Have you ever noticed how often the title of Ten Commandments is used to list the most important rules of everything from buying a car to earning money on the internet?  When I wrote Ten Essential Words, I set up a Google alert to let me know what was trending online for the phrase “Ten Commandments.”  Each week I am amazed at how often this phrase is applied to any topic imaginable.  Here are just a few examples:

  • The Ten Commandments of a Happy Marriage
  • The Ten Commandments of Dating
  • The Ten Commandments of Money
  • The Ten Commandments of Twitter
  • Google’s Ten Commandments
  • The Ten Commandments of Dog Ownership
  • The Ten Commandments of Cruise Ship Buffets (for those who consider buffets a religious experience, I suppose)

You get the idea.  One way to make your list the definitive list is to attach the moniker The Ten Commandments of [insert topic here].  Atheists have even felt the need to come up with their own ten commandments.

So what makes the idea of listing ten items such an enduring one?  After all, there were many more laws and commands in the Old Testament than just the traditional Ten Commandments.  As I write in Ten Essential Words:

Oddly enough, the Bible never explicitly gives these statements the title we have given them – the Ten Commandments. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the phrase that is used is aseret devarim, which literally means “ten words.” The root Hebrew word davar, however, has a wide range of meaning from the simple idea of a word to the more encompassing ideas of statements, speeches, and commands. So our English version of the Bible interprets “ten words” as the phrase “ten commandments.”

Yet there is something exceptional about this list.  At a time when ideas were passed down orally, it is notable that God instructed Moses to write this list down – carve them in stone.  God did not want the Israelites to forget this list.  Additionally, at a time when nobody could really walk around with stone tablets to refer to, a list of ten words or phrases could be easily memorized and recalled.

Today’s modern society does not memorize much of anything anymore.  Thanks to the internet and smart phones, all we have to do is google a topic in order to recall it.   Studies show that we moderns can recall two or three main points, far less than a list of ten.  Jesus reduced this list of ten commands down to two: love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.

Still, there is something enduring about taking a complex issue and reducing it down to ten bullet points.  Perhaps this explains why the label, The Ten Commandments of…, will continue to serve as the defining list for any and every topic, be it dating or cruise ship buffets.

Ten-Commandments-Film

Which way to the buffet?

I just finished reading a book that has been on my reading list for quite some time: City of God City of Godby St. Augustine.  It is considered a classic, but if I am honest, it was a tedious (and long) read.  It is incredible what points of theology were being debated at the turn of the fifth century AD – issues such as how much a person will weigh or what age they will be in heaven, which makes me wonder what issues might be considered frivolous in our modern debates. Yet the overarching theme of the book was intriguing: the contrasting viewpoints between the once-powerful city of Rome and the ethereal city of God. One of Augustine’s primary points was that to live life in the city of God would require an entirely different perspective from the way the world operates.

This motif coincides with another issue I have been wrestling with as of late: what does it mean to renew your mind? The Apostle Paul addressed this in a couple of his letters:

 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds.

Renew your mind. Or we might say today, “Change the way you think about things.”

We can at times be naïve about what this means by assuming that it is something that just happens to people of faith: “The Holy Spirit will renew my mind.”  That may be part of it but it isn’t the whole of it.  Or maybe it involves asking the occasional, “What would Jesus do?” question.  But I think it runs deeper than that.

When we approach the subject of the way we think or our perspective on life, we are really talking about worldviews – not necessarily the active thoughts in our brain, but the unconscious way in which we are processing everything around us.  Our worldview is the lenses through which we are interpreting our life events, not even aware of the glasses we are wearing.  In other words, if we have to ask the question, it is probably not yet a part of our worldview.

Perhaps an anecdote will help.

When my wife and I moved to Chicago several years ago, we were doing so as born and raised Southerners. I was bringing with me an entire worldview based on the culture of the southern United States. This perspective was challenged in many ways by the Midwest urban center that is the city of Chicago.

Early on there were numerous times when my perspective seemed at odds with the environment around me. Then I began asking the question, “What would a Chicagoan do in this situation” or “why is this different from the way I would think about this question,” essentially confronting my own point of view. Over the next several years, I asked those questions less often, because I found that I was just learning to think differently. I was adopting and embracing a different worldview. It was becoming simply a part of who I was. Ironically, after living in Chicago for thirteen years and moving back to Florida, I experienced some of the opposite: my newly adopted perspective was being confronted in areas I had previously never given a second thought.

