Seasonal Companions

My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.)
Colossians 4:10 (NIV)

“There are friends who are friends for a season, and there are friends who are friends for life.” Thus said a  wise woman to me while I was a Freshman in college. It was the first time I remember really thinking about the purpose and tenure of friendship in life’s journey.

Everyone knows that Jesus had twelve disciples, but Luke records that there was a wider circle of seventy-two disciples that Jesus sent out (Luke 10:1). Among the twelve it was only Peter, James, and John that Jesus called out to join Him when He was transfigured, when He raised Jairus’ daughter, and when He was in His deepest despair in Gethsemane. Like most of us, Jesus had concentric circles of relationship from the intimacy of His inner circle of three to the wider and less intimate relationships He had with the twelve, the seventy-two, and an even larger group of 500 followers to whom He appeared after His resurrection.

Along my life journey, I’ve had a number of friends, mentors, and protégés who became part of my “inner circle” during a particular stretch. Looking back, I observe a certain ebb and flow of pattern and purpose in relationships. As the wise woman stated, some paths converge for a season and then organically lead in opposite directions. Conflict, sadly, severed some relationships. In a few cases, I’ve realized it’s best to leave be what was. In others, reconciliation brought differing degrees of restoration. There is longing to experience reconciliation in yet others when the season is right. Then there are a few in which time ran out, and only memories both bitter and sweet will remain with me for the rest of my earthly journey.

Most readers of Paul’s letters skip through the personal greetings with which he typically tagged his correspondence at the beginning and/or end. This morning, it was one of these oft-ignored greetings at the end of the chapter that jumped off the page at me. Mark, the cousin of Barnabas, sends his greetings to the believers at Colossae. There is a back story there.

Mark, otherwise known as John Mark, had been a boy who was part of Jesus’ wider circle of followers. Mark’s mother was a prominent woman who also followed Jesus and likely supported His ministry financially. When Peter escaped from prison it was to the house of Mark’s mother that Peter fled. It was Mark’s cousin, Barnabas, who brought the enemy turned believer, Saul (aka Paul) into the fold of Jesus’ followers. Barnabas and Mark were part of Paul’s inner circle on his first missionary journey.

Then, it all fell apart.

In the middle of the journey, Mark left Paul and Barnabas and went back home. Paul felt abandoned and betrayed. Years later when it came time to make a return journey, Barnabas wanted to take Mark along. Paul, still angry that Mark wimped out and abandoned them, would have none of it. There was a big fight. There was a bitter separation. Paul went one way with Silas. Barnabas went the other way with Mark. The season of Paul, Barnabas, and Mark was over.

As Paul writes his letter to the Colossians it has been many years since the conflict with Barnabas and Mark. Paul is in prison and is nearing the end of his life. Mark is with him. We don’t know how the reconciliation happened or what brought them back together again, but Mark is there sending warm greetings through Paul. It’s nice to know that sometimes in this life we get over our conflicts. We let go of the past and embrace the present. Seasons of friendship can come back around.

In the quiet this morning I’m looking back and thinking of all the companions I’ve had along my journey. I’m whispering a prayer of gratitude for each one brought to my life and journey, despite where the ebb and flow of relationship may have led. And, in a few cases, I’m praying for the season when the journey might lead divergent paths back together, like Paul and Mark.

An “Eternal Question”

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
Colossians 3:12 (NIV)

I call them the eternal questions. This is not because the questions have no answers, but rather because no matter how many times you answer them they must be answered again. Perhaps they should be called the “perpetual” questions, but the phrase “eternal questions” has a certain ring to it. The eternal questions are the boulder of Sisyphus, the mythic schlep who perpetually rolled the boulder up the hill only to have it roll back down again. In our home, the most common eternal questions are:

  • “What are we having for supper?”
  • “So, what’s the plan today?”
  • “What am I going to wear?”

I’ve learned along my life journey not to fight the eternal questions. It’s futile. It’s best to make your peace with them. For me, a step in the process of making peace was the understanding that the eternal questions come from an abundance of blessing. We are blessed to have choices. Indeed, we are blessed to have so many choices available to us from which the eternal questions spring.

In today’s chapter, I found myself intrigued by Paul’s encouragement to “clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” We don’t often think of kindness as a garment. I don’t think of myself slipping into gentleness and patience like a pair of yoga pants.

Nevertheless, as I meditated on the word picture Paul gave, it struck me that when it comes to my attitude and responses towards both circumstances and people, I have an entire wardrobe available to me. I can choose that bright rage coat, or I can choose the suede jacket lined with gentleness. I have an entire wardrobe of choices available to me. Welcome to the walk-in closet of free will.

“What should I wear today?”

