Tag Archives: Change

An Accomplice to Change

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When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt.
Exodus 21:2 (NRSVCE)

Slavery has always been a part of the human social equation though it has taken various forms in different periods of history. If you think that slavery is a thing of the past, then you need to get to know organizations like International Justice Mission, an amazing outfit that Wendy and I have supported financially for many years.

I find it ironic (or perhaps it’s God’s synchronicity) that I happen to be reading through Exodus and grappling with these texts at the same time that we are having a massive social conversation about America’s history with slavery and the continued repercussions of the race issues it created which continue to plague us. Wendy and I have been having on-going, daily conversations about our roles and responsibilities to make a positive difference. Over coffee this morning, Wendy shared that she’d heard someone mention being an “accomplice” to positive change, which we differentiated from being an “ally.” We want to more than just agree. We want to act, to be part of the solution; We want to be “accomplices” to change.

How do I, as a 21st century follower of Jesus, relate to today’s chapter? It’s an ancient Hebrew text that is basically a code of law dealing with specific instances of slavery around 3,500 years ago. How can this possibly relate to my life today?

I have a couple of thoughts.

First, it provides me with context. Slavery was not invented by Dutch traders kidnapping and sailing Africans to the America’s to be sold. As I mentioned in the outset of this post, slavery has always been a part of the human societal equation. What the European, American, Indian and Arab slave trade did with Africans was particularly heinous compared to the slavery we read about in today’s text.

Throughout the Near East in the time of the Exodus, life was particularly harsh and human existence was largely a fight for mere survival. The clan, the tribe, the community were essential for safety, protection, and provision. It’s hard for me as a “rugged individualist” in America to even relate to a world in which the tribe was more important than me as an individual, and a world in which human life was viewed as economic capital. Producing children, especially sons who could work, fight, and protect was among the most critical components to the survival of your family and community. The more men you had, the better your odds were of surviving against other tribes bent on killing you and taking everything you had (including your children to become slaves and your women to produce more men for their tribe).

Because humans were capital in the economy, debts could be paid and collected (within your own tribe or people group) by using your own life or the lives of your family members. You worked off your debt by becoming a slave to the person you owed money. Life (more particularly work and service) was a form of currency. Working for my creditor or giving a family member over to work for the creditor was part of the economy of that day.

Another important piece of context for me is that, through much of history, forms of slavery were legitimate forms of life-long protection and provision that some individuals chose into. In today’s chapter, the Hebrew code of law allowed for individuals who said, “I love my master,” and chose to remain in service. The individual chose to remain in service to his master and in return he received provision, protection, security, and sometimes kept his family together.

Please don’t read what I’m not writing. I’m not making excuses for, nor am I saying that slavery’s history makes it okay or acceptable. I’m simply saying that I believe I must understand and accept that slavery was part of daily Hebrew life and survival in 1500 B.C. It’s all that they knew.

The second lesson for me from today’s chapter is that God called His people to do better, and to do more. If you had a person in your service because they owed you a debt, you were expected to free that the person and forgive the debt in the seventh year no matter the size of the debt. The number here is significant. Seven in the Great Story always relates to completion as in seven days of creation, and the series of seven plagues prophesied in Revelation. This code went further than any other legal code we know about from that time. God expected His people to do better than those around them, to forgive debt, and to free people who owed you. This is the root of what Jesus brought to fruition when He called on me, as His follower, to look beyond the letter of God’s law. Murder isn’t just about killing a body, it’s also about murdering a person’s esteem and soul. Adultery isn’t just about sexual intercourse with someone who isn’t your spouse, it’s about letting your appetite for lust see another person as an object on which to indulge your sexual cravings.

Finally, I find that there’s a piece of what theologians call “free will” in all of this. God allowed for Hebrew society to operate like all the human societies who were living and surviving “East of Eden” during that time. What God instructed from His people was that they could do better than those around them. They were called to a higher standard. I can’t help but think of the Abolitionist movement in Britain and the United States that was motivated by Christ followers who refused to accept slavery as part of the human societal equation and instilled in their day that we have to do better. We have to change. In Jesus words, we have to do more than what’s expected and walk the extra-mile, love our enemy, bless those who curse us, pray for those who persecute us, and show by our love-motivated actions that there is a better Way.

