Tag Archives: Change

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?

Conflict, and What Needs to Change in Me

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
2 Peter 3:9 (NIV)

In the past few weeks I’ve experienced an inordinate amount of conflict in several different arenas of life. Not necessarily the in-your-face argument type of conflict, thought there’s been a few of those. For the most part it is the annoying, simmering, festering “I’m sick of this sh!t” kind of conflict. I’m not sure what that’s all about. As I sit and ponder in the quiet this morning I’ve concluded that it may simply be the random peaks and valleys of this life journey. Of course, since I’m the common denominator, I must also consider that  it may be more about me and less about others.

As I think through the various conflicts I realize that in many cases I’ve lost my patience. Unmet expectations, unkept promises, inability to see certain things, and what appears to be a general unwillingness to change brings out in me frustration and then anger. Since I am by temperament a conflict avoider, things tend to get stuffed, then build up.

In today’s chapter, Peter reminds the early followers of Jesus of God’s patience. We believers and our institutions have often been guilty of painting God as condemning and quick to judgement. Peter’s description is the opposite. He describes God as patient to the point that people accuse Him of being uncaring or absent. The motivation of God’s patience, Peter declares, is His desire for every single person to wake up, smell the coffee, and make a positive change in life direction.

This leads me to look back and revisit my own long periods of wayward wandering. Times when I didn’t live up to expectation, didn’t keep my promises, was blind to see my own issues, and held a fairly steady unwillingness to change. God was patient. Eventually, I found my way (though I’m still in process).

I know the golden rule is “do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” This morning I’m reminded of what must be the platinum rule: “Do unto others as God has done unto me.” Jesus said, “As I have loved you, so you should love one another.” That includes patience and an oft forgotten concept: long-suffering.

This morning I’m thinking about conflict, and what it says about the things that need to change in me.

Poured Out, Changed, Improved

“Moab has been at rest from youth,
    like wine left on its dregs,
not poured from one jar to another—
    she has not gone into exile.
So she tastes as she did,
    and her aroma is unchanged.”
Jeremiah 48:11 (NIV)

Wendy and I enjoy wine with a good meal. We’re not experts by any stretch of the imagination, but I have learned some of the basics of pairing a wine with the food we’re eating and getting the most out of the wine we drink. Just last night I put a couple of beef filets on the grill and Wendy made some sweet potato medallions. We opened this big, bombastic Spanish red wine, a Cariñena. It was aptly named El Bombero, and its bold flavor was a wonderful compliment to the richness of the steaks.

One of the things I’ve learned about wine is that it changes after you uncork the bottle. In fact, some of the experts I’ve read believe that almost any wine will taste better if you “decant” it, or transfer it to a glass decanter, and let it breathe for an hour or so before you drink it. Wine often has an initial sharp taste from being shut up inside the bottle for a long period. That sharp or sour taste smooths out, and the true flavor of the wine opens up when it’s transferred to another vessel and oxygen has a chance to work its natural magic.

Today’s chapter of Jeremiah’s prophetic works is a message of condemnation for the ancient nation of Moab (located just east of the Dead Sea). Moab’s mountainous regions were known for their wine and vineyards, so Jeremiah leverages their wineries for the purposes of a word picture. The Moabites had not changed and had not been “poured out” into exile as other nations in the region had. But, Jeremiah’s prophetic word tells Moab she would be “decanted” when the Persian army came through.

As I pondered Jeremiah’s word picture this morning I meditated on my own life journey. One of the unexpected realities of my own journey is how much change I would experience as I reached this stage of life. When I was young I had this notion that a person sort of reaches maximum personal maturity somewhere in early adulthood and then just maintains. To be honest, I have observed fellow adults for whom this appears to be their reality. I had no idea how much, in my experience, the spiritual process of being poured out, matured, and changed is cyclical and perpetual.

Wine that stays corked, bottled up, and unchanged retains a sharp and bitter taste. I’ve observed that humans are much the same way. There is a benefit to wine being poured out, decanted, and allowed to patiently sit so that change can bring out the blessings of maturity and aging. So my spirit  benefits from a similar process as I continue on life’s road.

Transitions, Trees, and Promises

“But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
    whose confidence is in him.
They will be like a tree planted by the water
    that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
    its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
    and never fails to bear fruit.”
Jeremiah 17:7-8 (NIV)

It seems as if Wendy and I have been in a season of perpetual transition for years now. Transitions in life as teenagers come and go, make their own way (and sometimes return for a time). Transitions in family. Transitions in life stages.  Transitions of houses. Transitions in roles and work. Perhaps I am slow to accept that stability is simply an illusion when Life is a constant flow and we are each steadily progressing on our respective life journeys. Yet, the desire for life to slow down and find some equilibrium doesn’t seem to fade within me.

