It’s Colder than the Arctic. Oh, the Joy!

I am greatly encouraged; in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds.
2 Corinthians 7:4b

Note to subscribers: I had a technical glitch publishing this post this morning with some nasty HTML coding issues. My apologies. I trashed the original post and am reposting, so you may have gotten two emails. Sorry. Maybe it’s the cold ūüėČ

I write this post from the depths of winter in Iowa. It’s -13 as I tap out these words, which is a bit warmer than it was yesterday. This morning I woke up to find our hot water heater isn’t working. Lovely.

Just a week or so ago I was sitting in O’Hare airport in Chicago chatting with a wonderfully gregarious transplant from New Zealand. He was complaining about the weather extremes he’s learned to live with here in the midwest of North America. It reminded me of an observation Garrison Keillor once made: Living in the midwest is like spending your summers in Death Valley and your winters in the Arctic. Indeed. Here’s the headline from the Des Moines Register on Tuesday:

 

Article Headline from Des Moines Register, January 29, 2019.

Along the journey we face all kinds of different challenges. While it’s human to grumble and complain, I often find it personally necessary to make myself put things in context. This morning’s chapter provided it for me.

In writing to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, Paul references “all our troubles.” Later in the letter he provides specifics. Let me jump ahead for the sake of today’s thought. Paul writes:

“I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received the forty lashes minus one.(Note: 39 lashes¬†with a scourge was the ancient prescription to bring the punished to the point of death without letting them actually slip into the comfort of death).¬†Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones (Note: Paul’s would be executioners actually believed they had successfully stoned him to death. His body was carried and dumped outside the city of Lystra and left for dead.), three times I was shipwrecked (Note: He doesn’t mention the venomous snake bite that should have killed him.), I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move (Note: Scholars say that Paul logged some 10,000 miles during his journeys. That’s roughly 21,120,000 steps without a FitBit) . I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.

As I said: Context can be a good antidote for self-centered misery. It’s cold this morning and my water heater is broken. I am, however, in a warm house, with warm clothes, and a warm wife. The water heater guy will be by in a few hours to deal with the hot water problem. Boo-hoo for me.

What I found even more fascinating as I read Paul’s words today was that while he endured torture, stoning, shipwrecks, snakebites, imprisonment and the rest, he states that his “joy knows no bounds.”

Along this journey Wendy and I have learned a lot about joy (though I will freely confess that I know far less than Paul).¬†Joy¬†always jumps off the page at me, because it is one of those words that holds a lot of meaning for Wendy and me. We’ve learned from our journey together that joy is something deeper than a momentary feeling such as happiness which flits in and out with the ever shifting winds of circumstance. Joy comes from a deep spring. It’s not a surface, run-off emotion. You have to drill through bedrock of suffering to experience the flow of joy. It is a spiritual by-product of the three things that remain when all else is stripped away: faith, hope, and love.

In the quiet (and a blessedly warm home office) I am thankful this morning for the flow of joy that Wendy and I have come to experience, independent of whatever momentary personal circumstances we may be experiencing.

By the way, temperatures here in picturesque Pella, Iowa are forecast to be 57 degrees (above zero) on Sunday.

Context.

Stay warm, my friend. Have a great day.

(No Need to) “Wait for It”

 For [God] says,

“In the time of my favor I heard you,
¬†¬†¬†¬†and in the day of salvation I helped you.‚ÄĚ

I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.
2 Corinthians 6:2 (NIV)

I  hate waiting. I especially abhor needless and unnecessary waiting.

I confess. I’m convinced this particular disdain and impatience is rooted in being the youngest of four. Growing up I spent years watching my older siblings get to do things before I did. In most cases I can look back from a place of maturity and understand requisite age and size restrictions. Still, there were times when I rightfully argued that capability should have outweighed arbitrary age limits for certain activities. I’m sure of it. At least, that’s the whine of my inner child.

It never ceases to amaze me just how much our childhoods continue to subconsciously affect us in our adult years. Just this past year Wendy came to a sudden revelation about some inner thoughts she had, and their subsequent emotional reactions they created within. She realized that her thoughts weren’t actually her thoughts, but the voice of her mother playing on an endless loop in her brain. Fascinating.

I digress. Back to waiting.

As our local gathering of Jesus followers has been journeying through the book of Acts this year I have been reminded of two major paradigm shifts that happened when God moved humanity from the religious legalism of the Judaic system to the outpouring of Holy Spirit in the first century.

The first paradigm shift was the decentralization of power. Gone was a rigid system in which a human high priest and other humans, simply on the basis of their heredity, have spiritual power and irrevocable spiritual authority over everyone else. By the middle of the story of Acts we’re reading about common, everyday individuals we’ve never heard of, three or four social circles away from the twelve apostles, who God is using to move the Great Story forward. “Wait a minute. Who is this lady, Tabitha? Who is she and where did she come from?”