Of course, if you’re anything like me there are those “go to” choices that don’t seem like a choice at all because they’re easy and require no thought. No effort needed, and the choice is oh so comfy. Passivity slips on me like a familiar old sweatshirt. I’ve worn prejudice so long I’ve worn holes in it like my ancient pair of 501 blues. And then there are those well-worn flip-flops of pessimism I can just slip into as I head out on my daily trek.

I once had a prophet who was given a word picture for me. It was the image of Father God handing me a shirt to put on. It was a shirt I would have never picked for myself, but once I slipped it on and looked in the mirror I realized it looked so good on me.

That came to mind as I meditated on the notion of choosing what I’m going to clothe myself with today. My spiritual closet is stocked with love, kindness, patience, joy, peace, gentleness, and self-control. How often do I reach down to the dirty clothes scattered on the floor of my closet and slip into my old stand-bys of resentment, apathy, impatience, complaint, discontent, bitterness, and indulgence?

This morning I’m once again asking myself the eternal question “What am I going to wear?” This morning, however, it’s not about the clothes I put on my body. I’m on a business trip and there’s only one outfit in the suitcase for today. Today, the eternal question is about how I’m going to clothe my spirit, temperament, and attitude as I work with colleagues and clients. Father God has an outfit picked out that I might not normally choose for myself. Maybe I should try it on. I bet it’ll look fabulous.

Dress well, my friend.

Rooted

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.
Colossians 2:6-7 (NIV)

Last summer Wendy and I had five fire bushes planted at the back of our yard. As the hot, dry summer wore on the bushes struggled for life. Despite the fact that I gave them water and they had plenty of sunlight, they slowly withered and died. Fortunately, all of our other landscaping, which had been planted two years earlier, made it through the drought and is full of life this spring.

It’s been a beautifully warm, wet spring this year and I’ve been mowing my lawn twice a week. As I passed by the dead bushes at the back of our yard on Saturday, I happened to bump a couple of them with the edge of the mower. I noticed that they quite easily bent and seemed to pull up from the ground. They had no depth of root structure grounding them.

I thought of those bushes as I read this morning’s chapter. Paul instructs the spiritually immature believers in Colossae that having made a decision to follow Jesus was just the beginning of their spiritual journey. They are spiritual saplings, newly planted. Now, it’s time to put down deep spiritual roots which only happens slowly, over time. It is the continual processing of Word and Light and Spirit and relationship in spiritual photosynthesis leading to a chain reaction of praise and gratitude which perpetuates the cycle.

In the past few week’s I’ve written about an observation I’ve had over the years. The brands of Jesus’ followers with whom I’ve been associated most of my life have had a penchant for focusing on getting people “saved” like a nursery of seedlings dropped into a tiny pot of loose soil and sprinkled with water. When life begins to scorch, or the storms of circumstance blow in like a midwest thunderstorm, there are no spiritual roots. The seedlings wither.

This morning I find myself meditating on the long, slow, gradual process of growing deep spiritual roots. It’s not a quick fix. It requires time, attention, and a certain amount of discipline. It goes against the grain of a culture that worships the quick, simple, and easy. But, it’s good. The deeper my roots, the more capable I found myself to weather the unpredictable ebb and flow of both drought and storms in life.

Dig deep. Build up. Strengthen faith. Let gratitude flow.

Have a great week, my friend.

Expanding My View of “All Things”

For in him all things were created:things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 

For God was pleased to have all his fullnessdwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven….
Colossians 1:16-17;19-20 (NIV)

Last fall I stumbled onto a book entitled Factfulness by Dr. Hans Rosling. A swedish medical doctor who has spent his life serving on the front-lines of disease around the world, Dr. Rosling and his team have observed that most human beings have a completely incorrect view of the world. He lays out his case using readily available facts and statistics from reliable sources and a short quiz he has administered to tens of thousands of educators, politicians, and corporate executives around the world over many years. Our world views, he says, are stuck in the early twentieth century while the world itself has rapidly progressed. Chimpanzees randomly choosing the answers to his multiple choice quiz score higher than  most “educated” human beings. I highly recommend you read the book. It has been a game changer for me.

Dr. Rosling’s insights about our world have coincided with a shift in my spiritual world-view in recent years.

For most of my spiritual journey, the theological institutions and brands of Jesus’ followers of which I have largely been a part have been primarily focused on the spiritual salvation of individuals. As I have read through and studied God’s Message time and time again I have observed that this is not incorrect or inappropriate. Jesus Himself made this plain in a verse referenced for many years in football end zones everywhere:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
John 3:16 (NIV)

What if, however, the focus on the spiritual salvation of individuals has had a corollary effect on my view of creation? The earth is a terrible place from which we must be saved. The world is going to hell and we must escape it. Temporal, earthly things are not important. It is getting as many souls to heaven that’s the priority by instilling a message of the condemnation of this evil world and fear of eternal damnation.

