"This Chain That I Must Break" (CaD Jud 2) –
After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. Judges 2:10 (NIV)
He came up to me out of the blue. I was just sitting with Wendy when he tapped my shoulder and asked me to pray for him. “I’m drunk,” he said to me as I stood and put my arm around him. I didn’t really need him to tell me this. He reeked of it. It was a rather unconventional state to be in at a mid-morning worship service.
One of my favorite songs of all time is Bob Dylan’s Every Grain of Sand. It’s a song about those waypoints on life’s journey when I find myself utterly broken; That moment when I’ve hit rock bottom and I know that something has to change. And, it’s about the life-changing grace that is found in those moments. One of my favorite lines from the song says, “Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break.”
That line popped into my mind this morning as I read today’s chapter. The author of Judges continues his introduction to the book and introduces me to a chain of events, a systemic pattern, a repeated behavioral sequence that I will find recycled over and over again in the stories of the book of Judges.
Along this life journey, I have repeatedly found myself in negative cycles of both thought and behavior. I’ve faced trials along life’s journey that stemmed from difficult circumstances that were not of my own making. The truth, however, is that many of my rock bottom moments occurred because I put myself there.
That’s the overarching theme of these stories of the ancient Hebrew tribes and the period of their history known as the time of the Judges. They may be ancient stories, but they resonate with very immediate and personal lessons for me today. Civilization and culture may have changed in 3,000 years, but human nature has not. Bob Dylan sees himself in the story of Cain. I see myself in the stories of the Judges.
This brings me back to my new, intoxicated friend. I honestly wasn’t shocked by his drunken state. I immediately recognized that a man has to be at a rock bottom moment to show up for a worship service intoxicated and ask a complete stranger to pray for him. I was so glad he was there. I prayed for him and over him right there. Then I hugged him. With my arm still around him, I told him to look out over the group of people gathering in that room. I explained that we’re all broken people no different than himself, including me. I’ve had my own rock bottom moments when something needed to change. I welcomed him, and I encouraged him to keep joining us.
In the quiet this morning, I hear the lyric poetry of Bob Dylan in my head and heart:
I gaze into the doorway of temptation’s angry flame And every time I pass that way I always hear my name Then onward in my journey I come to understand That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
[Judah said to Joseph ] “Now then, please let your servant remain here as my lord’s slave in place of the boy, and let the boy return with his brothers. How can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? No! Do not let me see the misery that would come on my father.” Genesis 44:33-34 (NIV)
During my family roots investigation that I’ve discussed in the last couple of posts, I was blessed to discover and correspond with my cousin, John, in the Netherlands. John and I are third-generation cousins. When my great-grandfather sailed for America he left his younger brother, John’s great-grandfather, behind. When Wendy and I traveled to London back in 2009, John joined us and we spent a very enjoyable day together.
Late that day, the three of us were sharing a pint together in a London Pub. I expressed my curiosity about what would make my great-grandfather leave everything, including his entire family, and make a new life in America by himself. I remember John not being surprised by this. He shared that getting angry and walking away was not uncommon in our family.
Along my journey, I’ve observed that certain themes are recurring in family systems. It could be sin that occurs in repeated generations or behavioral or relational patterns that repeat themselves. I remember one family member observing that when her husband left her she was the exact same age as her mother when her father left. I have found these types of patterns fascinating and meaningful in gaining both understanding and wisdom.
I continued to see these patterns in today’s chapter. Joseph deceives the brothers who wanted to kill him, then chose to sell him into slavery. This is just like his father, Jacob, deceiving his own father, Isaac. It’s just like Jacob’s Uncle Laban deceiving him. It’s just like Isaac and Abraham deceiving their hosts into thinking their wives were their sisters. It’s just like Joseph’s brothers deceiving their father into thinking Joseph had been eaten by a wild animal. It’s a pattern in the family system.
Yesterday I discussed that Judah, the fourth-born son of Jacob/Israel, has now ascended to the role of the leader, the position of the first-born. This is also a recurring theme as both his grandfather (Isaac) and father (Jacob) were second-born sons who ascended to the blessing and position of the first-born. This is a theme that will reoccur throughout the Great Story as an object lesson of God’s message: “My ways are not your ways.”
