likely learn the Psalms and Proverbs, it was customary for the women to lead the singing during their worship service, primarily from the Psalms. The point being, that the idea of healing in the wings/corner of the Messiah's garment was from one of the minor prophets (Malachi 4:2), one of the books that not even some of the men would have studied but for this woman, because her family loved the book, she found healing in Messiah.

What aspects of Messiah Jesus do we fail to see because we don't read intently into His story? Could it be that our 21st century eyes cause us to miss the deep wells of our Gospels? I would suggest that the answer is yes, and that if we want to be like Jesus (which is what discipleship is all about) than we need to do our best to see the context behind these ancient words. It is a challenge but the reward could be life-changing.