And yet, as I wrote in my post the other day, the prayer Jesus taught us is about bringing the Kingdom to earth, not the other way around. In today’s chapter Paul makes it clear that Christ is not only the agent of creation, but the cosmic, eternal force that holds all things together. Paul goes on to state that Christ’s mission was that through him would come the reconciliation of all things. He doesn’t say the reconciliation of all people, but the reconciliation of all things in both heaven and on Earth.

Dr. Rosling has been expanding my view of the Earth. While there are still many problems to be addressed, we have made incredible progress over the past century and life is better on Earth than it ever has been. And, despite the fear tactics of media trying to keep your attention (so they can charge advertisers for it), it’s getting better at a rapid rate.

At the same time I feel Holy Spirit expanding my view of eternity, the Cosmos, and this Great Story. I perpetually hear myself being called away from my own ego. If I am to be one with Christ as Christ is one with the Father and the Spirit, and if in Christ all things hold together and all things are reconciled, then in Christ I am part of a bigger picture than I’ve ever considered. Forgive me, I haven’t laid hold of it and in the quiet I find myself struggling to articulate it. Suffice it to say that I feel myself called “further up and further in” and I’m more excited than ever to follow and experience where it all leads. It is a faith journey, after all.

Pomp and Circumstance

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
Philippians 4:12-13 (NIV)

We are all suckers for a Pinterest-worthy phrase. The Bible is full of them. The stuff of inspirational bookmarks, posters, desktop backgrounds, and cheap commercial trinkets sold at your local Christian bookstore.

As I’ve journeyed through God’s Message for almost 40 years, I’ve observed that it’s quite common for that inspirational, scriptural quote to be taken completely out of context. Text that is actually profound, mysterious, and/or challenging with eternal, Level Four spiritual meaning is screen printed, replicated and dragged down to self-centric, ego-pleasing, Level One interpretations. I’m not pointing fingers, by the way. I’m as guilty as anyone.

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

I’m sure there are many young followers of Jesus who are receiving graduation gifts from well-meaning grandparents with that phrase printed on a greeting card, key-chain, or bookmark. On the surface, it seems to flow right along with all the pomp and circumstance of your boiler-plate commencement address:

“Chase after your dreams.”

“You can be anything you want to be.”

“Make your mark on this world.”

“The world is yours for the taking.”

“All your dreams can come true if you work hard enough.”

I noticed as I read the chapter this morning that preceding Paul’s inspirational statement is a rather sobering message:

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.”

Paul, who was stoned and left for dead outside the city of Lystra. Paul, who was shipwrecked three times in the Mediterranean and once spent twenty-four hours floating on debris in the open ocean hoping to make it to shore. Paul, who was bitten by a viper. Paul, who five times was given 39 lashes (because 40 was considered lethal). Paul, who traveled some 10,000 miles largely by foot. Paul, who was beaten with rods three times, went hungry and found himself cold, naked, and alone. Paul, who was writing those words from prison.

I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”

The secret of being content in any circumstance is the “all things” Paul was referencing with his inspirational phrase. He wasn’t talking about grabbing the world by the tail, achieving his personal dreams, and moving up in the world. He was talking about being perfectly content being cold, naked, hungry, bloody, bruised and shackled in a first-century dungeon. Ironically, that is not the stuff of inspirational commencement addresses.

Along my life journey, I’ve observed that it is discontent that often fuels personal dreams, aspirations, ambition, economics, and the American dream. Paul’s faith taught him contentment in the midst of unimaginable suffering. I struggle to be content with my iPhone 8 when the iPhone X hits the market.

And there’s the disconnect.

This morning I find myself challenged to restore the meaning of the words “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” to its profound, mysterious, spiritual meaning in my own heart and life.  Being content no matter my current situation and circumstances. I confess that it’s easier said than done for me, and I’ve got a long way to go in learning the secret Paul discovered. Which is why this is a journey.

Time to press on. Have a good day, my friend.

 

Not Earth to Heaven, but Heaven to Earth

But our citizenship is in heaven.
Philippians 3:20a (NIV)

Since last September our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been engaged in a year-long study of the book of Acts, which starts as a history of the early Jesus Movement. The second half of the book, however, is really a history of Paul. While history records that what remained of the Twelve original disciples gave their lives in service to advancing Jesus’ message to the known world, the latter half of Acts does not mention them. The author, Luke, traveled with Paul and his focus lies there.