Faced with the prospect of fulfilling their father’s worst fears, Judah steps up to plead for Benjamin’s life and offers himself as a substitutionary slave in place of his little brother. Fascinating that it was Judah who saved Joseph’s life by pleading with his brothers not to kill Joseph but sell him into slavery back in chapter 37. Judah’s conscience is weighed down by what they did to Joseph and their father. He will do anything not to repeat the robbing of their father of his beloved son. He’s been down this road before. He doesn’t want to repeat the pattern.
Toxic patterns of thought, behavior, and relationship wreak havoc within a family system. These were the kinds of things I wanted to discover, process, and address in my own journey as I dug into the layers of stories, foibles, and flaws in my family’s root system. Did it succeed? One could easily argue not if perfection is the standard. Yet, I’ve observed that the pursuit and/or expectation of perfection is a toxic thought pattern in-and-of-itself. I did, however, discover invaluable lessons in the layers. It has been successful in imparting wisdom, allowing me to recognize certain patterns in other areas of life, and informing both my choices and how I manage relationships. I know that blind spots remain, but I doggedly pursue sight with each layer of blindness that’s revealed in my journey.
Perhaps the most important layer of lessons has been about grace. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob/Israel, Judah, and Joseph all had their faults and blind spots. They, too, were part of a very flawed, very human family system. It still didn’t disqualify them from being used by God in their leading roles within the opening chapters of the Great Story. So, I’ve learned (and am learning) to have grace with those flawed ancestors and family members in my own family system as I pray they and my descendants will have grace with me. It’s also teaching me that God’s amazing grace extends to, and through, very flawed human beings, and that includes me.
Featured image: Joseph Converses with Judah by Tissot. Public Domain.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
“If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” John 11:48 (NIV)
Yesterday afternoon I was sitting on the porch watching Milo playing with the garden hose. In his mind he was helping Papa water the landscape shrubs, but the truth was that he was playing with the nozzle on the hose that has a bunch of different types of spray. He would spray for a few seconds, then switch to the next setting, spray for a few seconds, then switch to the next setting, spray for a few seconds…you get the idea.
On the ground in front of me was Milo’s bubble gun. It’s a little battery operated toy into which you put soap solution into this small reservoir in the handle and it the shoots out a steady stream of bubbles. It’s pretty cool.
Holding the hose, Milo told me that he needed to put more water in the bubble gun as it was running low. It was obvious that he thought the hose nozzle in his hand was the perfect tool for the job. I agreed, but only if he let me help him. We selected the gentlest, most faucet-like spray setting, I unscrewed the reservoir and held it up as Milo pointed the nozzle toward the hole. Before I had a chance to help him gently open the flow of water, Milo cranked the sucker fully open. Water hit the edge of the reservoir and splattered everywhere, including all over Papa’s face.
Milo laughed hysterically at Papa.
Papa did not laugh. I very quietly and honestly said, “Papa’s not happy about that.”
What happened next was fascinating. Milo dropped the hose and ran about five feet away and turned away from me. He then sheepishly turned to look at me, brow furrowed. “I didn’t do it!” he cried emphatically.
Once again, in a soft and gentle voice I asked, “Well, if you didn’t do it, who did? You were the one holding the hose.”
He then slunk back to me with his head bowed. He picked up the hose.
“I didn’t mean to,” he said in almost a whisper.
I know little man. I know. It’s such a complex lesson for a three-year-old to grasp. Papa was unhappy about the consequences. As the adult in this situation, I fully knew the risk of filling a small, four ounce reservoir with a garden hose, and it was my choice to allow the calculated risk. Being frustrated with the outcome does not mean I am mad at you. I know you didn’t mean to, and I wasn’t mad at you. You misunderstood my reaction. There was no need to run in shame and deny pulling the trigger. To be honest, Papa’s observed many adults making the same basic misunderstanding as you just did without comprehending their reaction any more than you. You’re forgiven, little man, for misunderstanding.
Nevertheless, there was a spiritual lesson present in the moment.
Why do I do the things that I do? Why do I say the things that I say? Why do I make the choices I make?
Along my life journey, I’ve discovered that the answer to these questions is critically important both for my understanding of self and my understanding of others.