The second paradigm shift is the lifting of restrictions to experience salvation through Christ and participate fully in the organism Paul refers to as “the body of Christ.” Any and all who choose to follow Jesus have immediate and full spiritual access to all that God has to offer regardless of background, previous record, heredity, socio-economic status, race, gender, politics, education, or age. Any and all who follow Christ receive the indwelling of Holy Spirit, spiritual gifts, and a calling to use those gifts, in love, for Jesus’ good will and purpose.

This is a radical, transformative spiritual shift (that human organizations and institutions have continually found ways to reverse for two millennia).

In today’s chapter Paul quotes a verse from Isaiah 49. It’s a great messianic prophecy. I get why it would have been one of Paul’s favorite references. All of Paul’s readers who were raised in Judaism would have been raised waiting for the Messiah. It had been 400 years since the last prophet, Malachi, and since then they’d been waiting for what God was going to do. Paul writes to those in Corinth that there is no longer any need to wait for God. All that God has to offer is immediately available to anyone, anywhere, in this very moment.

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking about my level of patience. I’ve gotten better at waiting along my journey. “Patience” is a fruit of the Spirit that gets developed over time, and I can see how it has developed in me along the way. I’ve also come to embrace that while all that God has to offer is immediately available, this is still a journey. There’s still a story being revealed. I still have to wait for some things to be fully revealed and realized in this finite, time-laden existence. I’m reminded, once again, of the words of the wise Teacher of Ecclesiastes:

There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:

    a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,
    a time to kill and a time to heal,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,
    a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance,
    a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
    a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
    a time to search and a time to give up,
    a time to keep and a time to throw away,
    a time to tear and a time to mend,
    a time to be silent and a time to speak,
    a time to love and a time to hate,
    a time for war and a time for peace.

As for following Jesus, Paul writes to the Corinthians, there’s no time like the present moment.

Creation and Re-Creation

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
2 Corinthians 5:17 (NIV)

I got my first tattoo in the fall of 2005. It was an incredibly tumultuous time in my journey. It was the most tumultuous stretch of the journey I’ve yet experienced, in fact. I was recently divorced, a reality I’d never imagined for myself, with two teenage daughters trying to make sense of their own shattered realities. Wendy had also entered my life. This was another unexpected and unlooked for reality that I knew in my heart was of God’s doing, but it made the whole picture a hot mess.

So, why not get a tattoo?

The tat is a celtic cross on my back. In the circle at the crux of the cross is a reference to Revelation 21:5:

He who was seated on the throne said, ‚ÄúI am making everything new!‚ÄĚ Then he said, ‚ÄúWrite this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.‚ÄĚ

Wendy also got a tat that day. A butterfly with the same reference.¬†It was a permanent reminder amidst temporary circumstances of the hope we had in Jesus. Wendy and I both knew by the faith that Paul writes about in today’s chapter that Jesus, the Creator, was in the process of picking up the shattered pieces of life and the mess that had been wrought by our respective human flaws and failings, and together was making something new out of it.

It was months later that I went to a weekend retreat for teens that our daughter Taylor was attending. She was going to speak to her peers and I had been invited to listen. It was hard. She spoke about her own pain amidst the divorce and remarriage and the tumultuous changes in her own experience and realities. “One of my dad’s favorite verses is Revelation 21:5,” she said before adding, “I don’t like that verse.” Ugh.

Our human failings create so much pain for the ones we love most.

Mea culpa.

Along my spiritual journey I’ve learned that God expresses themselves over and over and over again through the theme of creation and re-creation. It’s an integral theme in the divine dance. Old things pass, new things come. On the macro level consider the first chapter, Genesis 1, in which God creates the heavens and the earth. In the final two chapters of Revelation God creates a new heaven and a new Earth (Rev 21:1). On the cosmic level it happens at the cross and the empty tomb. Jesus refers to this creation and re-creation theme over and over again. “Unless a kernel dies and is buried in the ground,” He said, “It can’t spring to new life.”

I’ve also observed that many of my fellow followers of Jesus like to gloss over this theme with broad religious brush strokes of propriety. They like “old things pass away and new things come” to look pretty and proper with an emotionally moving musical score underneath. It’s so much easier to swallow when it’s neat and easy.

Maybe it is that way for some. I haven’t found it to be that way. Resurrection is proceeded by crucifixion. Crucifixion is a raw, naked, shameful, bloody mess. Just like my life back in 2005 when I got my first tat.

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that when Jesus called followers, He made it clear that things would change. Old things would pass away. New things would come. And,¬†not¬†necessarily in comfortable ways.