In case you didn’t know it, that’s why I’ve been blogging through all of Paul’s letters in, roughly, chronological order.

One of the discoveries I’ve made in my study this year is the degree to which Paul was focused on Jesus’ mission to bring God’s Kingdom to Earth.  “Your Kingdom come,” Jesus taught His disciples to pray. “Your will be done on Earth, just as it is in heaven.” This isn’t a minor point. It’s a transformative shift in paradigm.

As I look back on almost forty years of my spiritual journey the emphasis I’ve been taught by teachers and authors and commentators has been on getting to heaven. We want people to walk the aisle, get their ticket punched and their reservation made in eternity. That accomplished, we encourage spiritual growth, but in practice only a few really take the whole thing seriously on a day-t0-day basis. Most go about life without giving it much thought in daily life. But no matter, the important thing is that the sinner’s prayer was dutifully said as a child back in church camp. Your fire insurance policy is paid up. The church can breathe a sigh of relief if you get hit by a Mack truck later today. (In case you didn’t know it, Mack trucks have been unexpectedly sending people to untimely deaths in hypothetical Christian scenarios for many decades).

In today’s chapter Paul certainly has his sights on eternity. He talks about being called heavenward. He tells the Philippian believers “our citizenship is in heaven.” His emphasis, however, isn’t on getting there. His emphasis in today’s chapter is on the work in his here-and-now, Level Three journey on Earth. I paraphrase:

  • Rejoice today in your circumstances (Paul is writing from prison).
  • Watch out for those who would lead you in the wrong direction.
  • I’m giving everything I’ve got, today, to advance the Kingdom (on Earth).
  • I’m approaching everything in this Level Three earthly journey with a Level Four eternal perspective.
  • I’m following and suffering to live out Jesus’ teaching and calling.
  • There’s more to do. I’m not waiting for it. I’m pressing into it every day in every way.
  • I’m not sitting back and waiting to die, I’m doing everything I can right now.

This morning I find myself reexamining my entire life and faith journey. Mental adherence to the right set of beliefs, a muttered rote prayer, a membership certificate, or a religious habit of Sunday attendance were what Jesus’ message was about, but that’s largely been the message that I think I’ve unwittingly lived out in too many ways. I have to confess that bringing the Kingdom of Heaven here to Earth hasn’t been where my focus has been. I regret that.

Well, as Paul wrote in today’s chapter: “forgetting what lies behind, straining toward what is ahead.” I’m getting ready to head into a full day of client meetings. I don’t want to leave the Kingdom in my hotel room once I publish this post. I want to take the Kingdom with me into every meeting, conversation, word, relationship, and action.

The Christ-likeness of Mothers

…rather, [Jesus] made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant…
Philippians 2:7 (NIV)

Yesterday was Mother’s Day. Wendy and I had a chance to stop and see my mother on the way to the airport. We brought her some of her favorite treats from Jaarsma bakery. I’m grateful that medication has successfully slowed down the progression of Alzheimer’s. She never ceases to remember family, which has been of great encouragement to all of us. There are other signs, however, that the disease is slowly progressing, and I know it’s only a matter of time. It’s a sobering reality.

At this point in my life journey, I find myself at a fascinating crossroad. I look back and grieve watching my own mother recede, as she and my father continue to faithfully trek in the late stages of their own earthly journeys. At the same time, I look forward and watch Taylor struggle through those draining early years of motherhood when so much of life and ego is drained out you and into this little, helpless person. I watch as Madison prepares for marriage and thinks about her own dreams of motherhood. I watched yesterday as Wendy sat and poured love into my mother as she shared Madison’s engagement photos with her. I’ve watched as she prepares to pour herself into both girls, into all of the wedding plans, all of the travel plans, and into Milo.

I read this morning’s chapter and what is a well-known theological passage about Jesus “making Himself nothing,” quite literally emptying Himself, in order to love all of us. Perhaps for the first time in my life, I thought about this theological concept in conjunction with motherhood in all of the many facets I’ve witnessed. I’ve learned along the way that motherhood is more expansive than I once thought in the ignorance of my youth. It is not confined by biology and the transfer of DNA. It is a matter of Spirit. When a woman embraces motherhood, she empties herself in countless ways. God has surrounded me with amazing women. I witness it in so many ways at so many levels.

In the quiet this morning I’m meditating on the Christ-likeness of mothers. I’m whispering a prayer of gratitude for all of the ways mothers of all types, and ages, and generations have made a difference in my journey.

Thank you, mothers. For emptying yourselves into me, into us.

Just another wayfarer on life's journey, headed for Home. I'm carrying The Message, and I'm definitely waiting for Guffman.

%d bloggers like this: