“Ten Bucks”

“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial.“I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive.
1 Corinthians 10:23 (NIV)

About 20 years ago there was a television show called Ed. It was a rom-com series about a young man who moves back to the small town where he was raised after his life falls apart. He reconnects with old friends and tries to get his life back together. It was an endearing show and ran for four seasons.

There’s a running gag in the show in which Ed and his best friend Mike have an on-going series of dares that they compete to win “ten bucks.” These guys do the craziest things to win “ten bucks” from each other. I still can’t hear the term “ten bucks” without thinking of Ed and Mike (kind of like I can’t hear “two dollars” without thinking of the paperboy in Better Off Dead).

I never enter pools. It doesn’t matter if it’s March Madness or when the ice will melt off the local pond and dump the old clunker to a watery grave. I don’t have anything against pools and lottery type games. I think I’m just a pessimist at heart and assume I’m going to lose my money. I just never do it. It is, therefore, somewhat strange that before the holidays began I entered a simple pool at my local CrossFit box.  You put in $10 and weigh in. After New Year’s there is another weigh in and those who maintained or lost weight during the holidays get their $10 back and split the money of all those who gained weight.

It’s been interesting as we’ve journeyed through the holidays that I can’t get that “ten bucks” out of my head. At every meal, at every Christmas gathering, and when I’m reaching for that second piece of Wendy’s peanut butter chocolate chunk cheesecake I keep thinking about my “ten bucks” hanging out there in the balance.

Along my journey I’ve come to realize that a lot of individual life problems I see in myself and those all around me boil down to some type of appetite indulgence. We indulge our appetites for all sorts of things like power, control, greed, rest, food, sex, adrenaline, vanity, accomplishment, applause, “Likes,” and pleasure. We indulge these normal appetites for all sorts of insidious reasons and the results of our out-of-control indulgence are generally not healthy.

The holidays are a great excuse for most everyone to indulge our appetites. Enjoying good food, good drink, rest, and relaxation with family and friends is a good thing. At the same time, too much of a good thing easily becomes an unhealthy thing. There’s a reason why New Year’s resolutions come annually after five weeks of holiday indulgence.

In Paul’s letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, Paul continues to address a simmering conflict between two factions. Some on the legalistic killjoy end of the spectrum were against eating any meat that had been sacrificed at a pagan temple. Those on the open-minded, permissive end of the spectrum saw no issue with the practice. The latter were quick to say “I am free to eat whatever I want!

Paul’s response is a great example of choosing the “both, and” rather than the “either, or.” He makes the point that while everything may “permissible”  (i.e. a little holiday indulgence), not all things are “beneficial” (i.e. I gained so much weight I need to make a New Year’s resolution). In the case of the bickering factions in Corinth, Paul reminds them that the beneficial thing for the good of the community is to consider your friend’s conscience a higher priority than either my personal freedom or my personal convictions.

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking about my own appetites. I’m thinking about the holidays (still at least four gatherings to go), and I’m thinking about how a silly “ten bucks” has changed my thinking and behavior this holiday season. The question I’m asking myself this morning is: Is a friend’s conscience worth more to me than ten bucks?

The December Celebration Gauntlet

When Wendy and I married, December suddenly became much more than just a Christmas holiday. Wendy’s birthday is December 21, and we married on New Year’s Eve. That means that I have, arguably, the three most important gift-giving days of the year in an 11 day stretch. After 12 years (a number rife with Biblical significance) trying to find balance in this celestial conjunction of celebrations, our first grandchild unexpectedly, like the star of Bethlehem, appeared on the horizon last year and plotted his arrival on December 11th. An already crazy month just got crazier.

Milo and his parents (I state it this way because, let’s be honest, it’s all about the one-year-old) arrived home from the UK in early December. I picked up them up and drove them home from MSP. The kids made our house command central out of which “Operation Celebrations” would be conducted. Milo has four sets of grandparents, a full contingency of living great-grandparents, and at least one great-great-grandparent. Long story short: There’s a lot of people needing a Milo fix.