Today’s chapter is one of the most dramatic in the entire Great Story. The conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders has been escalating. Some had tried to stone him for blasphemy the last time He was in Jerusalem. The largest religious festival of the year, Passover, was just a week or two away. Jesus gets word that His friend, Lazarus, has died at his home in Bethany, just two miles from Jerusalem. Despite the disciples pleas to stay away from the area for Jesus’ own safety, Jesus returns to Bethany to find Lazarus dead four days, his body already entombed. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead in front of a large crowd. Lazarus had been a prominent man, and Jews from Jerusalem had come to mourn with Lazarus’ sisters. They immediately report the astonishing miracle to the religious leaders in Jerusalem. This is a major event in driving the climactic events of Jesus betrayal, arrest, trials, and crucifixion.
There are so many great moments and spiritual lessons in today’s chapter that lie within the story of the miraculous raising of Lazarus. The verse that resonated most with me was that of the response of the religious leaders upon hearing the astonishing news of a man who was dead being brought back to life.
“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”
In making this statement, they laid bare their motivation.
They are afraid.
Afraid of losing their worldly power. Afraid of their prestige being diminished. Afraid of losing face with the hated Romans occupiers. Afraid of life without the lucrative income of their religious racket. Afraid of change to their staunch traditions and what that mean.
They were supposed to be the spiritual leaders of the nation, but their fear of losing all that they were, all that they had, and their desire to cling to all of it, was far greater than the desire to acknowledge and accept what God was clearly doing and saying in and through Jesus.
What a contrast to Jesus’ followers who let go of everything to follow Him. Their desire to seek what God was doing overcame any fear of what they might be giving up or fear of the challenges they might face.
In the quiet this morning, I’m searching my own motivations. In the previous chapter’s post, I wrote: “Actions reveal identity.” They do, but the identity doesn’t lie in the actions themselves, but in the motivations that spawned them. The motivations that often remain hidden and/or ignored.
As I look back on my own journey, I can see how shame motivated so many of my actions and choices through so much of my life. Along my spiritual journey, I’d like to think that my desire to follow Jesus and discover who I was created to be and who I am yet called to be has overcome that long ignored shame that drove so many unhealthy thoughts, words, behaviors, and choices in my early years. And, if I’m honest, still creeps in more than I care to admit.
“Old things pass away,” Paul wrote to the followers of Jesus in Corinth in discussing the spiritual transformation that takes place when in relationship with Him. My own experience is that some “things” pass away like a swift execution while other “things” pass away in a long, painful, lingering, and palliative process.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
Wendy and I are almost through the first season of Poldark, originally a 2015 Masterpiece Theater production. It’s been thoroughly enjoyable. The series is set in the late 18th century and tells the story of a headstrong and struggling English nobleman who returns from the American Revolution to find his father dead, his family estate in shambles, the love of his life engaged to his cousin, and the family business on the edge of bankruptcy.
The themes of the show include the clash between nobility and peasant, the long-held tradition of the entitlement of the first-born son, and the legacy of both family systems and family names.
Over the past year of Covid-19 with all its tension over masks, mandates, and lockdowns, one of the conversations I found fascinating was the individualistic spirit in Americans. From our break from mother England to today, we don’t like being told what to do. Along my life journey, I’ve come to believe that we don’t have a full realization of, nor appreciation for, just how deep the “rugged individualism” that fueled our country runs in our veins. In the entire history of human civilization, human rights and the freedom of self-determination are relatively new concepts. For thousands of years, an individual’s lot-in-life was pretty much fully established the moment they were born. It was completely dependent on your family, your gender, and your birth order.
Today’s chapter, Psalm 132, is a case-in-point. This ancient Hebrew song was used at the coronation of monarchs ascending to the throne of King David. Some scholars believe it was initially written to honor King David at the dedication ceremony of the Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. David’s family line was firmly established as the royal line of Judah, the prophets also pointed to the coming Messiah being from the same lineage, and the lyrics of today’s chapter would have been a clear reminder to the people not to forget it.
In the quiet this morning, I find myself meditating on the concept of determination. Growing up, I and my peers were told that we could be anything we wanted to be in life if we were willing to work hard, study hard, and pursue our dreams. Once again, I’m reminded that this very notion would have been ludicrous for the vast majority of human beings who ever lived. And yet, while I would argue that there are, in general, greater opportunities for self-determination than in any other time in human history, there are still those determining influences of life that I don’t control.