I believe this is what Paul was referring to when he called on these communities of Jesus to renew their minds. He wanted them to not simply ask some questions of the pagan culture around them, but adopt an entirely different worldview to the point where they were no longer asking the questions, they were responding naturally as followers of Jesus to the world around them.

After several years as a Chicagoan, I no longer asked, “What does it mean to be a Chicagoan?” I just was one. Likewise, as citizens of the city of God, can we renew our minds to point where we no longer have to ask, “what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus?” because we already are one, from the very depths of our mind and thoughts.

I ran across a review of this book in an old magazine and thought it would be an interesting read for a couple of reasons.  First, my next project has to do with Paul’s letters in the New Testament.  Second, I hope to travel to Turkey in the near future.  So when I read about a professor who bought a boat and retraced Paul’s missionary journeys throughout the Mediterranean, my interest was peaked!

To be honest, when I began reading Sailing Acts, it wasn’t fully what I expected.  I was looking forward to the many cultural insights the author, Linford Stutzman, might have extracted from visiting sites like Corinth, Ephesus, Miletus, Malta, and Crete.  A couple of chapters into the book Stutzman was still trying to purchase his boat and bring together all the details of his trip.  But what the book lacked in detailed scriptural commentary, it made up for in drawing the reader into he and his wife’s year and a half adventure on the Mediterranean.

Stutzman does infer some interesting insight from his travels and succeeds in drawing the reader a little more into the outlook of the Apostle Paul.  He writes often how the experience changed him personally and notes that the Paul that arrived back in Jerusalem had to have been quite different from the Paul who set off several years earlier.  It was an interesting observation that in Italy, so much revolved around the person of Peter, while Paul’s legacy was celebrated in Greece.  Sadly, most in modern-day Turkey – the land where Paul arguably focused much of his attention – know little, if anything, of the Apostle Paul.

Stutzman only scratched the surface at what I believe are a plethora of cultural layers present in Paul’s letters, yet he affirms my belief that those layers are there waiting to be uncovered.  I’ll conclude with one of Stutzman’s own observations regarding Paul’s message and methods:

I began to recognize a pattern of communication for Paul as he traveled throughout the pagan world.  He spent very little time condemning the brutality and debauchery of paganism, or the oppression and injustice of the Roman system.  Instead, recognizing the inadequacies of religion and empire, Paul offered an attractive message of hope, morality, and life – the good news of the abundant and eternal life of the living Jesus.

Good words, even for today!  Paul may have been on to something.

No doubt overshadowed by the shooting in Colorado was something that caused a bit of a stir earlier in the week.  George Zimmerman, who now infamously shot and killed Trayvon Martin, gave an interview to Sean Hannity.  When asked how things would be now if he had responded differently, Zimmerman answered this way:

I feel it was all God’s plan and for me to second guess it or judge it …

He then trailed off, not finishing the sentence.  Martin’s parents were understandably upset by that statement.

Now I am not writing to judge Zimmerman’s much scrutinized intent in the shooting.  I’ll leave that to his due process.  But I too was frustrated by the implication of Zimmerman’s statement – the implication being that the shooting death of Trayvon Martin was part of God’s plan.

Unfortunately, it is a belief that is expressed all-to-often in religious circles.  The logic goes something like this: if God is all-knowing and in control of all that happens, then everything that happens must be part of God’s plan.  And the extrapolated extension of this logic implies that if something bad happens or I make a make an ill-advised choice, not to worry – it is all part of God’s will.  Taken to its full extent, this logic essentially relieves me of any personally responsibility for the choices I make.  It is all God’s will.

I wonder if the misuse of God’s plan or God’s will isn’t the result of some confusion around two scriptural ideas.

