Tag Archives: Action

The Nehemiah Two-Step

They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it. But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.
Nehemiah 4:8-9 (NIV)

This life journey always comes with a certain amount of opposition. It can come from any number of sources, and it can take multiple forms. Opposition can be spiritual, emotional, relational, physical, personal, internal, public, subversive, passive, violent, and etc. We all face opposition, conflict, and threats from time to time, even if it is in relatively small ways.

In today’s chapter, the exiles attempting to repair the walls of Jerusalem encounter opposition from the neighboring tribes. Conflict with these tribes and towns had been part of the political landscape of the area for centuries, so it was not a surprise. It was expected.

I found it fascinating that Nehemiah records a “two-step” response to the threats. I think the “Nehemiah Two-Step” is a great move to know when I find myself dancing with the fires of opposition in any form that the antagonistic force might present itself. The first step was to pray. The second step was to respond with the appropriate action.

Along my life journey, I’ve experienced many times when I get this very simple dance move wrong:

  • I pray without responding with action. In hindsight, I realize that sometimes I have placed all the responsibility on God with the expectations that He will supernaturally make it all okay without me being responsible for doing my part.
  • I act without praying. Other times, a threat or attack comes and it elicits from me an immediate reaction. When I react without praying, I’ve come to realize that I have refused to seek, submit, and subscribe to my higher authority. My reactions are often raging but not rational, passionate but not prudent, willful but not wise.
  • I act before I pray. When I get the order wrong, I find myself determining the response I think is warranted and then ask God to honor my plan rather than honoring God to seek His plan for how I should respond.

In the quiet this morning, as I pondered these things, I was reminded of this quote:

“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”

Albert Einstein

The great scientist’s words have always reminded me that no matter what I set out to accomplish, I can expect opposition. And, it’s likely that the greater endeavor I attempt, the greater opposition I’m likely to face.

From a spiritual perspective, God’s Message continually reminds me of the same thing. Specifically, that spiritual opposition is always a threat:

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.

I Peter 5:8 (NIV)

I long ago recognized that the time I spend, first thing in the morning, in quiet reading, writing, and contemplation has a positive effect on the rest of my day. It’s another form of the “Nehemiah two-step.” Pray, then act.

So, now I’ve prayed. It’s time to take action on today’s task list.

Have a great day, my friend.

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Love in the Ordinary

Do everything in love.
1 Corinthians 16:14 (NIV)

In her book, Liturgy of the Ordinary, Tish Harrison Warren  reminded me of what I fear is a largely forgotten and much needed truth. In a culture that worships bucket list experiences and adrenaline rushes, it is easy to allow the experience-seeker mentality to skew my spiritual life. I allow the mundane, everyday routines to become disconnected from spirit. In my mind they become the Life-less tasks I must necessarily trudge through to get to the next  mountaintop spiritual experience. Warren brought back into focus for me that in Jesus, everything is connected. Everything is sacred.

Wendy’s and my household is, I assume, like most married households. There are tasks that are my responsibility. The lawn care and snow removal, for example. It’s not that Wendy can’t do these things or assist with them. She grew up on a farm and can chore with the best of them. I just take them on as my responsibility. There are tasks Wendy takes on for herself. The laundry and the kitchen/pantry administration, for example. It’s not that I couldn’t capably do either, but Wendy likes these done a certain way so she just takes them on as her own. And then, there are household tasks that we share.

In Paul’s letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, he ends his letter by admonishing them to “do everything in love.” As I mulled over this simple command, I realized that it’s easy for me to apply that “experience seeking” mentality to this simple relational command. It’s also easy to assume that Paul is talking about being loving in all my relationships, to be a Good Samaritan, and to be loving toward outcasts and my enemies.  But, then I looked again. I realized that’s not what he wrote. He didn’t write “Be loving towards everyone” he wrote “Do everything (i.e. Laundry? Lawn care? Making the bed? Fixing supper? Washing the dishes?) in love. All of a sudden, this simple command takes on a whole new layer of meaning.

In my job I assess and train people in the art of giving good customer service. Quite regularly I am working with individuals who are tasked with serving co-workers (a corporate help-desk, for example). Other teams are tasked with serving the same key customers on a daily basis, and they often have very close, very personal relationships with these customers. I commonly have these team members argue that the customer service techniques I teach them “don’t apply” to them.

They’re not customers. They’re co-workers,” the help-desk agent will say to me.