Among the teachings of Jesus that fueled the Jesus Movement of the first century was that everyone was welcome at the dining table where believers sat, listened, prayed, feasted, and “communed.” Men, women, slaves, slave owners, rich, poor, societies’ big shots, and social lepers. As Paul put it in his letter to the followers of Jesus in Galatia:
In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ. Also, since you are Christ’s family, then you are Abraham’s famous “descendant,” heirs according to the covenant promises.
In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking about the things in this life that I can control, and the things that I can’t. When Jesus said to those seated around Him, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” I believe that He was telling his followers that I don’t have to be enslaved to systems that formed me. When Paul said that for the believer “old things pass away” I believe that among the things that pass away are beliefs, patterns of thought, and behaviors that were instilled in me by the systems into which I was born and in which I was raised. I observe that the spiritual transformation I’ve experienced on my spiritual journey as a follower of Jesus has not only changed me, but it has led me to leverage the fruit of God’s Spirit to help transform the human systems I’m a part of for the better.
Back in the days before iPods, iPhones, and digital streaming, the only way one got music in a car was the radio. Since I spent a lot of time in rental cars for my job, I got used to spending the first part of any journey scanning “the dial” for the available stations and programming the stations I wanted to keep into the car’s radio.
One of the things I noticed as a young man scanning the airwaves was that it generally took me less than a second to identify the kind of music any station typically played as I quickly made my way across the dial:
There is a certain sound, pattern, cadence, and frequency to different types and styles of music.
As I read the psalm this morning, the thing that struck me was how similar it is to the previous few psalms. That’s because it is. David had patterns that he repeatedly used as he penned his songs. We do the same thing. Symphonies typically follow a pattern of four movements. Your basic popular song is typically structured verse, chorus, verse chorus, bridge, verse, chorus.
Those who compiled the anthology of song lyrics we call Psalms put the section we are reading through together with similarly structured songs. It is a simple, repeated pattern: They all start with a praise and plea for God to listen followed by a complaint and/or petition, and end with a proclamation of faith and assurance that God has or will hear and answer.
In the quiet this morning, this got me thinking about patterns. Almost everything in life falls into certain patterns. Almost everything in life has patterns. Good patterns can provide a sense of health, security, and surety to life. Bad patterns of thought and behavior result in destructive and unhealthy consequences in my life and relationships. That’s rather obvious. What’s not so obvious is that some patterns that were good and necessary for a time can actually become unhealthy for me without me really recognizing or realizing it.
Along my life journey, I’ve come to observe that spiritual progress always involves the breaking of old patterns and establishing new ones. A faith journey always requires that I leave behind something that is tangibly known and comfortable in order to pursue something that is not clearly evident and is only hoped for.
“You have heard it said,” Jesus would say to his followers before adding, “but I say…” In other words, there was an established pattern that Jesus was calling His followers to change. He called for old, established patterns to pass away so that new patterns could emerge. The word repentance is rooted in the word picture of changing direction. Whenever Jesus told someone “Follow me” it was always a call to leave things behind to pursue things to which He was leading.
What started out as good, even healthy, patterns can lead to stagnation. Stagnation leads to settling. Settling leads to spiritual atrophy. Spiritual atrophy leads to decay. Decay leads to death. That’s what Jesus was getting at when he told the religious people of His day:
“You’re hopeless… Frauds! You’re like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds.“
-Jesus, Matt 23:27-28 (MSG)
In the quiet this morning, I find myself meditating on my own patterns of thought, behavior, relationship, and spirit. The truth is that almost every pain-point I experience on life’s journey can be traced back to unhealthy patterns. Growth, progress, and maturity necessitate the breaking of unhealthy patterns and the establishment of healthier ones, even those patterns that were once good for me but have actually become unhealthy.