  • The first stems from a familiar passage from the book of Romans: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”  I have heard people basically take this verse to mean that if my intentions are good, then everything that happens, happens for my good and must have been part of God’s plan.  But that isn’t the truth being express in this verse.  What is being expressed is that no matter what is happening – whether good or bad, whether good intent or royal blunder – God can use that event to shape me for the better.  There is a difference between God using a bad/negative/evil event to shape us for the better and God being the cause of that bad/negative/evil event.
  • The second emerges from a much deeper theological issue.  It is often expressed as a theological dilemma by both the believer and the sceptic: if God is all good and all powerful, then why is there evil in the world?  Why do bad things happen?  Many believers, holding that God is all good and powerful, simply presume then that everything that happens is part of God’s plan.  I would hold, however, that in order for free will to exist, God allows for actions to have consequences and as a result, bad things do happen in the world.  There is a difference between God allowing something to happen and God willing something to happen.  Entire books have been written on this important difference.

Granted when pressed, many people of faith may stop short of holding to the fullest extent of that logic.  Which is why I believe it is important for people of faith to be careful how the language of “God’s will” is utilized.  I do believe that God can take this tragic shooting and make George Zimmerman a better person for it, which is perhaps what he was trying to express.  But I do not believe that the shooting of Martin was part of God’s plan.  The same can be said for the shooting in Colorado.  And that difference is important.

The following is the second excerpt from chapter six of Ten Essential Words.  By the way, I hope to have the entire book available soon.  Stay tuned!

—————————-

Perhaps one of the most difficult passages to understand when it comes to Jesus and his family also holds out great hope to all who desire to be part of God’s family. As we observe Jesus interacting with his own family, we come to realize that one of the more remarkable things Jesus did was that he redefined who belonged to his family.

In the book of Matthew, Jesus had spent his day teaching in the towns around the Sea of Galilee, debating the religious leaders, and responding to growing crowds. While teaching in a house, addressing a particular crowd, Jesus’ mother and brothers came looking for him:

While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”

It must have been awkward to be part of the family for thirty years and suddenly be an overnight celebrity. It had to have been difficult for Mary, who was used to having Jesus around helping out around the home. We do not know for sure, but most people assume that Joseph – Jesus’ earthly father and Mary’s husband – died when Jesus was reaching adulthood. After Jesus’ childhood, the Bible is silent in regards to Joseph and at the cross we see Jesus imploring John to take care of Mary. Being the first-born, Jesus would have been the man of the house.

But suddenly he was away from home, frequently teaching from village to village, and gone for long periods of time. So perhaps his family was growing frustrated at his frequent absences and set out to tell him he must stick around the house more often. Another account tells us that at this time his family was growing concerned for his safety and his current state of mind: “When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind’.” So it is not difficult to imagine Mary and the boys hearing that Jesus was nearby teaching to a packed house. When they reach the house, they cannot even get in. “This is ridiculous!” they think, “We are his family and we have to take a number to see him. It is time to have a family meeting.”  So in the middle of his teaching, someone interrupted Jesus and told him that his mother and brothers were outside and wanted a word with him. One would think that the “honoring” thing to do would be to excuse himself while he attended to his family. A good son would go clear things up with mom. But this was not his response:

He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Shockingly, Jesus responded by asserting that he was already with his family and he was taking care of family business. The people outside would have to wait. In the astonishment of that moment, it would be easy to miss this remarkable assertion by Jesus. It was not who was excluded from Jesus’ family, but who was included.

Pointing to his disciples, Jesus said, “This is my family.” And what criteria did Jesus use to determine who was family? “Whoever does the will of my Father.” If they are following the Father, they must be family. You have heard the saying, “Blood is thicker than water?” Well, Jesus was asserting, “Obedience is thicker than blood.” Notice, this does not exclude Jesus’ physical family, but rather it was a radical inclusion of all who sought to do the will of the Father. Jesus never pitted the two against each other. We are not told how Mary responded, but who could blame her for feeling just a bit slighted? In time, she would grow to value this extended family. While dying on the cross, Jesus comforted his mother with the words, “Woman, here is your son,” and turning to John, with the words, “Here is your mother.”

We continue looking at Ten Essential Words with an excerpt from Chapter 6 – The Fifth Commandment, in honor of Mother’s Day/Father’s Day!

—————————-

Since honoring seems to be the verb of action in this commandment, let us look at what scripture indicates is involved in honoring our father and mother.