Our celebration of Milo’s first birthday happened the night of the 12th. We had a small cadre of family over for a relatively small affair. Ya-Ya Wendy made Milo both a chocolate cupcake and a white, funfetti cupcake. He seemed to prefer the funfetti cupcake, proving that his taste bud genes are inherited from his paternal DNA coding.

Walking is a lot easier with one of these things!

The rounds of family visitation continued on the 19th when Taylor, Milo, and I stopped by my folks retirement community to have lunch with the folks. Milo was, of course, a huge hit. Milo also had a fascination with all of the various walkers with wheels. As he is in training to get the whole “walking” thing down (we’re up to about six consecutive steps without falling at this point), it was a huge discovery for him that there are devices designed and manufactured to assist in this basic human motor skill (special “thanks” to Mary for letting Milo run free with her walker).

Skol! Vikings!

Wendy and I began celebration of her birthday on the 15th when we headed to the Twin Cities. On the 16th we went to our first Vikings game at their new “mother ship” stadium. An annual trip to see the Vikings had become a bit of a tradition for us until it was announced that the new stadium would be built. Wendy and cold get along like Hamilton and Burr, so we skipped the seasons they were playing at the U of M’s outdoor stadium. We finally decided to all the trigger on  our old tradition. It was a lot of fun. We’ll be back.

Wendy’s birthday was otherwise fairly quiet except for the doorbell ringing incessantly. She got a trifecta of flower bouquets on her big day. The florist here in Pella was grateful for the business, though they somehow couldn’t get the deliveries consolidated. On the following weekend our friends Kevin and Becky came to Pella to celebrate Wendy. A pint at the Cellar and a pizza from George’s was in order with the rest of the evening relaxing at Vander Well Pub.

Maddy Kate flew in from her home in South Carolina on Christmas Eve day. We visited Grandpa Dean and Grandma Jeanne before I drove her back to Pella. She joined Wendy and me at Christmas Eve services at church while Milo and his entourage were making an all day tour stop at Na-Na Brenda’s.

Christmas day, I’m happy to say, was an all-out, love-and-laughter, food-and fun, lazy lounge-fest with just the six of us. Wendy made her traditional Christmas morning cinnamon rolls, along with an awesome breakfast. I threw French Dip into the crock pot for the evening meal. Lunch was a charcuterie menagerie for all. We opened gifts together after breakfast, then moved a mattress into the family room next to the sectional for a blissful day of binge watching (This is Us took up the entire afternoon), eating, and napping together.

Vocation and Ministry

Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living?
1 Corinthians 9:6 (NIV)

Work has been a little crazy for me in recent weeks. I’m in the midst of my 25th year with our company and completing my first year at the helm, leading the operation. Year-end means wrapping up current year business for clients, writing and managing proposals for the coming year, Board meetings, year-end financials, and all of the administrative work that comes with all of it. Beyond that there is the vision casting and strategic planning for where I hope to lead the company in the year(s) ahead.

When I was hired back in 1994 I left 6 years of working in full-time pastoral and para-church ministry. At the time, my mother was a bit disappointed in my vocational change. For several years she would occasionally ask “Are you ever going to go back into the ministry?” My response was always, “I never left ministry.” She would roll her eyes and say, “I know. But, you know what I mean.

What she meant was that “ministry” means working full-time for a church; That “real ministry” is a higher spiritual status reserved for those employed in an institutional church organization. I have found this to be a very common belief, especially in previous generations. I still, on occasion, have someone approach me after I teach on a Sunday morning and ask, “Why aren’t you in ministry?” Once again, I always respond with, “I am in ministry.” I always would like to add: “And, so are you!”

I love an appreciate the incredibly gifted and driven full-time staff members of our local church community. The operation couldn’t function without them, and because of them it functions remarkably well. Because of them, the operation accomplishes abundantly more than most of our community’s members even realize. I’m quite certain, however,  that even they would agree with me that “ministry” is not confined to those individuals on the organization’s payroll.