David’s song this morning felt familiar to the point of me being kind of bored with it after reading psalms with the same pattern every morning this week. C’est la vie. It happens. Having journeyed through the Psalms many times, I am mindful that when we get to Psalm 40 David writes that he is singing “a new song.” God called David “a man after my own heart.” Even he could get stuck in certain patterns that he had to break in order to move on where God wanted to lead him.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false… Psalm 24:3-4b (NRSVCE)
The further I get in my life journey, the more I’ve come to understand that the black-and-white behavioral rules of the most strictly religious groups are really about social control in which an institution or group exercise authority over another. The goal and benefit is a sense of order, collective security, and control. Within this type of system, the individual’s role is simple and strict obedience to the group’s behavioral rules (those written, and those insidiously unwritten but understood) under the threat of public shaming and being socially ostracized from the group. This type of system exists as religious fundamentalist sects and denominations, fraternal organizations, gangs, cults, secret societies, and the systemic equivalent can even exist in businesses, corporations, sports teams, and community organizations.
Systems like this have existed throughout history and continue to this day. It is this type of system with which Jesus conflicted in the Temple when he overturned the moneychangers’ tables and railed against the Temple’s religious cabal. It was this conflict that led them to treat Jesus as a threat who was to be ostracized and executed. It is the same system out of which Paul transitioned to becoming a follower of Jesus. Paul also was considered a threat they needed to ostracize and execute.
Please don’t read what I’m not writing. Don’t hear what I’m not saying. It doesn’t really matter which system we’re talking about. They all operate the same way and follow the same basic systemic rules.
The problem with this type of system is that it chains the individual to the group rather than freeing the individual from self. Behavior modification is not about spiritual health but of social order. The individual tries to control behaviors rather than be spiritually transformed. Paul recognized that all the behavioral rules of the system only created more rulebreakers sneaking around in the dark breaking the rules and trying not to get caught.
Scholars believe that today’s psalm was a song David wrote to be sung as the people entered God’s Temple in Jerusalem. If you read it and imagine the Hebrews carrying the Ark of the Covenant (cue: Raiders of the Ark Theme) into the Temple as they sing this song you get the gist. It starts by asking the question: “Who can ascend the hill of the Lord?” (That refers to Zion, on which the Temple was built) and then “Who can stand in his holy place?” (That would refer to the “Holy Place” within the Temple as designed and prescribed through Moses).
The lyric of the song then describes who may do these things. The description is that of a good person, but here’s where translation from the original language (Hebrew) to English can make a huge difference. In verse 4 the English phrase “do not lift up their souls” has an original Hebrew physiological imagery that references the throat. Some scholars argue that the word picture here is more like “nursing an appetite” and the Hebrew word translated “false” is rooted in the idea of “empty” or “vain.” So it’s really about those who don’t nurse their appetites for things that are empty.
In the quiet this morning, that’s what really struck me. What I’ve learned along my journey is that all the religious and systemic rule keeping does not address the real issues of Spirit that lead to transformation. Keeping the rules so as to appease my church leaders, parents, college, pastors, teachers, and peer group in the attempt to avoid being shamed and ostracized did not transform my soul.
What really led to transformation for me was when I realized that all my human appetites were good and created within in me by God. Paul realized it too when he said “Nothing is unlawful for me. It’s just that some things aren’t beneficial.” My appetite for food, for drink, for pleasure, for rest, for sex, for relationship, for security, for peace, for affirmation…all of them are good and part of what God created in me. It’s when I “nurse my appetite,” any one of them, and indulge my good and healthy appetites in empty and unhealthy ways that I hurt myself. And, I bring the unhealthy results to every relationship and system in which I am a part.
It’s not about me behaving for acceptance in a system. It’s about me being the person, the true and healthy self, God created me to be. It’s about what Jesus said when He told His followers to nurse their appetites for the things of God, and not for the things of this earth (including the safety and acceptance of a human system). How can I “love my neighbor as myself” if my unhealthy indulgence of natural appetites is leading to my continual self-injury and disrupting my relationships, my work, my family, and my life?
What appetite am I going to nurse today? That’s the question as I head into the weekend.
Have a great weekend.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
Acceptance. Entrance. Cutting the mustard. Making the grade. The keys to the kingdom. The punched ticket. The front of the line.
Along my life journey, I’ve observed a lot of mental and spiritual energy is devoted to who is in and who is out. In fact, I’ve known and spent time in religious groups whose applied theology comes down to intense behavior modification rooted in fear of social and spiritual rejection and ostracization.