Outward Groaning; Inward Growing

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.
2 Corinthians 4:16

For the past two months my life has been out of sync. You may have noticed that my posts have been more intermittent than usual. It started with the holidays when our kids and grandson, Milo, arrived home Scotland in early December. It was a joy having them with us for the month of December, though having a one-year-old (who is still trying to figure out normal sleep patterns) in the house tends to disrupt the normal schedule a bit. Then came Christmas, our daughter home from South Carolina, and, well, you get the picture.

I was looking forward to life getting back to normal after New Year’s. Then, on New Year’s Eve day, I was working out at Cross-Fit and I threw my back out on the rowing machine. Ugh. Unexpected and not fun at all. It’s been a slow recovery. A few days later, Wendy had surgery on her foot to take care of a pesky neuroma that’s been bothering her the past few years. That meant she was laid up on the couch with her foot up for a couple of weeks. In the meantime, I developed a nasty chest cold that would not let go (still hasn’t completely). Wendy and I were quite a pair laying next to each other on the couch. Our house became a domestic M*A*S*H unit. Add to the mix a marathon week of business travel and some brand new responsibilities at work. Oh yes, and did I mention about 18 inches of now and sub-zero temperatures? Yada, yada, yada. Blah, blah, blah. Again, you get the picture.

One of the things that I’ve learned along this life journey is not to fight against the terrain I am traversing in the moment. I’ve learned to lean in and embrace each season and what it brings with it, even if it’s not what I want it to be. December was joyful disruption. It was a time to lean in to family, guests, and celebrations that fubar the normal flow of life and schedule. January has not been joyful disruption. It’s been a rocky road of injury, illness and the subsequent need to focus our energies on rest and recovery. Which has meant sleeping in a lot of mornings, and not getting to my regular chapter-a-day post.

And so, in the quiet this morning, I silently identified with Paul’s words, pasted at the top of this post. In the past few years I’ve noticed distinct changes in my body. I need more sleep than ever before. When I get sick, I require more rest. It takes a little longer to recuperate than before. I need regular, and more focused, exercise for my health and well-being. In other words, my body is showing the very natural signs of its age. Spiritually, however, I feel as though I’m in a time of unprecedented growth. My spirit feels more alive than ever. I’m making new discoveries. I find myself pushing further up, and further in. I’m less distracted by the silliness of this life, and more focused on Spirit and truth. It’s awesome.

Outwardly groaning, inwardly growing. That’s the terrain right now, and I’m embracing it. It is what it is. I’m sorry my posts have been a little sporadic of late. I’m getting back to normal. It’s just taking a little bit longer than I expected.

Cheers, my friend. Have a great week!

 

Both “Letter” and “Spirit”

He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant‚ÄĒnot of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
2 Corinthians 3:6 (NIV)

This past year our friend, Ali, was teaching one Sunday morning among our regular gathering of Jesus’ followers. She made a simple statement that has stuck with me every since she said it. It continues to flower and bear fruit in my thinking. “In the church I grew up in,” she said, “we worshiped the Trinity: The Father, Son, and Holy Bible.”

Ali went on to explain two important observations she was making. One was that she was raised with no real teaching or understanding of Holy Spirit. A member of the “Divine Dance” was missing in her faith journey. The other observation is that the scriptures had been elevated in her upbringing to an unintended spiritual position.

In today’s chapter, Paul contrasts “the letter” and “the Spirit.” When he writes “the letter” he was referring to the Hebrew scripture (what is known among Jesus followers as the Old Testament), specifically the first five books known as “The Law.” Many of the believers in Corinth were Jewish. They had been raised to strictly follow “the letter” of “The Law” in a system of legalistic rituals and daily habits. In strictly following “the letter of the Law” they believed they were made righteous before God. Jesus and His followers taught that salvation was not a matter of obedience to written Law, but of faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and spiritual union with Holy Spirit. Paul went even further to state the legalistic rule keeping actually ends up in spiritual death. “The letter kills.” It was not obedience to a written Law that made us righteous, Paul says, but the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, the power of Jesus’ resurrection, and the indwelling of Holy Spirit into our hearts.

Back to our friend Ali’s statement. Followers of Jesus, especially those in the evangelical traditions, have been historically quick to espouse the power and authority of scripture (now including the New Testament). I have observed, however, that it is just as easy for followers of Jesus to fall into the same “letter” trap that the Hebrew believers were in back in Paul’s day. We simply elevate the writings of the New Testament into a new form of Law. It’s easy to say we believe in Holy Spirit, and then allow our “faith” to be reduced to a list of rules, our righteousness to regress into strict obedience to the letter of a new law. Jesus’ teaching and Paul’s letters become a spiritual system of neo-legalism.

This morning in the quiet I am grateful for, and mindful of, both the power and authority of God’s Message. I am so grateful and mindful, in fact, that this chapter-a-day journey continues. I study the Message. I commit it to memory. I weave it into the tapestry of my everyday life. I don’t, however, ever want to allow “the letter” to replace “the Spirit” in my faith and life journey. I need them both to do their unique, respective work in my life.

