The Runaway Train of My Brain

we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.
2 Corinthians 10:5b (NIV)

When I was in 8th grade I learned how to diagram sentences in English class and how great stories were structured. In high school I learned how to break down stories and characters into their component parts and how to construct a cohesive presentation. In college I learned how to critique, how to “beat” a script, and how to storyboard an idea. In my personal work with multiple counselors I’ve learned how to recognize my own patterns of thought and the conversations I’m always having with myself. I’m still a work in progress but I’ve been learning over my entire life journey how to meta-communicate. That is, to think not only about what is being communicated but how it’s being communicated.

I happen to be married to Wendy, who does the same thing. It makes marriage interesting.

Thus it was that when I came across the phrase above from today’s chapter what initially struck me was not the spiritual meaning of this phrase, but the fact that it is a recurring theme in conversation between Wendy and me. “Taking every thought captive” comes up regularly in our discussions as we process through patterns of thought and behavior. So, I’ve been thinking about that in the quiet this morning.

I’ve realized along my life journey that my thoughts are often a runaway train. My brains neurons, synapses and transmitters got wired a certain way like a set track and when particular situations or circumstances present themselves my thoughts mindlessly follow where that track leads. There’s no meta-communication. There’s no thought about my thoughts. I just follow the tracks and end up at the same stations of words, emotions, behaviors and situations.

When “taking every thought captive” comes up in conversation between Wendy and me, we are essentially referencing the process from the old Westerns of riding fast to grab control of the train engine and pull on the hand brake. We’re forcing ourselves to think about our thinking and then do something about it.

Wait a minute. I keep going to down this ‘train’ of thought and I never like where it leads me (or us). Why am I thinking this way? What situation/experience/circumstance/word triggered my brain engine to take off down this track? What assumptions have I made in thinking this way? What am I not considering? What am I afraid of? What do my thoughts, words, and actions reveal about what it is I really want or desire? What am I not seeing in my limited view of the situation? Is my perspective skewed, and, if so, by what?”

Forcing myself to consider and answer these questions put the brakes on the runaway train, take the mindless thoughts captive, and begin the process of choosing new paths of thought toward better places in life and relationship.

This morning I’m thankful for God-given brains that are naturally powerful at learning, adapting, and changing. I’m grateful for God who is infinitely gracious with this wayfarer’s life-long journey of chasing down runaway thoughts and laying down new tracks. I am equally grateful for the spiritual power that assists in the mental processing. I am reminded that Jesus great commandment includes loving God with all of my mind as well as my heart, soul, and strength.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a train to catch.

What Goes Around Comes Around

My parents bought this property at the lake back in 1998. It looked a lot different then. The lawn was cluttered with trees. There was a single-wide 1972 trailer home with three tiny bedrooms, dark wood paneling, orange shag carpet, and a metal roof that was deafening when it rained. Each summer we made regular pilgrimages and made eternal memories with grandpa and grandma and each other.

There’s always a deep sense of joy I experience when the folks come back to the lake. It’s a reciprocal thing. They shared this place with me and my family, and now we get to give it back to them for their en-joy-ment. And, it is a joy.

My sister and her kids spent last week at the lake with our parents. My brother Tim and his girlfriend joined them this past weekend. Wendy and I arrived Sunday evening. We spent a couple of nights with Jody and the folks before they departed on Tuesday morning. It was a fun couple of days together sipping coffee on the deck, grabbing breakfast at the local greasy spoon, sitting on the dock, chatting, and going for an evening boat ride.

When Generosity Becomes Compulsory it Becomes Something Else

Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
2 Corinthians 9:7 (NIV)

In today’s chapter, Paul continues his encouragement to the followers of Jesus in Corinth to be generous. Paul was specifically asking them to give to an offering that was being collected to support impoverished fellow believers in Jerusalem. Paul wanted all believers in Greece and Asia Minor to give so to help their fellow believers in Palestine and it was a significant personal undertaking that had social as well as economic implications. If believers in the “gentile” world gave to the predominantly Jewish believers in Judea then it could only help tear down the walls and prejudices between the two groups.