Reading the song lyrics of today’s Psalm, I have to remind myself that in David’s day, the center of the sacrificial worship system set up by Moses (which we read about in the chapter-a-day journey through Exodus that we just completed) continued God’s traveling tent sanctuary that had been set up in various places but which David set on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. David’s dream was to construct a permanent temple structure. That dream would be ultimately fulfilled by his son, Solomon. Until then, the ol’ tent temple was used and people would have to ascend the hill where it resided to conduct their ritual sacrifices and offerings.
Today’s song reads like a moral check-list, and some scholars think it may have been used as some kind of liturgy of questions that those pilgrims wanting to enter the sanctuary area had to go through. In other words, “Do you cut the righteous mustard enough to gain entrance?”
In the chapter-a-day journey through Exodus, I was struck time-and-time-again by the ways in which Jesus and His teaching changed the paradigm. He brought a more mature understanding of Spirit and relationship with God. Jesus spoke out against the religious do-gooders and spent most of his time among the sinners who didn’t cut the righteous and religious mustard. He welcomed sinners ostracized by His Temple cohorts, preached repentance of the heart that leads to real change rather than social behavior modification which leads to suppression of our true spiritual selves, secret sins, and false fronts.
As Paul wrote to Jesus’ followers in Rome (Rom 2:4): God’s kindness is what leads to repentance. I’ve observed along the way is that we humans always want to go back to the “my moral purity leads to acceptance“ model.
But that doesn’t mean I completely dismiss the heart of what David is singing about in the lyrics of today’s psalm because there’s another important life lesson connected here. David goes through his checklist of righteous behaviors:
Do the right thing
Speak truth from your heart
Don’t slander others
Do right by others
Don’t pile on when others are beat-down
Keep your promises
Don’t take bribes.
He then ends with “those who do these things shall never be moved.” In other words, truly living the right way and doing the right things are the basis of a solid, unshakeable life. You sleep well at night. You aren’t sneaking around trying to get away with things. You aren’t secretly living in shame and the paranoid fear of being found out, nor are you trying to always stay one step ahead of religious checklist keepers and their bandwagon of public shame which is always warmed-up and ready to drive you out into the wilderness of scandal and rejection.
So, in the quiet this morning I find myself back at my heart of hearts. Why would I want to live right and do right by God, myself, and others? Is it to keep up appearances and cut the mustard? Or is it because I’ve honestly come clean with God and those with whom I’m walking this life journey and received from them grace, forgiveness, and acceptance – which leads to so much gratitude that I genuinely want to change my ways and do the right things by them for all the right reasons?
Cutting the mustard, or coming clean? That is the question.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. Exodus 23:9 (NIV)
My Vander Well family in America is here because of one ancestor, Walter Vander Well (born Wouter van der Wel) who came to the States from South Holland and settled in northwest Iowa in the 1880s. He was part of multiple waves of Dutch immigrants who settled across Michigan and Iowa, founding rural towns like the one Wendy and I call home today. Five generations later there’s a small army of Walter’s descendants spread across the continent from Michigan to Iowa, Canada, and all the way to the west coast.
Immigration is a fascinating thing. Wendy and I were privileged to see a play at London’s National Theatre back in 2009. It was called England People Very Nice by Richard Bean. The setting of the play is a poor tenement building in London and a neighborhood pub. It humorously chronicles the multiple waves of immigrants to flood into Britain over time from French, to Irish, to Jewish, and Bangladeshi. Each wave lands in the low-rent tenement building and raises the ire of the locals in the pub. The previous wave who was hated by the locals, now find themselves being the locals hating the next wave of immigrants. It continues to stir conversation for Wendy and me in light of the immigration issues of our day.
I have observed this same pattern in the experience of my Dutch ancestors who initially struggled to acclimate to life in America. The Dutch huddled together in small communities and clung to their Dutch neighbors, language, and way of life. This often fueled local resentment towards them. My grandparents were both the first generation born in the States and they both spoke Dutch fluently. They refused to teach my father and his brother because of prejudice against the Germanic sounding language during World War II. Our little town, both steeped in its Dutch heritage and proud of its successful American experience, is now sometimes criticized (a la England People Very Nice) of being closed to aliens moving in.