In the quiet this morning, this takes me full-circle back to Wendy’s comments over coffee. As a follower of Jesus, I am called to be more than an ally for justice. I am to be an accomplice in showing others, by love in action, that we can do better in this community, this state, this country, and this world.

Want to Read More?

Simply click on the image above or click here to be taken to a page with a simple photo index to all posts from this series on Exodus.

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

More Than Words

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.

I do, however, have today lying before me…

<— Click on Solomon for an indexed list of previous chapter-a-day posts from this series from Proverbs!

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

The Pursuit

Whoever pursues righteousness and love
    finds life, prosperity and honor.

Proverbs 21:21 (NIV)

A recently released study showed that the number of church-going Christians in the United States has dropped significantly in the past twenty years. As usual, I have heard a number of media outlets fanning the flames of fear, anxiety, and panic at the news. I’m not getting my undies in a bunch over it. There are some fascinating questions to be asked, contemplated, and discussed regarding the details in the data. Fear leads to all sorts of silly, reactive behavior.

When I was young and starting out on my faith journey, many institutional churches had a keen interest in morality and political power. There was, I know, a genuine motivation in being followers of Jesus. I experienced it first hand in my own life and in the sincere mentors I wrote about yesterday who taught me spiritual disciplines. There was also, however, a drive for size, numbers, and political influence within media-driven pastors and leaders. I myself witnessed and was often a part of a push to get people to pray the sinner’s prayer and walk an aisle to accept Jesus. While that launched many faith journeys, my own included, there were many who simply believed that they had received the heavenly stamp of approval. They had their spiritual “fire insurance” policy that would keep them out of hell, and their ticket was punched for heaven. This was often not the start of a faith journey towards becoming more like Jesus, but a transactional religious rite.

Jesus addressed this in His parable of the sower. The seed falls on all sorts of soil. Some show signs of life and growth, but never grows to maturity or produces a healthy, abundant crop.

My own observation is that there have been many who were part of institutional denominations and churches for reasons that were far different than a personal spiritual journey to follow Jesus. It could have been familial, cultural, and/or social expectation in a time when the institutional church was part of the fabric of our society. There has been a huge shift in the past twenty years. Denominations are imploding. The institutions are falling apart. In addition, being a follower of Jesus involves regular fellowship with other believers and worship. Membership and participation in an institutional church provide the opportunity for those things. At the same time, I have known many regular church members and attenders who neither worship nor participate in any real spiritual relationship with others. In addition, an institutional church is not the only place that the disciplines of worship and fellowship can be found.

This brings me back to the proverb from today’s chapter that I pasted above. It cuts right to the heart of the matter and makes me ask: “What am I pursuing?” If it’s simply a religious rite or a transactional moment that gives me some sense of eternal security, then it’s a very different thing than me being a follower of Jesus. What I have discovered is that being a follower of Jesus is a faith journey because it is a never-ending pursuit and a seeking after becoming the person Jesus calls me to be. As the proverb states, it’s not a pursuit of religion and heaven, but of righteousness and love.

Jesus said:

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things [life’s basic necessities] will be given to you as well.

Matthew 6:33 (NIV)

So, in the quiet this morning I find myself asking the very simple question: “What am I pursuing?” Then there is a follow-up question that is difficult, but necessary: “What do I want to say I am pursuing, and what do my daily words, actions, relationships, purchases, time spent, and energy expended reveal to be my life’s pursuits?

Righteousness and love.

Sometimes, I have to recalibrate and remember what the goal is. Otherwise, I get distracted pursuing so many other things.

<— Click on Solomon for an indexed list of previous chapter-a-day posts from this series from Proverbs!

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

Ladies First

When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.
Luke 24:9-11 (NIV)

Of the three authors of Jesus’ biographies (aka “the Gospels”), Dr. Luke is known for his attention to details not found in the other three. One of these details that stands out for me is the attention he gives to the women among Jesus’ entourage and inner circle.

Much earlier in his accounts, Luke shares with us that a group of women were traveling with Jesus and the Twelve. They were also financially supporting His miraculous mystery tour around the shores of Galilee:

After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.

Luke 8:1-3 (NIV)

Contemporary followers of Jesus don’t give enough attention and credit to Jesus for radically shifting the status of women in Hebrew and Roman society. The status of women in those days was as poor as it has been throughout most of history. Women were perceived and treated as inferior to men. One of the daily prayers that a good Hebrew man would recite thanked God that he was not born a woman, a dog, or a Gentile. It was socially unacceptable for a man to speak to a woman in public. Freeborn women in the Roman Empire fared somewhat better than women in Hebrew world of Judea, but not much.

Jesus was a game-changer. He broke with convention. He spoke to women publicly. He touched them, healed them, and treated them with love and grace. It is no wonder then, that women would be among his most staunch supporters. I also find it fascinating that among the inner circle of female advocates is Joanna, the wife of the head of King Herod’s household. Another fact comes to my mind this morning that among all the accounts of Jesus’ kangaroo court trials before the Jewish High Priest, the Jewish religious authorities, the Roman Governor Pilate, and the Judean King Herod, there is only one person who speaks up on Jesus’ behalf. The wife of Pontius Pilate sent her husband a private message urging him not have anything to do with Jesus and all of the turmoil being stirred up against Him.

In the years to follow, the spread of the Jesus movement was, in part, fueled by the fact that the status of women within the movement broke with social convention. “In Christ,” Paul wrote, “there is neither male or female.” When Jesus followers gathered for their love feasts women were welcome at the table with men. It may seem like a baby step in contrast to modern society, but in the day it was a major game-changer. It should also be noted that once the Jesus Movement became an institution called the Holy Roman Empire, women were quickly stripped of what gains in status that they had been enjoying.

In the quiet this morning I find it, therefore, worth pondering that in yesterday’s chapter Luke makes it clear that it was the women of Jesus’ inner circle who followed Jesus to the cross and witnessed the entire bloody affair while the men were hiding in fear for their lives. In today’s chapter it was the women to whom word of the resurrection was first given, and the men who concluded that the silly women were being non-sensical.

The further I get in my journey, the more I find myself shedding the social and institutional conventions and norms that I was taught and absorbed growing up with regard to women. God saw fit to ensure that most of my earthly journey would be spent as the lone male in the company of amazing, strong, gifted, and wise females. I find that it has made me both more appreciative of Jesus’ rebellious change of the social conventions of His day, and more desirous to carry on that legacy.

Have you missed the previous chapter-a-day posts from this journey through the Gospel of Luke? Click on this image and it will take you to a quick index of the other posts!

New Ways, Old Ways, and the Inside-Out

But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
Luke 5:30 (NIV)

When I became a follower of Jesus I was in my early teens. I had been raised going to a small neighborhood church that belonged to one of the old, global mainline denominational institutions. As such, there was a certain institutional way that everything was done. There were rules, regulations, a chain-of-command, and a dizzying bureaucracy for making decisions. There was a certain formula to faith and life that fit neatly inside the institutional box, and most everyone who had long been part of the institution was comfortable with the formula.

As a young, passionate follower of Jesus, I quickly learned that where I was being led did not fit comfortably inside the institutional, denominational box of my childhood.

In today’s chapter, Dr. Luke continues to chronicle the early days of Jesus’ earthly ministry as he travels from town-to-town around the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The chapter reads like a series of vignettes, giving us a feel for the larger story arc of what’s happening in Jesus’ ministry at this time. He is attracting a following with His teaching. He is calling disciples. He is performing miracles. He is teaching in parables.

And, He is stirring things up.

Like the institutional denomination of my childhood, the religious Judaism of Jesus’ day was a staunch institution with thousands of years of history. There were religious paradigms that were not to be questioned. There were certain ways things were to be done. There were rules upon rules upon rules with regard to how to conduct oneself each day in every aspect of life. There were powers to be obeyed, and consequences if one did not fall in line.

With each vignette of today’s chapter, Luke is telling us that Jesus was cutting against the grain of every religious social convention in the Jewish religious box.