Yesterday morning Wendy and I were discussing Paul’s encouragement to generously give to their fellow believers in need. Our conversation deepened from the subject of yesterday’s blog post on generosity to the section of Paul’s letter about equality. Paul argues that those in plenty should give to those who have little so as to bring a level of equality between all.

The conversation between Wendy and me quickly meandered into the fact that the early church is often seen as a shining example of socialism. Based on the evidence, there is no doubt that the followers of Jesus in the first century, connected by a common faith, supported one another financially and were encouraged to do so. As our conversation progressed, Wendy and I surfaced what I believe are some important distinctions in the contemplation of today’s chapter.

The giving and sharing among early Christians was not uniform system but an organic one. It looked very different in varying locations and times. During my life journey I’ve personally become weary of the way our culture (the institutional church in particular) loves to turn everything into a repeatable, marketable formula. We love to try and package what Holy Spirit did at church A and market it in a cool new program so that churches B through Z can easily replicate the experience. It usually creates popularity but I rarely see it result in a replication of spiritual power.

I’ve learned that there’s a reason why God gives us wind as a word picture of Holy Spirit. Holy Spirit mysteriously blows here and quickly moves there. Holy Spirit waxes for a time in one place then inexplicably wanes. You cannot manufacture it or replicate it at will as much as we try.

Paul’s offering was never made compulsory. Money was not demanded of the believers in Corinth. Rather, they were encouraged to be generous and the decision of what and how much was to be sourced in their own hearts. I find this a critical distinction. In Paul’s paradigm each believer was to give as each believer determined and was led personally by God’s Spirit. Paul certainly gave a full court press of encouragement explaining that generosity was a part of spiritual maturity and provided examples of other believers giving. There were, however, no formulas or discussion of percentages of income. There was no larger governing authority demanding it of the Corinthians, nor were there material consequences to be doled out if they chose not to give.

This leads to a final thought. The giving and sharing between believers in the early church happened on a micro-economic level. This was a  relatively small societal sub-culture connected to one another by a loose system of communication and a common faith. It wasn’t an authoritative institutional system trying to provide for all of society. There was no governing authority compelling believers to pay a percentage of their wealth and income to be redistributed to others as that particular governing authority determined. My experience is that things which work on a micro-level in small groups, especially things which are spiritual in nature, are rarely successful at being systemized and institutionally applied at a macro-level across society.

I hope no one will read what I’m not writing this morning. I am not arguing for or against socialism as an economic or governmental construct. I’m not arguing for or against any economic or governmental system or another. They all have their strengths and weaknesses, and thus we experience the never ending debate around our globe.

The conclusion my heart is coming to this morning is this: As a follower of Jesus, no matter what the societal economic system I find myself living in, generosity is an essentially spiritual act. My free choice and willing decision to give of what I have been given to others in need is, and should be, an act of loving kindness. What’s more, as a follower of Jesus the measure to which I give should be personally motivated by the measure of love and grace I have received from Christ Jesus.

As soon as my generosity becomes compulsory, it becomes something else.

Practice Required

But since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.
2 Corinthians 8:7 (NIV)

I received a text from one of our daughters the other day. She was doing an exercise for work and each person was asked to quiz a few people who knew them well and ask , “What is it that I do better than anyone else?” In other words, what was the thing or things at which she excelled. It was an interesting question to ponder and fun to be allowed to share my thoughts with her.

I have always had certain things at which I excelled and many things at which I did not. I was never very good at sports. The only sport at which I exhibited some excellence was swimming, and this was only because of years of constant and disciplined practice. I was always a pretty good student, however. And, I displayed a modicum of excel-lence in the arts, especially on stage.

In today’s chapter, Paul answers our daughter’s question to the followers of Jesus in Corinth. Paul reports that they excel in faith, in good conversation, in being knowledgable and in their earnestness. Then, Paul then urges them to add one more thing to the list. He wants them to excel in giving.