In today’s chapter, God continues to provide the ancient Hebrews with specific rules for life. God repeats the rule mentioned in yesterday’s chapter about treating foreigners living among them with deference. Fascinating that it’s mentioned twice in such proximity to one another in the text. It leads me to wonder if the repetition speaks to the importance God places on it, or the knowledge that it will a tough one to obey given human nature. I personally conclude that it’s a case of “both, and.”
As I mulled this over in the quiet this morning I couldn’t help but think, once again, beyond the letter of the law in the text, to the Spirit of the law to which Jesus pointed time and time again. Far from being obedient to the command, Jesus’ people separated themselves from the aliens living among them. They treated foreigners and those of mixed-race, like the Samaritan people, as inferior. They created systemic social and religious barriers much like the ones we are addressing in our own culture today.
When Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, when He spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, and when He commanded His followers to take His message to Samaria, He was addressing systemic racial prejudice. Jesus was pointing His own people back to the heart of God that motivated the law repeated twice in yesterday’s chapter and today’s. He was, essentially, pointing to His own law of love: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Isn’t that what God says in the text? “You’ve been an alien in a foreign land. You know what it’s like. You’ve been the victim of prejudice and hate. So treat the aliens living among you with loving-kindness the way you wished you’d been treated in Egypt.”
Jesus’ followers did just that and “turned the world upside-down.“
I’m reminded this morning that Jesus was not about adherence to textual rules. Jesus was about following God’s Spirit to speak, act, and relate to others in accordance with God’s heart. As a follower of Jesus, I’m called to do just that in my own world and my own culture. That’s what I want to do. That’s who I want to be, increasingly, this day and each day of this earthly journey.
Of course, that requires me to act differently than human nature has led people to behave in ancient Judea, in London tenement houses, and in Dutch-settlements in America, along with almost every other people group on the earth. May I speak and behave in such a way, with anyone with whom I interact, regardless of what they look like or where they are from, that it would be said of me: “Jesus’ people very nice.”
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
Servants cannot be corrected by mere words; though they understand, they will not respond. Proverbs 29:19 (NIV)
A while back my company performed a “pilot” assessment of a client’s Customer Service team. We assessed a couple hundred phone calls between the Customer Service Representatives (CSRs) and their customers over a four week period of time. As with most of our initial assessments, data revealed the team to be pretty good. There was certainly inconsistency across the team. Some team members were naturally better than others. There was also a tremendous opportunity for improvement. Even the best CSR on the team had room to grow.
When that assessment was complete, we presented the results to the team, and targeted five key service skills for improvement. We trained them how to demonstrate these skills, provided examples, and gave them tactics of how to begin demonstrating these skills into their conversations with customers.
The plan had been for us to immediately begin an on-going assessment of calls for the team, so we could track the individual CSR’s progress, provide data on their individual development, and coach each one towards improvement. The client, however, implemented a change in their telephone system which meant we could not access recordings of the team’s calls for three months. By the time we finally had access to the team’s calls, four months had passed since our initial assessment.
So, how had the CSR done with the information and training we’d provided four months earlier?
Of the twelve CSRs on the team two of them did a bit better, two of them did a bit worse and eight of them were statistically the same. It was a perfect bell curve. Customers had not experienced any meaningful improvement in service.
In today’s chapter, the ancient Sage says that you can’t correct a person “with mere words.” A person may get what you’re saying, but they’re not motivated to actually change their behavior. That is going to require more than mere words and information.
Once our team was able to begin on-going assessments, CSRs were able to see how their service compared to their team each month. They were held accountable for their performance, and given the opportunities to receive cash bonuses if they performed at a high level. Suddenly, change began to happen. I’m happy to say that the team eventually became top-notch in providing service to their customers.
There’s a tremendous life lesson in this for me. Being complacent is the norm. Living each day simply driven by my appetites, habits, instincts, and emotions is really easy. Being disciplined, transforming old, unhealthy habits into healthy new ones, and learning to respond in wisdom rather than emotion are things that require intention, attention, and accountability. The Sage is right. I can read every self-help manual on Amazon and listen to every motivational podcast on the planet, but it’s another thing to actually make a change.
In the quiet this morning, I find myself in self-evaluation mode. How am I doing with the things I wanted to accomplish? Have I been able to actually change my behavior in order to progress towards the internal goals I’ve set for myself this week, this month, this year, in life? Honestly, it’s a mixed bag. I’ve progressed well in some things and haven’t moved an inch in others.