  • Teachers in Jesus’ day called disciples who were aspiring young men of prominence, educated in religion and law. Jesus calls disciples who are rough-around-the-edges blue-collar fishermen and a sketchy, sinful tax collector who was viewed as a traitor of his people.
  • If you want to make it in music you go to Nashville. If you want to make it on stage you go to New York. If you want to make it in movies you go to Hollywood. If you wanted to make it as a religious leader in Jesus’ day you went to Jerusalem to network and teach. Jesus chooses to teach in backwater towns considered the sticks by the institutional religious power brokers.
  • The institutional religious leaders flaunted their religion publicly, wearing robes, prayer shawls, and parading their religion publicly in front of people. Jesus slipped off by himself to remote places to have one-on-one conversations with the Father.
  • Good Jews were expected to live lives of austere appearance, scarcity, and to have nothing to do with anyone who didn’t adhere to the institutional checklist of propriety. Jesus feasted, drank, and frequented the company of all sorts of people, including the socially marginal and religiously inappropriate.
  • The religious leaders of the day were concerned with outward, public adherence to religious rules and practices that had little or nothing to do with inner, spiritual transformation. Jesus used miracles to show that, for God, the things that we humans consider to be important and miraculous in our outside physical world is actually easy and mundane. What Jesus was constantly most concerned with was the health of His followers’ inner, spiritual heart of their true selves and its transformation of their daily lives and relationships.

Jesus came to show a different way. He came, as He put it, to bring “new wine in a new wineskin.” The way of God’s Spirit is not the same as the way of human religion. Jesus even recognized at the end of today’s chapter that “people prefer the old.” With each of the vignette’s Luke shared in today’s chapter, the leaders of the religious institution were suspicious, critical, and condemning.

My spiritual journey led me to leave the denominational institution of my childhood. I did so because, for me, I needed to experience a change and to break out of old patterns to embrace the new ones Jesus reveal to me. The funny thing is, I soon found myself entrenched in other institutional paradigms and falling back into outside appearances and keeping rules. I broke out of one box only to step into another. My spiritual journey has been a perpetual cycle in which I am always trying to avoid falling into patterns of outward religion and to seek out the power of God’s Spirit that results from inside-out contemplation, confession, repentance, and transformation.

In the quiet this morning I’m realizing that two months of constant travel, busyness, and events have depleted my spiritual reserves. I’m thinking about Jesus’ example of slipping away for quiet and one-on-one with the Father. I could use a little of that myself.

Have you missed the previous chapter-a-day posts from this journey through the Gospel of Luke? Click on this image and it will take you to a quick index of the other posts!

Exaggerating My Exaggeration

You know that everyone in the province of Asia has deserted me, including Phygelus and Hermogenes.
2 Timothy 1:15 (NIV)

People always seem surprised when I tell them that I am, by nature, a pessimist. I think I hide it fairly well under my typically extroverted person. You can ask Wendy, and she can tell you about the annoying bookends of my temperament: pessimism and exaggeration. Not only do I regularly see the glass as half-empty, but I see it as the most half-empty glass that has ever been half-empty, and it’s destined to stay that way forever because fate itself has conspired against me since the beginning of time and always will!

You see? I’ve just exaggerated how much I exaggerate!

Hopeless.

Arrrrghh. I can’t help myself.

This morning I begin 2 Timothy which is the last surviving letter that Paul wrote. As he sits down with his stylus, ink well, and papyrus to write his faithful, young protégé, Paul had been in Roman custody for years.  Using his right as a Roman citizen, Paul appealed his case to Caesar. Not only do the wheels of Romany bureaucracy move slowly, but Paul had caused riots and pesky controversies that disturbed Roman peace and order wherever he went. Keeping him languishing in chains was likely to have been an easy decision for the Emporer to make. Having been taken to Rome to await his audience with the leader of the Roman Empire, Paul waited, and waited, and waited.

Reading the opening chapter in the quiet this morning, I can feel the melancholy and emotion. Memories, tears, constant prayers, and exhortation are present. As Paul writes about his own faith I can almost feel him reminding himself and affirming himself. He then tells Timothy that everyone in the province of Asia had deserted him, which he then immediately contradicts by describing how the runaway slave, Onesiphorus, sought Paul out and “refreshed him.”

I can totally forgive Paul a bit of gloom and exaggeration. Paul has spent years in Roman custody. He’s got legit reasons to be a little downcast and dramatic. I can go there when the Cubs lose.