He’s not like a customer. I talk to him on the phone every day. Sometimes it’s multiple times a day. He’s a friend. I don’t need to do all this customer service stuff with him. It would sound silly,” the key account  manager will say to me.

What are these service skills I’m asking of them?

  • Take ownership of a situation, say what you’ll do.
  • If something doesn’t go right, express empathy. Apologize.
  • Make sure you’ve met the need. Ask if they need anything else.
  • Express gratitude.

What these agents are arguing is that the closer you are to another person, you are excused from giving him or her exceptional service. The more intimate you become, the more you are free to just slide and “get by.” These mundane, everyday relationships don’t require good communication of active commitment, empathy, willingness, or gratitude. Wow. No wonder so many relationships are in trouble.

At that point I will usually tell a joke. Imagine if I told Wendy on the day we married, “I told you I love you today in front of everybody. So, now you know. If it ever changes I’ll let you know.” My challenger wife would have a few words of challenge for me.

I argue that the closer the relationship, the more everyday, mundane daily relationship that is shared between two individuals, the more I should want my communication to be a steady stream of commitment, empathy, willingness, gratitude, and love. Of course the words are going to be different and more familiar. Of course it’s going to look and sound more subtle, more intimate, and familiar than with a new acquaintance. Nevertheless, a healthy relationship requires it.

Last week I went out to blow 10 inches of heavy snow off our sidewalks and drive way in the dark while I was sick with a cold. When I walked in the house Wendy thanked me for doing it. She didn’t just thank me because it was hard, or I happened to be sick. She always thanks me. I can’t remember the last time I did the lawn or the driveway and Wendy didn’t immediately thank me when I walked in the house. In the same way, whenever Wendy finishes a day of multiple laundry loads I express my appreciation for it.

When Wendy asks me to do something for her, I always try to respond with what I teach my clients is called an ownership statement. It’s a statement of what you”can” or “will” do for a person that also expresses a positive attitude in doing so. “Sure, babe,” I say, “I’ll be happy to.” There is no one else who does as much for me everyday as Wendy. There is no one who deserves an ownership statement from me as much as she does.

Do  everything” Paul wrote, “in love.” In the quiet of my hotel room this morning I’m really mulling that over. It’s not just the big public actions that every one can see, but the ordinary, repetitive daily actions that hardly anyone sees. What does it mean for me to make coffee in the morning in love? To do my daily chores in love? To mow  the lawn in love? To answer my emails in love?

In order to answer that question, I have to be open to embracing the Liturgy of the Ordinary.

The Motivation Behind Life’s Blocking

Nevertheless, in their presumption they went up toward the highest point in the hill country, though neither Moses nor the ark of the Lord’s covenant moved from the camp.
Numbers 14:44 (NIV)

Faith is an amazingly powerful, amazingly mysterious spiritual root force. Jesus said that faith as small as a speck could move mountains.   Repeatedly, Jesus told those whom He healed that their faith was the active ingredient in their healing. The author of Hebrews wrote that without faith it is impossible to please God.

Today’s chapter is an object lesson in faith (or lack thereof). Yesterday the Hebrew tribes spy out the promised land, but swayed by the exaggerated claims of ten of the twelve spies, the people doubt that their conquest will be successful. Swayed by their fears they speak of going back to slavery in Egypt and threaten to stone Moses to death.

When a mysterious plague afflicts the ten doubting spies, the people’s’ fear of God becomes instantly more powerful, in the moment, than the fear of death in conquest that had felt so powerful the previous day. Their fear prompts a hasty decision to move forward with the conquest despite Moses warning that their impromptu actions is doomed to fail. Why? They were acting out of fear, not faith.

What a word picture the tribes provide for fear-based thinking and reasoning. Their actions over the past few chapters have perpetually been motivated by what they feared most in the moment: starvation, discomfort, death, or plague. Fear is the constant and consistent motivator; It is the active ingredient in their words, decisions, and actions. Their fear leads them to false presumptions on which their decisions and actions were based.

This morning I’m reminded that it is that which motivates my actions that is critical to my spiritual progression in this life journey and the activator of spiritual power. If I am primarily motivated by fear or shame, by pride or personal desire my actions will certainly propel me down life’s path just like the Hebrew tribes climbing the hill. My movement, however, will be void of any real progress or direction of Spirit. As any well-trained actor knows, it is the motivation that drives the action of the character. Blocked movement disconnected from the characters underlying motivation becomes prescriptive, mindless action that empties the performance of any real power.