The interesting thing about the encouragement given here is that generosity must have been an area that the believers in Corinth had not already displayed excellence. It was something that was going to require exercise and practice, and this was the entire point behind today’s chapter. Paul was urging them to stretch their generosity muscles and practice giving.

One of the passages of God’s Message around which I’ve chosen to try and model my life is Psalm 112, which has ceaselessly admonished me in the same way Paul encourages the believers in Corinth. The lyrics of the psalm describe the person who is “generous and lends freely” and who “scatters abroad their gifts to the poor.”

I must confess this morning that when it comes to generosity and giving I am an honorary Corinthian. I have known people who excel at giving, for whom it is a spiritual gift. For me, it is a lot like swimming. If I want to excel I’ve got to endlessly practice. Generosity stretches and builds spiritual muscles that are not naturally strong for me, but the effort and development is good for me in a myriad of ways.

This morning I’m pondering the areas of life in which I easily and naturally excel, and the areas like generosity that require repetitive practice. I don’t ever want to stop working on improving. I’m encouraged this morning to keep working, keep practicing, keep driving towards excellence in these important areas of Life and Spirit.

Making Room

Make room for us in your hearts.
2 Corinthians 7:2 (NIV)

Wendy and I have been on a slow process this year of purging things from our possession. We’ve taken loads to the local thrift store for donation, sold things on Facebook, pitched things, and given things away. In some ways I don’t feel like we’ve made much of a dent. There seems always to be more stuff than room.

I was struck this morning by Paul’s appeal to the Jesus followers in Corinth to “make room for us in your hearts.” The word picture indicates that there is finite room in the heart just as there is finite room in a house. There is only so much room.

So how much stuff have I crammed in my heart?

What exactly have I crammed in there?

Is it bringing me an increase of Life, or is it just taking up space?

Are there things that should be in my heart but for the lack of room?

Paul’s word picture also assumes that we can make room in our hearts just as we make room in our house. Things can be purged, released, tossed away, and given away.

What have I crammed in my heart that is dead, lifeless, and taking up space?

I’m once again reminded of my word for 2017: empty. As I have meditated on empty I have come to realize that its significance for me is not as an adjective but as a verb. There are things in my life to be emptied. I’m prayerfully pondering this morning how my own heart might be one of them.

Afscheiden

Therefore,
“Come out from them

    and be separate,
says the Lord.

Touch no unclean thing,
    and I will receive you.”
2 Corinthians 6:17 (NIV)

I have lived much of my life  in and around communities with strong Dutch heritage. The Dutch communities in Iowa were settled, for the most part, by tight-knit groups of Dutch believers who came to America for religious freedom. Over 150 years later most of these communities maintain a strong connection to their heritage. It’s fascinating to experience life here and, over time, observe how we function and interact.

On one hand I have an insider’s understanding, receiving my paternal DNA from a father with Dutch genes who came from this heritage. On the other hand, mine is an outsider’s perspective as I grew up in a city away from these Dutch communities and only experienced them when visiting my grandparents. It is as an adult have I found myself living within them.

There is a Dutch word, afscheiden, which you still hear on occasion in conversation. It means “to separate.” I have come to observe that it is a thread in the fabric of our community in multiple ways. Our ancestors were those who separated from their home to come to America. Within the community there are strong religious subgroups who have historically separated themselves within the community based on adherence to certain church doctrines and religious practices. Visitors to our communities often comment on the large number of churches. It is, in part, due to our habit of separating whenever there is disagreement.

Afscheiden in our communities typically has strong religious connotation to it. One group of Christians claims to have a better (usually more strictly conservative) hold on God’s truth, so they separate and disassociate themselves from their wayward, liberal brethren. The scriptural defense they use comes from today’s chapter in which Paul quotes the prophet Isaiah (pasted at the top of this post).

I always think a little historical context is in order.

Competing religions in the prophet Isaiah’s day were often centered around fertility and nature. There was a wide variety of communal sexual activity cloaked as religious practice and even the human sacrifice of babies and children to please the gods. It was nasty stuff. In Paul’s day, the Greek and Roman temples in cities like Corinth continued to be religious prostitution rackets that propagated a lot of typically unhealthy practices. For both Isaiah and Paul, the call to separate was less about religious dogma and more about foundational moral code.