Perspective.

And, that’s where I find my mind and spirit in the quiet this morning.  I’d like to believe that one of the reasons people are surprised to find out I’m a pessimist is that I’ve actually gotten better about recognizing it, catching myself, and consciously, in-the-moment, doing the inner work of choosing a different mental and emotional path. Doing so usually requires mentally reciting and embracing a few key passages of God’s Message that I’ve memorized, saying a few quick popcorn prayers, and going through a few positive mantras.

Looking back, I know I’m not as bad as I used to be. I’m pretty sure Wendy would affirm that, as well. That is, once again, why this is a journey. Slow and steady wins the race.

Pressin’ on into a new week.

All the best to you wherever you find yourself in your own journey, my friend. Cheers!

Out with the Old, In with the New

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
Ephesians 4:22-24 (NIV)

A couple of weeks ago Wendy and I went through a process of going through ever article of clothing we own. All the closets were emptied along with the drawers, boxes, bins, and racks. We went through everything and then had discussions about keeping, selling, pitching, and giving. It took a few hours on two different Saturdays, but it was well worth the time. What was left was manageable and organized. Having taken a thoughtful inventory,  it became clear in the process where there are opportunities to update and improve.

In today’s chapter, Paul mentions a similar process of spiritual inventory and life change. As you break it down in the English translation, there are three distinct steps in the process:

  1. Put off your old self. What old habits am I hanging on to, even though they haven’t served me well? Why do I cling to behaviors that only cause me and my loved ones pain and problems? What immature appetites do I continue to indulge when nothing good or worthwhile comes of it?
  2. Be made new in the attitude of the mind. The word “repent” has gotten a bad rap in our culture, conjuring up images of fire-and-brimstone preachers spewing condemnation. It’s a good word, however, and Jesus was clear that following Him required decision and change. Paul tells me in that the process of old-to-new life change starts with my mind and attitude. Willingness, desire, and openness to change coupled with a conscious decision to act.
  3. Put on a new self. When I empty out the old, I find myself all of a sudden with room. If I don’t consciously make wise choices of what to do with the time and space, then I’m only going to find myself cluttering up with the same old junk. Then I’m back to where I began. Once I’ve cleaned up the old, I need to intentionally change how I fill up the Life-space.

I continue to be pleasantly surprised how much better I feel about something as simple and silly as my wardrobe and closet after working through what ended up being a very simple process. I’m reminded by today’s chapter that the same process works more meaningful and worthwhile things in life.

I write this on a Monday morning. The beginning of a new work week is a good morning to meditate on things that I need to “put off,” decisions that need to be made, and new things that I need to “put on” in life.

Old Habits Die Hard

Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses,you cannot be saved.”
Acts 15:1 (NIV)

Yesterday I was with a young manager my client has asked me to mentor. The manager described a particular conversation they’d had with a peer in another department. The conversation was about some procedural changes that would affect both of their respective teams. The manager described their opposing views and the conflict that arose as the procedural change was not going to be universally popular.

The manager described the conversation and the slow descent they felt themselves falling into as they dug their heels in and felt stubbornness consume them. In that moment there was no possibility of compromise. The manager recognized what had happened, even felt it happening in the moment, but had been unable to stop it. The manager then confessed that this was a deep-seeded, long-recognized pattern of behavior. And, it was not a positive one. They even recognized the source: “That’s my mother!” the manager said.

Along life’s journey it’s become clear to me that old habits die hard for every one of us. If we are to make progress on our journeys, whether personally, emotionally, relationally, and/or spiritually, it will require old habits to pass away and new patterns of thought and behavior to come.

I found today’s chapter in the book of Acts to be an inflection point. Through the first fourteen chapters the explosive and expansive growth of the Jesus Movement had everyone frantically trying to keep up. When systems experience that kind of explosive growth, the system quickly goes into survival mode, setting aside minor and/or complex matters just to address the giant issues that are staring everyone in the face. As equilibrium is found, the long suppressed issues begin to surface. That’s what I see happening in today’s chapter.