I find it a dangerous notion to place a label of “ministry” on those in full-time employment by a church or non-profit para-church ministry. The implication is that any believer who is not in one of those two vocational silos is not in ministry. This means that those of us not in full-time church or ministry employment are not in ministry (and comfortably off the hook from having to think about all that it might otherwise mean).

This is, however, contrary to the entire paradigm that God’s Message teaches. Every believer is a part of the body of Christ. Every believer is spiritually gifted by Holy Spirit regardless of age, gender, background, education, or training. Why? Because every believer is part of the ministry of the Body of Christ. We, all who believe, are His hands, feet, eyes, ears, and mouth. There are no exemptions or exceptions. I find this to be a radically different paradigm than what the institutional church has taught and exemplified for centuries. I believe it’s time to rediscover the fullness of meaning in the “priesthood of all believers.” We’re far overdue to rediscover the inherent ministry of every vocation.

I couldn’t help but read today’s chapter in context of yesterday’s chapter, in which Paul urged the Corinthian believers to surrender their right (to eat food sacrificed to idols) in order to lovingly honor fellow believers who think differently. In today’s chapter, Paul explains how he has done the very thing he’s urging them to do. He had a right to be married, to travel with a wife, to receive a full-time income for his preaching and service to the church just like all of the other apostles were doing. Paul, however, chose not to be married. Wherever he was living in the moment he chose to work at his family trade (making and repairing tents) to provide his own income. I can guarantee you that Paul leveraged his day-job of tent making and manual labor into opportunities to meet strangers, build relationships, have conversations, be an example, and extend the reach of his ministry. Tent making wasn’t separate from Paul’s ministry. It was a central and crucial part of it.

This morning I’m thankful for an amazing company I’ve had the privilege of serving for 25 years. I’m thankful for a host of relationships with colleagues, clients, and coworkers that I’d never have had were it not for my vocation. I’m grateful for the honor and privilege to lead and serve in both business and among my local community of Jesus’ followers. This morning in the quiet I find my spirit echoing Paul’s sentiment to the believers in Corinth:

What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel.

Non-Essential Liberty

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.
1 Corinthians 8:9 (NIV)

The local gathering of Jesus’ followers to which Wendy and I belong has been growing steadily in the years since I began regularly joining for worship and serving in the community. What has been interesting is that the growth is largely coming from other local and regional churches and gatherings who have been slowly fading and even shutting down. The result is that among our community of believers we have a growing, yet increasingly diverse, population who bring with them a host of different traditions, beliefs, customs, and worship practices.

What I’ve observed among the leadership and staff of our community is that the attitude has not been a black and white “This is our way and we don’t do it your way” type of attitude. Rather, I’ve observed an open attitude asking “What can we learn from the richness of all these other traditions?” The result has been a fascinating and unique experience. A traditionally “mainline” church operating in the gifts of the Holy Spirit typically found in gatherings labeled “Charismatic” or “Pentecostal.” A contemporary-style worship service that incorporates pieces of ancient liturgy and generally follows the ancient church calendar. A gathering that most casual observers would label “modern evangelical” and yet during the week many in our community pray the ancient, Divine Hours. During Lent you’ll find members of our community journeying through the Stations of the Cross. The whole thing has been less “either, or” and more “both, and.”

As I read today’s chapter this morning it struck me that Paul wrote to a fledgling gathering of believers in Corinth who were experiencing their own melting pot of diverse backgrounds and belief systems. The Christian faith came out of a typically rigid, black-and-white religious system of Judaism. Yet in Corinth there would have been believers who had come from pagan backgrounds and  knew nothing of Judaic traditions or beliefs. There would have been intellectual Greeks who were mostly steeped in philosophy and had little practical understanding of any religion. The result was a clash among the local gathering of Corinthian believers. Good Jews were horrified at the notion that the meat on their table may have been once sacrificed in a pagan temple. The former pagans and those who weren’t raised in the Jewish tradition couldn’t quite understand why, on Earth, it was that big of a deal.