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking about the actions on my multiple test lists. If, as the Bard wrote, “all the world’s a stage” then my task lists are my prescribed blocking in life’s script. Go here, do this bit of business, then go there and do that bit of necessary action so that she can proceed with her bit. Family tasks, business tasks, personal tasks… What’s the active, motivating ingredient?

Is it faith?

The Slippery Sweet-Spot Between Acting and Waiting

Moses answered them, “Wait until I find out what the Lord commands concerning you.”
Numbers 9:8 (NIV)

There are many forks in life’s road. There’s no avoiding it. It just is what it is.

Where do I go to school?
Should I marry him/her?
Do I speak out or hold my tongue?
Should I take this job that’s been offered to me or hold out for the job I really want? 
Should we rent or should we buy?
Do I invest in new or get by with used?
Should we stay or should we go?

As we traverse the Book of Numbers there is a pattern or repetition that many readers don’t catch. The phrase “The Lord said to Moses” is used repeatedly. In fact, it’s used over 50 times. In today’s chapter, some of the people bring Moses a question about how to handle an exceptional circumstance regarding the Passover celebration. Moses simply says he’ll check with God and God provides a seemingly quick answer.

We then go on to read in today’s chapter that the decision of going or staying was miraculously provided for the ancient Hebrews. According to the story there was a cloud that hovered over their traveling tent temple which gave them indication whether God wanted them to move or stay put. When the cloud remained over the tent they stayed put. If the cloud lifted they broke camp and moved.

Wow, I’d love it if God’s guidance and direction were that easy for me to see. At the same time, I have to acknowledge that this may have been the only easy thing in the experience of the Hebrews. I’m quite sure I’d struggle living the life of an ancient nomad wandering in the desert with a couple million cousins.

I have discovered along life’s road that there is a slippery sweet-spot of tension between discernment and decision. We live in an age when time is measured in nanoseconds and we are used to getting things “on demand.” I perceive that the virtues of patience, peace and prayer are increasingly found in short supply in our culture. At the same time, I have known many followers of Jesus who take so long to “prayerfully consider” decisions that they make no progress in their respective  journeys.

This morning I find myself once again seeking to both find and hold the tension between acting and waiting. I don’t want to be so quick to make decisions that I forget to pray for guidance and to give wise consideration to options and potential consequences. At the same time, I don’t want to become paralyzed waiting for some divine sign when there is a clear need to act judiciously and with expedience.

Attacking “The Jesus Problem”

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians…
That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question…
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him…
Matthew 22:15, 23, 34-35 (NIV)

Jesus made His triumphant entry into Jerusalem to the praises of the fickle crowd. He challenged the powerful bosses of institutional religion by creating a public disturbance amidst their religious racketeering. Jesus is on a mission. Matthew’s eye-witness account of these events does not reveal Jesus as a helpless victim of circumstance, but rather the One driving the action.

With each word and every action, Jesus is putting the powerful religious cartel into an increasingly difficult position. His popularity among the poor and marginalized has stirred public sentiment against the religious leaders. The small riot Jesus made among the money changers was not only an embarrassment and PR nightmare within the community of the Jewish commoners, but if Pilate gets wind that there’s unrest among the Jews he and the Roman occupational force might crack down hard on them, and that would be bad for business.

The Temple leadership have a good racket going. They are wealthy, and they have carved out a lucrative niche for themselves in their Temple business. Their powerful religious authority gives them an iron political grip over the Jewish people in Jerusalem and abroad. They may be living under Roman occupation, but under the Roman umbrella they are supreme rulers of their own small kingdom. From the perspective of the Temple’s religious leadership, this pesky would-be Messiah from Nazareth is bad for business. He’s listed as a “threat” in their SWOT analysis. “It’s not personal, Jesus,” you can imagine the High Priest muttering, “It’s strictly business.”

The end of yesterday’s chapter and the continuing events in today’s chapter reveal the initial strategy of the religious leaders to deal with “the Jesus problem.” These men were all well-educated lawyers and legal scholars who made an art form out of legal debate over the Law of Moses. They would leverage their expertise in legal minutiae to engage Jesus in very public debate in the Temple courts. Surely this uneducated yokel from the North country would give them a sound-byte they could tweet, print, and repeat endlessly to stem the tide of His popularity.