Along life’s journey I’ve observed that legalistic religion loves afscheiden. Black and white appears on the surface to be much simpler than struggling with gray. For certain groups life must be strictly categorized in terms of clean and unclean, acceptable and unacceptable, good and bad, godly and evil so that I always know what to do, think, say, and who I can associate with. After a while, however, you have all these small, insular groups who have afscheidened themselves to death.

This morning I’m looking back on my own journey and the ways that the concept of “come out and be separate” have affected my life, my choices, my relationships, and my actions. I made the observation to Wendy the other day that Christians like to be prescriptive with our religion, prescribing the things you must do to be a follower of Jesus (and if you don’t toe the line we afscheiden ourselves from you!). Jesus, however, was more descriptive about the Kingdom of God. He always said, “the kingdom of God is like…” and then would describe it.

I’m realizing that I prefer a description to reach for rather than a prescription to swallow.

 

 

Compelled

For Christ’s love compels us….
2 Corinthians 5:14a (NIV)

I’m shaking my head with a smile this morning. I returned from a week’s hiatus and had to double check where we left off in our chapter-a-day journey. It’s a bit of synchronicity for me to read the five words pasted at the top of the post in this morning’s chapter because Wendy and I spent a good part of our journey home from the lake yesterday discussing them.

A number of weeks ago my fellow mystics at the Center for Action and Contemplation made a fascinating word connection in their daily meditation. The root of our word “mercy” is from an ancient Etruscan word, merc, which is also the root of our English word “commerce.” Over the past several weeks I’ve been quietly meditating on the transactional nature of relationship with Christ. And, it is definitely transactional in nature:

  • “Give, and it will be given unto you.”
  • “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
  • “Christ paid for sin, once for all.”
  • “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt of love.”

The problem, Wendy and I discussed yesterday, is that there are stark differences between the economics of this world and the economics of God’s Kingdom. In this life journey we are so ingrained with the concept of earning everything. Most of us earn our allowance as children, earn our grades and our diplomas as students, earn our paychecks and retirement as adults. Our entire lives are predicated on the notion that you get what you earn. This is a core piece of the curse of Adam when God said, By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground.” It’s even at the core of our justice system where you “get what you deserve.”

[cue: Cell Block Tango]

It is no wonder that we so easily we misunderstand the economics of the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to reveal. We often mindlessly (and heartlessly) twist Christianity into the transactional system we know by making it all about earning God’s favor and proving ourselves good followers of Jesus by what we do to earn the title. We reduce relationship with God to a daily transactional paradigm in which I’m blessed if I do good things and cursed if I do bad things. In so doing our spiritual death begins to take hold because “God’s ways are not our ways.”

In the economy of God’s Kingdom we are motivated not by our need to earn, but by the experience of freely receiving what we haven’t earned, of having an irreparable debt paid off. We are not required to earn a thing because we’ve already been freely given all we need and more. The transaction that earned us salvation had nothing to do with us at all apart from being the object of God’s sacrificial love. It was all done by Christ Jesus on the cross.

In today’s chapter, in five words, Paul gets down to the crux of this small but essentially crucial difference in transactional spiritual paradigms. Why did Paul turn his cushy, well-respected life upside down? Why did Paul endure endless hardship and continually risk his life? Why was Paul willing to be persecuted, beaten, whipped, prosecuted, imprisoned, and have his head chopped off? He was compelled.

Christ’s love compels us.

This morning I’m thinking about my thirty-some years as a follower of Jesus. I think about messages I’ve given, blog posts I’ve written, resources I’ve given, and choices I’ve made along the path. Why? I’m compelled. I’ve got to. It’s the point Dumbledore made to Harry Potter about having to fulfill the prophecy. There’s a difference between “‘I’ve got to” and “I’ve got to.”

Which is where the conversation meandered between Wendy and me yesterday, but that’s another blog post entirely.

Have a great day.

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

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