In today’s chapter God speaks to Jeremiah and riffs on a word picture that had previously been channeled through the lyrics of the Psalm writer (Psalm 1):

Blessed is the one
    who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
    or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
    whatever they do prospers.

In Jeremiah’s case, I can’t help but think about all of the prophetic messages he’s thus far delivered in his prophetic poetry:

  • pack your bags
  • life as you know it will end
  • all you have known will be destroyed
  • enslavement
  • exile in a foreign land.

Talk about life transitions. It’s rather encouraging to consider my own tame life transitions in light of what Jeremiah and his tribe were staring down.

It’s interesting to find in today’s chapter that amidst all of God’s prophetic rants of punishment and justice for His people, He also provides promise. Along life’s journey I’ve found that the times of greatest fear, despair and anxiety have been when I have forgotten God’s promises during a time of intense life transition.

Life flows like a mighty river. It doesn’t stop. It ebbs at times and rages with floodwaters at others. I can’t control the flow of Life any more than I can control the weather. I can, however, control where I place my faith and confidence. Come drought or flood God’s promise is that if I place my faith and confidence in Him then my roots will go deep; I will find stability in turbulent waters and refreshment when Life’s flow dries up in a season of drought.

This morning in the quiet I’m thinking about all of the places that people, myself included, seek to find stability and security in the intense transitions created by the flow of Life. For me, sleepless nights always accompany such times. I find my anxieties and fears lessened, however, when I follow the advice of the Psalmist:

My eyes stay open through the watches of the night,
    that I may meditate on your promises.

Amidst transition, don’t forget God’s promises. Meditate on them.

Cropped Hair and Holy Kisses

Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him….”
1 Corinthians 11:14 (NIV)

For the past few weeks I’ve been giving messages about traditions here in my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. By traditions I mean those social behaviors or events that a group of people adhere to that are tied metaphorically to a larger meaning. It might be a event or person to memorialize, a teaching or command to follow, or something that brings identity and belonging to a particular group.

For 2000 years those who follow Jesus have had many different rituals and traditions. Those who carry out these traditions can be quite dogmatic about the necessity or right-ness of their particular tradition. Conflicts and division among different groups of Christians have been quite common occurrences over time as one sincere group of Jesus’ followers says “Ours is the right and biblical way to hold this tradition” and another sincere group of Jesus’ followers says, “No! Our way of holding to and observing this tradition is the right and biblical way!”

Typically, groups will point to scripture for heir final authority. The truth is, traditions ebb and flow over time and culture. Take today’s chapter, for example. Paul clearly instructs that women should always have their head covered when they “pray or prophesy.” For the better part of 2000 years women have followed this tradition. A few weeks ago I referenced our local costume shop in a post, where you’ll find hundreds of ladies hats from the early-mid 20th century because women in town always wore hats to church. But, that tradition has changed in the past 60 years in our culture. The tradition no longer carries the meaning that it once did for us.

We pick and choose the traditions we wish to keep. Jesus never said to abandon all of the Jewish traditions and festivals, in fact His example was to observe them. Yet that fell out of fashion as the Church became more and more Roman and the Jewish people fell out of favor late in the first century.

Paul also says in today’s chapter that it’s a disgrace for a man to have long hair. This verse was harped on by the professors of a Bible college I attended one semester. The college had strict, dogmatic rules about how male students should cut their hair based on this particular verse. It was their tradition, and they strictly observed it.

Funny thing. Paul ends his letter to the believers of Corinth by instructing them to “greet one another with a holy kiss.” The school administration seemed to ignore this particular command and tradition. Not once did one of my professors pucker up when I walked into the classroom!

As much as we like to wax self-righteous on being obedient and scriptural, the truth is that followers of Jesus have spent 2000 years following an ever-changing set of traditions and rituals that have ebbed and flowed over time. We can deny this fact and cling to our pride and rightness, or we can humbly embrace that traditions may hold their meaning for a particular time and place only to be released and then, perhaps, rediscovered again. We can let these things divide us, or we can seek to respect and honor the metaphor and meaning others find in traditions and rituals that are foreign to us.  Perhaps God might use them to help me find meaning I’d not before considered.

This morning I find myself praying an ancient prayer (a traditional prayer, mind you) given to us by St. Francis: [I paraphrase], “Help me to be less about being understood and more about being understanding.”