The Jesus Movement sprung from the Jewish tribe with its centuries old set of religious and behavioral customs. It was, perhaps, inevitable that some of the Jewish believers were going to want to retain and cling to their Jewish customs. Old habits die hard. In today’s chapter a few of these habitual believers from the Jewish tribe tell a bunch of believers who weren’t from the Jewish tribe that they would have to adopt all of their old habits and customs in order to be a true believer in Jesus. Primary among these old Jewish habits was the rule that all men would have to be circumcised. Yeah, I’m sure that went over like a lead balloon.

So we have conflict brewing between believers from the Jewish tribe and those from non-Jewish (described as “Gentile”) tribes. While Dr. Luke describes a fairly well-mannered meeting of the minds and peaceful solution, Paul’s description of events is different. Paul describes conflict between he and Peter. He describes conflict in the relationship between Peter, believers from the Jewish tribe, and believers from Gentile backgrounds (Read Galatians 2). In Paul’s description, Peter said that he was all for Gentiles not having to adhere to Jewish customs, but then he hypocritically acted with favoritism towards the Jewish believers. Old habits die hard.

Then at the end of the chapter we find Paul and Barnabas in a sharp dispute about whether to take John Mark on their next missionary journey. The argument ends in the two friends and colleagues splitting up. What I observe is that Paul’s behavior and words in these conflicts with Peter and Barnabas don’t reflect the new code of love that Paul himself describes in his letter to the Corinthian believers, but reflects more of the old proud, arrogant, temperamental and fiery Pharisee who persecuted the church. Yep, old habits die hard.

As I wrapped up the mentoring session with my young business protege yesterday we discussed that recognizing negative behaviors and feeling the negative results from them is the first step toward positive change. The manager described the subsequent meeting between managers, their heart-felt apology, and the constructive progress towards compromise that followed. Well done. Old things begin to pass away as new behaviors and habits are formed.

This is a journey and old habits die hard, but I’ve perpetually found that they will eventually change when I surrender myself to Holy Spirit, when I diligently pursue the person I was created to be, and when I make my mission to be a person marked and controlled by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, perseverance, and self-control.

Have a great day, my friend.

Change, Action, and Reaction

The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”
Acts 11:1-3 (NIV)

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of presenting Letters from Pella, a one-act play I wrote some years ago to an academic conference. The academic conference celebrated the 150th anniversary of the birth of H.P. Scholte, the founder of our town. Scholte, a secessionist pastor in the Netherlands, led hundreds of Dutch immigrants to carve out a new home on the Iowa prairie in 1847. Historians from both the Netherlands and the U.S. participated in the conference.

At the Scholte Conference with Dutch historians Leon van den Broeke, Ron van Houwelingen, Michiel van Diggelen, and George Harinck

Each year in our town’s annual Tulip Time festival we celebrate a polished narrative about our founders, but as I researched the actual events that transpired in those first years I found a very different story. Letters between the first immigrants and their families back in the Netherlands gave evidence of anger, conflict, discord, and disagreement. I sought to give voice to that story in my play.

Newton’s Third Law states that for every action there is an opposite reaction. Along my life journey I’ve observed that there are, at times, parallels between physical and human interactions. As both leader and participant in many human organizations I’ve observed that any action or initiative that introduces change to a human system will create a reaction from that system.

In today’s chapter, Peter returns to Jerusalem from his experience of being called by God to the home of a Roman Centurion named Cornelius. Cornelius and his entire household became believers. They had been filled with Holy Spirit and Peter realized that God was doing something “new” in this rapidly growing Jesus movement. The movement was expanding beyond the Jewish tribe to include non-Jewish “Gentiles” whom Jews found religiously unclean. There was a general attitude among the Jewish people of that day despising and looking down on anyone who wasn’t born Jewish.

In going to the home of a Roman Centurion and befriending Cornelius and his household, Peter had crossed a whole host of religious, social, and political lines that his tribe religiously held with systemic rigor.  Now he returns to Jerusalem and the Jewish believers hear what happened, they criticize Peter for what he’s done. Peter’s action has created a powerful reaction.

Peter provides his defense, explaining his vision, God’s call for him to go with the three visitors, and his experience in Cornelius’ household. According to Luke’s description, the believers in Jerusalem “had no further objections.” The Greek word translated “no further objections” is esuchasan which is defined as “quieting down,” “rest,” and “becoming silent.” In other words, no one pushed the issue with Peter, but my experience as a leader tells me there were those who kept their mouths shut publicly and began to whisper their questions and criticism of Peter behind his back. Radical change to deeply rooted human system doesn’t quickly result in “no further objections.” This Jew-Gentile conflict is not going to go away.