Trying Not to Stink

For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.
2 Corinthians 2:15 (NIV)

On Saturday I returned home from a week-long business trip. I was in four different client offices in three different cities training, coaching, and mentoring with agents and managers of nine different teams not to mention multiple key executives.

As a follower of Jesus I am always mindful of the fact that I am a follower of Jesus wherever I go and whatever I am doing. If I truly believe what I write that I believe in these posts, then my faith is ever-present  wherever I am and with whomever I am meeting whether it is for business or leisure.

Along the journey of my career I’ve enjoyed a large host of great working relationships with many, many colleagues and clients around the world. I’ve also had a few people who have made it perfectly clear that, for whatever reason, really, really don’t like me. Oh my, do I have some stories. Just a few months ago I received my first hateful, threatening rant from a reader.¬†C’est la vie.

I can’t control what others think of me. I can only control my own thoughts, words, and actions. In today’s chapter Paul alludes to a Roman triumphal procession. Conquering Roman generals would lead a procession through the city with their army behind them. Incense was burned during the parade. In the procession there would be prisoners taken captive during battle who were being marched to their execution. Paul uses this word picture. The incense wafts through he air. To some in the procession it’s the aroma of triumph and life, while to others it is the aroma of death.

I’ve always loved this word picture because it reminds me of the limited control I have in how others respond to me. My goal is always to let my faith motivate both my words and actions to be filled with the aroma of love, kindness, respect, trust, honesty, and integrity no matter who I am with and no matter where I am and whatever I may be doing. I want my words and actions to be free from the stench of judgement, condemnation, anger, hatred, bitterness, prejudice, or meanness. Beyond that, I can’t really control how anyone is going to respond to me.

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking about the week ahead. More meetings with different groups and different people. As always, I’m praying that my presence, my words, and my actions don’t stink.

The Unexpected Prophecy

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.
2 Corinthians 1:3 (NIV)

During the 2008 presidential election, both John McCain and Barack Obama were interviewed at a leadership conference. Both men, in turn, were asked a fascinating question. The candidates were asked to speak about their greatest failure. True to his masterful ability, I recall that Obama spoke for a few minutes in response. His answer articulately wove a beautiful tapestry of words in that graceful, assuring baritone voice. And, I have no recollection whatsoever of his answer.

Asked the same question, John McCain’s answer was immediate and simple: “The failure of my first marriage.”

I will never forget a conversation I had with a wise counselor as I was navigating the failure of my first marriage. My life was strewn in shattered pieces around me. It was the lowest point of my life, and I had been scheduled to speak with this spiritual sage. To be honest, I expected to hear more of the condemnation I felt like I was receiving on all sides. I expected a message of judgment. I expected a righteous tongue lashing and words of dire warning. What I didn’t expect was a prophecy.

Someday,” the counselor said, “you are going to be called upon to walk along side someone who is going through exactly what you are experiencing in this moment, to guide them, and comfort them, and see them through their pain.” That is all that I remember from my hour with him.

It was an Easter Sunday morning several years later that I was walking out of the annual celebration service and spied a man who I had desired to befriend for some time. Seizing the moment, I pulled the acquaintance aside from the crowd and expressed that I would enjoy getting together with him and get to know him better. I’ll never forget the puzzled way he looked at me for a long, uncomfortable moment. Then he leaned in and whispered in my ear a direct answer with the succinct clarity of John McCain: “Tom, my wife left me. Nobody knows it.”

I had the privilege of becoming a friend of that acquaintance, and walking alongside him as he traversed the same agonizing path of marital failure. I got to guide him, comfort him, and see him through that valley. I was privileged to witness, over time, God’s redemption in his story.

Along life’s journey I’ve experienced that suffering produces a common, repetitive question: “Why?”

Sometimes there¬† is no answer to that question, and I won’t pretend that there always is. Yet, I’ve also experienced in my own suffering that there is often purpose in my pain, just as I’ve read time-and-time again in my chapter-a-day journey. Consider these three similar messages from three different authors writing to three different audiences:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
James 1:2-3

Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
Romans 5:3-5

In all this you greatly rejoice,¬†though now for a little while¬†you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.¬†These have come so that the proven genuineness¬†of your faith‚ÄĒof greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire‚ÄĒmay result in praise, glory and honor¬†when Jesus Christ is revealed.
1 Peter 1:6-7

In the midst of my greatest failure, and in the deepest valley I have thus far traversed in my journey, I unexpectedly learned a valuable lesson through the words of a prophet. Sometimes my suffering, and the spiritual comfort I come to find, in Christ, amidst the agony, prepares me to someday comfort another who is making their way through the same dark valley.