We show them respect. In the book of Leviticus, this command is restated using a slightly different word from the word honor: “Each of you must respect your mother and father, and you must observe my Sabbaths. I am Yahweh your God.” So we honor our father and mother when we show them the proper respect. Parenting has to be one of the most difficult responsibilities a person can undertake. And let’s be honest, most of us did not make it an easy job for our parents. Most of us can look back and respect the effort our parents put into rearing us. But I am sure there are more than a few who did not have a great role model in their mother or father. The Bible gives no indication that this respect is contingent on the level of parenting involved. It seems to be more of a positional respect. If you cannot respect the person, at least respect the position and authority that your parents had in your life.

The Hebrew Scriptures refer to this idea of honoring and respecting others in several different ways. We have already mentioned honoring your father and mother. Kings and other authorities were to be honored as well. But in the majority of cases this word honor is used, it is referring to honoring Yahweh. “You who fear Yahweh, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!” Since all the action in this verse is referring to the same concept, we get a clearer picture of what it means to honor and respect: fear, praise, honor, and revere.

When we speak of honoring Yahweh, it is where we also get our concept of fearing God. For some, this can be an uncomfortable way of relating to God: to fear him. But whenever honor, respect, and reverence are mentioned, this Biblical notion of fear is also involved. We need not cower before God like a frightened animal. There are so many other gentle and gracious attributes of God that invite us into a loving relationship with him that we need not be continually afraid. But stepping outside of God’s will and protection is a frightening place to be. Like a king with a powerful army at his disposal, we live in the comfort and protection that power can bring us. At the same time, we live with a healthy dose of fear of that same power if we ever give the king just cause to use it to punish or subdue us.

So it is with our parents. We honor them for all they have invested in us. We respect them for the position of influence they have in our life. And we also live with a healthy dose of fear if we defy them when we are younger or disappoint them when we are older. It is part of what it means to give respect to our parents. Again, fear and respect should not expire upon reaching a certain age. In fact, I dare say there is a direct correlation between a person’s level of ongoing respect and honor of God, and that same person’s level of ongoing respect for their parents.

The following is another excerpt from chapter five of Ten Essential Words.

—————————-

So how do we take the essence of the Fourth Commandment – how do we embrace the Sabbath – without grasping at the shadows?  We begin by going back to the original intent of this practice – rest and worship.  We begin to incorporate a rhythm to our lives that includes regular times of rest and practices that inspire the worship of God.  To do that, we have to engage the biggest enemy of rest in our culture: busyness.

Nothing robs our soul more of this rhythm of rest than a busy schedule.  Busyness or hurriedness has become almost epidemic in our culture today.  Initially, we learn that busyness is simply the necessary evil that will get us ahead in life.  Then we notice that it is not even regarded as evil anymore, it is just a way of life.  Eventually, we even begin to wear our busyness like a badge of honor that says, “I’m important.  I’m productive.”   Think about it for a moment: what is one of the most common responses to the question “How was your week?”  “Busy”, of course.  And we nod our head indicating our week was busy as well.  We even nod in approval as if to say, “Good job, keep yourself busy.”  How often do we decline social invitations with the reply, “I’m sorry, but I’m busy that day.”  Or simply offer the general observation, “I’m soooo busy right now.”  And the kicker is that all those responses are perfectly acceptable in our culture – even admirable.

Our western culture has become a culture of work, where rest is viewed as a luxury when all that needs to be done is accomplished (if it ever does get accomplished).  We fill our lives with devices to manage our busyness: daily calendars to keep our busy schedule, blackberrys and other PDA devices to tell us where our next appointment is, watches that constantly remind us we are late for that appointment, and cell phones so that we can squeeze another conversation into any spare moment.  We live fast-paced lives and tell ourselves that rest is for retirement spent out on a golf course.  Maybe one day, but not now – we are too busy.  Author Wayne Muller sums it up this way:

People who have a lot of money and no time, we call ‘rich’.  And people who have a great deal of time but no money, we call ‘poor.’  A ‘successful’ life is one in which one is always terribly busy, working hard, accomplishing great things, and making a great deal of money.

These things, such as productivity, money, and achievement, are not bad things in and of themselves.  But if we are going to take Sabbath seriously, we have to first admit that these things also have the potential to completely erase the notion of rest from our schedule.  Rarely do we write the word rest into our calendar.  Our iPhone seldom beeps at us, reminding us that it is time to slow ourselves and enter into a time of reflection and worship.