Paul’s wisdom was the adoption of a “both, and” spirit rooted in Jesus’ law of love. Those who rolled their eyes at fellow believers from Jewish tradition (who couldn’t handle the idea of meat sacrificed to idols) were to respect their brothers and sisters who were. If the Abrahams are coming over for dinner do the hospitable thing and keep it kosher. Those of Jewish tradition were to respect that not everyone was raised in their life-long, black-and-white religious traditions. It’s not the same for them. Take off the Jr. Holy Spirit badge. Let it go. Take one for the team. Love one another in the diversity of our consciences and convictions.

I believe St. Augustine nicely summed up what Paul was getting at a few centuries later: “In essentials unity. In non-essentials liberty. In all things charity (i.e. love).” Whether or not you care that your rib-eye had been butchered in the Temple of Apollo is a matter of individual conscience. It’s a non-essential. Love and respect those believers in your midst who come from different backgrounds and may not believe the same way you do.

This morning I’m grateful for the diverse group of believers with whom Wendy and I regularly worship. From the “frozen chosen” believers from mainline backgrounds to the former Roman Catholics and all the different forms of baggage they carry to the Charismatics who spiritually bring in da noise and da funk. I admittedly don’t always understand, nor fully appreciate where they’re all coming from. We just shrug our shoulders, keep an open mind and spirit, and love, love, love, love, love. When it comes to stuff like this I always want to live, learn, love, and operate in “non-essential liberty.”

Context and Relationships

 I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord.
1 Corinthians 7:32 (NIV)

Wendy and I just returned from a trip to Minnesota. I was scheduled to make a client visit early this week, so we left early and enjoyed an evening in the Twin Cities along with a Minnesota Vikings’ game (more about that on a subsequent post). Since Wendy and I work together, we have the privilege of Wendy begin able to travel with me if and when she wants to do so. That being said, she doesn’t always choose do so.

Wendy and I enjoy one another’s company. If we didn’t, our lives would be a mess. Not only do we live together and work together, we home office together. We serve together. We are pretty much around one another 24/7/365. We’re actually pretty darn happy about the arrangement, though we totally understand that not all married couples could do it the way we do it.

I will also admit that when Wendy accompanies me on a business trip, it changes things for me. Instead of being able to manage my own schedule and focus on the client, I also have to think about Wendy. She’s been alone in the hotel all day. She’s probably getting hungry and we need to figure out what we’re going to eat together. What is Wendy likely to want to do with our time together this evening?

These aren’t bad things, it simply adds a layer of things I have to manage. The trip is more simple if Wendy’s not with me. Likewise, Wendy has come to embrace the fact that being alone at home for a couple of days affords her the opportunity to get a lot of tasks on her list accomplished. She’s freed up from worrying about me. The evenings that would be normally spent hanging out together is suddenly open to all sorts of individual possibilities.

In this morning’s chapter, Paul is writing to the believers of Jesus in Corinth with some relationship advice. Along my journey I’ve quite regularly encountered individuals who like to use pieces of this chapter to make all sorts of sweeping legalistic rules about relationships. Personally, I’ve come to believe that it’s important to keep two things in mind; Make that three, no four:

  1. The believers in Corinth were struggling with an acute circumstance in which an incestuous relationship between two believers was wreaking havoc inside their community (5:1). Sexual immorality (especially the socially acceptable practice in Greek and Roman society of having sex with local shrine prostitutes, both heterosexual and homosexual) was quite common.
  2. The tremendous number of adults, from diverse walks of life, becoming believers had created  a situation in which many felt that becoming a follower of Jesus meant that they had to immediately change all manner of things in their personal lives, including their marital status (7:24).
  3. Paul believed that the return of Jesus and the end of all things as they knew it was imminent (v. 29).
  4. The persecution that had broken out against Christians meant that lives, and therefore relationships, could change at a moment’s notice which had far-reaching social implications for individuals and the entire community in that day.