In this season of stay-at-home quarantine, I have the time and opportunity to review, recalibrate, and renew my efforts. My Enneagram Type Four temperament risks letting Resistance drag me into shame for all the things I haven’t done, then sic pessimism on me to convince me I’ll never actually do it. But, I know from previous experience on this earthly journey that shame and pessimism are wasted emotions. I can’t do anything about the past.
Jesus went on to say, “To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other: “‘We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not cry.’ Luke 7:31-32 (NIV)
Recently I was having a conversation with a leader in my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. He shared with me that it is quite common for locals to come to him, give witness to immoral, hypocritical, and evil words and actions done by members of our gathering, and then proceed to state that if this is the way followers of Jesus behave, then they want nothing to do with it.
Welcome to humanity.
Along my life journey, I have encountered individuals who would in no way fit inside the box of the particular brand of Christianity in which I find myself. In fact, they would eschew any notion of wearing that label. That said, I can see in these individuals’ lives and actions that they understand and embrace the things of God far more than many who live and operate inside the box and proudly advertise our brand on the bumpers of their cars.
In today’s chapter, Dr. Luke shares two stories that highlight the reality of non-religious people who “get” the things of God and religious people who don’t. It has always been a part of humanity, and Jesus encountered it regularly.
In the first encounter, Jesus is blown away by the faith of an ungodly, foreign leader whom most (if not all) of His followers would label their enemy. Jesus never even sees or meets this Roman Centurion in person. His exchange is completely done by intermediaries. First, Jesus is petitioned by leaders of his own religious box to heal a Roman Centurion’s servant. This, in and of itself, was way out of the ordinary. The Jews hated the Romans who militarily occupied their homeland, and the average Roman soldier treated the local Jewish population with natural distrust and contempt. The Jews and Romans were bitter enemies. When the Jewish leaders to speak highly of this Centurion’s kindness and generosity to Jesus’ people, it captured Jesus’ attention.
On the way to meet with the Centurion, Jesus is met by servants of the Centurion. In the Jewish tradition of the day, it would be unlawful for Jesus to enter the Centurion’s house. The Centurion knew this and humbly sends his servants to give a message to Jesus. The Roman’s message was to tell Jesus that He doesn’t have to take the risk religiously “dirtying” Himself by entering the Centurion’s home and the social criticism Jesus would receive from His own people by doing so. He trusted that if Jesus simply gave the word, his servant would be healed.
In the second story, Jesus is having dinner with one of the good, upstanding leaders of his own religious box. A woman enters and approaches Jesus. In that town, this was that woman. Everyone knew who she was by her reputation. It doesn’t take much imagination to fill in the blanks: wanton, loose, used, cheap, pitiful, tragic. Not only did she not belong inside any kind of religious box, but no one inside the box wanted her there. But, like the foreign Centurion, this local social skank gets who Jesus is, and what God is doing through Him. She falls at Jesus’ feet blesses Him with all that she has: her contrite tears, her loving kisses, and some perfume.
Jesus immediately perceives the religious contempt of his host toward the local woman. This upstanding church elder had likely known who this woman was for her entire life and had probably ignored her and held her in self-righteous contempt. Jesus makes it clear to His host that she gets the things of God more than he.
In the midst of these stories, Jesus describes religious people:
They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other: “‘We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not cry.’
In other words, we who are religious tend to expect everyone to fit inside our religious boxes and do what we prescribe. Inside of our religious boxes, we expect people to look like us, speak our lingo fluently, know our traditions, and behave in a way we deem acceptable.
Of course, the look, the lingo, the traditions, and the expected behaviors may have little or nothing to do with truly getting the things that God actually cares about.
I am reminded this morning that Jesus faithfully lived and operated inside the religious box of His people. He went to the Temple. He taught in the synagogues. He dined, socialized, and befriended the religious leaders. He followed the religious customs and traditions. Jesus’ example tells me that the things of God can be surely found, learned, and embraced inside of my religious box.
But Jesus’ example in today’s chapter also reminds me of this truth: There will always be individuals inside my religious box who don’t get the things of God, and there will always be individuals outside of my religious box who do.