In today’s chapter, Matthew records wave after wave of envoys from the religious council testing Jesus with the hot political and religious topics of the day: Paying Roman taxes (politically heated issue), whether there is a resurrection (heated religious issue among factions within the temple), and which is the greatest commandment (hot religious debate among temple lawyers). Because these topics were as controversial in temple circles as abortion and gun control are in ours, whatever Jesus says can be used politically to ruin His approval ratings with one group or another.

But Jesus deftly responds to each question with answers His enemies did not expect. Then, after playing defense for several rounds of debate, Jesus turns the tables and goes on the offense. He tests the prestigious lawyers with a question of His own, and stumps them at their own game.

“No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.”

This morning I am thinking about the contrast between Jesus and the religious cartel who were threatened by Him. Jesus was a simple man of simple means born in a backwater town to poor, blue-collar parents. He was raised in a backwater region of the country. Jesus was not well connected, had no impressive education, and owned little more than the seamless tunic on His back (which was worth just enough that a couple of Roman guards would shoot craps over it). His political enemies, on the other hand, were upstanding religious people of elite pedigree, top-notch education, and shrewd business acumen. They would be hailed as hallmarks of success according to our contemporary culture’s criteria.

The uncomfortable question I ask myself in the quiet this morning is: Between Jesus and the religious leaders, who do I, and my life, most resemble? If I were standing in the temple courts listening to the debate between this poor teacher with His provocative views and the conservative, successful leaders of the traditional status quo, who would I be inclined to side with?

I confess that my honest answer is as uncomfortable as the question.

Driving the Action

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.” And the disciples were filled with grief.
Matthew 17:9, 22-23 (NIV)

Yesterday I had the privilege of presenting a message and the text was the raising of Lazarus in John 11. As we unpacked the story together, I made the point that Jesus was not a victim of the events around Him, rather Jesus was driving the action of the scene.

Whenever a writer crafts a story, play, or screenplay, he or she must be mindful of how to drive the action of the story and propel events forward. Sometimes action can be circumstantially driven when an event takes place which unleashes a subsequent series of events. In The Godfather, there is an unexpected attempt on Vito’s life and an attack on the Corleone family. [spoiler alert!] As a result of these events Vito’s son, Michael, who wanted nothing to do with his father’s illegal business will become just like his father.

Other times action is driven by a character in the story whose words and actions propel the story forward. In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf makes a prophetic observation that even Gollum has some part to play in the events leading to the ending of the One Ring. Time and again Gollum’s mischief and machinations drive the action, even to the climactic moment of the epic.

One of the things that becomes very clear as we read the story of Jesus is that Jesus is driving the action. He is not a passive victim of others. He is not the victim of unexpected events that lead to execution. At every turn Jesus is driving the action which will lead to His arrest and even foreshadowing the events to come. In today’s chapter, Jesus twice refers to his death and resurrection. He knows what is coming because it was part of a larger narrative that He had storyboarded in the beginning, and had been prophetically envisioned for centuries (see Psalm 22 [c. 1000 B.C.] and Isaiah 53 [c. 700 B.C.]).

This morning I’m thinking that Jesus came with purpose. He was on a mission and He drove the action. What about me? What’s my mission? Do I act, think, speak with purpose, or am I passively awaiting for circumstances to drive the narrative of my life?

I’m reminded in the quiet this morning that Jesus told us to ask, to seek, and to knock. Those are not commands to be passive, but to participate with God in driving the action of our stories.

Featured image courtesy of bnorthern via Flickr

Simple Contrast; Simple Choice

GnG

I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us…he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.

Demetrius is well spoken of by everyone—and even by the truth itself. We also speak well of him, and you know that our testimony is true.
2 John 1:9, 10b, 12

When I was a kid and my mother had to take me to the Doctor’s office, there was always a Highlights magazine to peruse in the lobby. One of the regular features inside Highlights was a comic called Goofus and Gallant which simply contrasted the behaviors of good and bad behavior. Goofus always behaved improperly and Gallant always did the proper thing.

I thought of the two characters from my childhood as I read today’s chapter. In his letter to his friend Gaius, Paul calls out two specific men. First he calls out Diotrephes the self-seeker who is unwelcoming and mean spirited. Next, he compliments Demetrius who has a positive reputation among all the believers.

Today, I’m thinking about simple contrasts. Goofus and Gallant. Diotrephes and Demetrius. Sometimes life boils down to very simple questions:

  • What do I want my actions to say about me?
  • Who is it I really desire to be?
  • What do I need to change?

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