I believe that it’s critical to keep the context in mind when reading Paul’s advice to the believers in Corinth. There are also an entire host of real life circumstances, both personal and cultural, that lie outside the specific situations faced by the Corinthians believers. I don’t believe that Paul’s advice to the Corinthian believers is a “one size fits all” text for every person in every relational circumstance.

Please don’t read what I am not writing. There is tremendous, scriptural wisdom that Paul is providing that is applicable to all. For example, Paul recognizes the very thing that Wendy and I have discovered in our own relationship. When we’re alone and on our own for a few days we’re free from having to worry about the other and can be all sorts of productive. Paul recognizes his singleness was crucial to his ability to accomplish all that God called him to do, and he thinks others would benefit from being single (especially because he knew that the Corinthians believers could be rounded up and killed, and he believed that Jesus could return at any moment). Does this mean that Wendy and I should not be married? Not at all. Wendy and I are ultimately more productive, more balanced, and better together at accomplishing what God has called us to than we would be as individuals. Context is critical to the proper interpretation of what Paul is writing to Jesus’ followers in ancient Corinth.

In the quiet this morning I’m thankful for Wendy, my partner in life, work, leisure, and ministry. She makes me a better man, and her complimentary gifts and personality actually support, equip, and empower me. I’m also thankful for short periods of time that our work affords us to be alone and focus on what we individually need to accomplish. It works well for us, but I also recognize that not every single person or married couple are like us. Nor should they be. We’re each in our own unique circumstances, and God meets each of us in the context of our individual situations.

Answering Accusation (or Not)

The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?
1 Corinthians 6:7 (NIV)

When the first phone call came from a co-worker, I was taken completely by surprise. My head was still spinning when the phone rang again. This second call came from my closest friend.

Dude,” he said immediately when I picked up, “I’ve got your back.”

That was the beginning of a particularly dark stretch of my life journey. Accusations had been broadcast among family, friends, and colleagues. Things were about to get really ugly, and I was faced with many decisions of how to respond.

Almost immediately I received, unexpectedly, some wise counsel from a person who’d traversed a similar stretch of rocky terrain earlier in their own life journey. I will never forget that bit of advice. Let me paraphrase: “Don’t fight back,” said the sage. “Make like a turtle. Pull into your shell at need and let the words, insults, accusations, and suspicions bounce off your shell. Just be true to yourself, and keep pressing on one step at a time. Make like a turtle. Slow and steady wins the race.”

In today’s chapter Paul, in his letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, is addressing similar sticky situations. Accusations are flying among the small group of believers. People are pointing fingers. Sides are being taken. Private arguments are turning into public lawsuits. In all the hubbub, the local gathering is suffering a black-eye.

Paul asks the believers an interesting question: “Might it be better for everyone to just allow yourself to be wronged?” In a nutshell (or, more aptly, a tortoise shell), Paul is echoing the sage advice I received many years ago. Don’t escalate an already bad situation by publicly answering insult for insult, accusation for accusation. Rather, do as Jesus proposed:

“Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.” Matthew 5:38-42 (MSG)

It’s not easy. Step-by-step, day-by-day I simply endeavored to be true to myself and to be a follower of Jesus to the best of my ability. Slow and steady I pressed forward letting the public suspicions, accusations, and tossed rocks bounce off the shell. “Don’t answer,” I had to keep telling myself as I protectively pulled inward. “Keep moving.”

In the quiet this morning I’m privately enjoying a tremendous compliment I recently received from an individual who, during those dark days, wouldn’t speak to me or give me the time of day, as the saying goes.

Slow and steady wins the race.

(Note to my regular readers: I expect my posts to be a bit erratic through the holidays. our kids and one-year-old grandson are visiting from the UK until New Year’s. Grandpa’s daily schedule might be appropriately messed up on a regular basis.)