This morning I’ve been thinking about some of the “reactions” to systemic change that I’ve observed and experienced over the years. Some of them are instructive. Some of them are tragic. Some of them are downright comical. Yet this spiritual journey had taught me that spiritual growth always necessitates change. God is always calling me and challenging me to love more expansively, forgive more deeply, and to be more sacrificially generous. Those things don’t happen unless there is a willingness within my spirit to things changing, sometimes in uncomfortable ways.

H.P. Scholte certainly experienced his share of “reactions.” Twice the pastor was thrown out of the pulpit by his own congregation when they didn’t like the changes he had introduced into their social and religious system. They called him a scoundrel. Those are the things our town politely forgets to talk about. Yet, all of those radical, uncomfortable changes brought about a really bright future for our town.

Growth happens through change and struggle, while human systems tend to cling to a comfortable status quo. I see this paradigm wherever God is working in the Great Story. If I want to grow, I have to  prepare myself for the reactions I know will be coming my way.

When Systemic Power is Threatened

When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.
Acts 4:13 (NIV)

There’s a lot of talk these days about “the swamp.” For Americans, this typically references what is perceived as the professional political class who corruptly rule from Washington D.C. oblivious to the day-to-day thoughts and concerned of the millions who carry on life outside the beltway. In the days of Jesus, Jews could easily have called the Temple in Jerusalem “the swamp.”

For Jewish people living in and around Jerusalem life revolved around the Temple. Not only was it the center of their religion, the only place where sacrifices and offerings were made, but it was also the center of political power. Life was dictated from the religious ruling class of priests and leaders in the temple who interpreted the law of Moses and told people what they could and couldn’t do. These priests, rabbis, lawyers, and scholars ruled over the people and claimed God’s authority for doing so. In reality, these guys had a great racket going. It was a system of power and corruption. They used their power to make themselves rich, lord over the common people, and consolidate their power and positions.

So it was that in today’s chapter, Peter and John’s healing of the crippled man and their bold proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection created a threat, a political threat, to the ruling religious class.

First, it threatened the priests own power and authority to have “unschooled, ordinary men” preaching so boldly. The religious leaders wanted common people thinking that only the educated and extraordinary teachers within the powerful ruling class in the Temple could speak for God.

Second, the miracle of the healing of the crippled man by such “unschooled, ordinary men” went against the narrative that God only works through the religious Temple system and its priests. They, however, had no similar miracles to point to showing that God was doing such things through them. If the common people began to think that the priests and teachers of the law were impotent it threatened their systemic stranglehold on power.

Third, the fact that Peter and John were speaking about this pesky teacher, Jesus, and proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus from the dead stirred dissension within the religious ruling class itself. Resurrection was a theological topic of hot debate. Those who believed in resurrection and those who didn’t were bitter rivals. You’ll note that it was the Sadducees (an anti-resurrection faction among the temple scholars) who had Peter and John arrested. The high priest is not going to want this miracle business to create an internal rift within the swamp.

Finally, the high priest and his cronies had to have been frustrated that this Galilean rabbi, Jesus, kept coming up. “Didn’t we execute him weeks ago? Can’t somebody figure out what they did with his body so we can be done with this?”

When you threaten a powerful system, that system will act to stamp out the threat to its power. The story of Peter and John healing the crippled man is like the pebble that starts an avalanche. This conflict is just getting started.

This morning I’m thinking about the many times in my life when I’ve watched systemic and institutional authority feel threatened and the ways that authority reacted to consolidate power and diminish or eliminate the threat. I’ve seen some doozies in families, schools, businesses, churches, and civic organizations.

In the quiet I’m mulling over my own circles of influence. In some I am the systemic authority. How do I respond to threats in a positive way, recognizing that my discomfort just might be reluctance to change in ways that would be positive for the system? In other cases, I’m an anonymous cog in a larger system with a penchant for initiating change. How can I do so in ways that are honoring to God and authority?