Then Naomi took the child in her arms and cared for him. The women living there said, “Naomi has a son!” Ruth 4:17 (NIV)
The Sage of Ecclesiastes says that everything is “hebel”which is translated from Hebrew into English using various words, most commonly “meaningless” or “vanity.” The Hebrew word, however, is mysterious and is rooted in the imagery of vapor, smoke, or fog. I love that word picture when I think about life. The vast majority of my 20,209 days are simply vapor. They came and went and I have no recollection of them. But some days are indelibly etched in my mind.
One such day was a gorgeous summer day in July. I was up early and drove four hours to visit a client for a day full of coaching sessions. Then I had a four hour drive home. Wendy and I were in the depths of our journey through infertility. It was a particularly painful time.
As I drove up the interstate that morning, I had been praying and working through the incredible grief we were feeling. I looked out my car window and saw a gorgeous rainbow over a beautiful valley. This was a bit odd since it was a bright morning and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Thinking about the rainbow being a sign of God’s covenant and promise, I got emotional and began to cry. Then later that day, Wendy called me. She, too, had an emotional moment with God that morning when she read from the prophet Isaiah:
“Sing, barren woman, who has never had a baby. Fill the air with song, you who’ve never experienced childbirth! You’re ending up with far more children than all those childbearing women.” God says so! “Clear lots of ground for your tents! Make your tents large. Spread out! Think big! Use plenty of rope, drive the tent pegs deep. You’re going to need lots of elbow room for your growing family.“
Walking with Wendy on our journey through infertility is one of the most difficult stretches of my life journey to date. There were so many lessons about a woman’s soul, my own masculinity, and what it means to be one. I learned about profound emptiness.
The story of Ruth is really about Naomi’s journey from emptiness to redemption and then to fullness. In today’s chapter, Boaz makes the deal to redeem Naomi’s deceased husband’s estate through an ancient custom called the Levirate Marriage. This was incredibly generous of Boaz because he was agreeing to marry a Moabite woman in order to produce a son, who would then continue the family line of Naomi’s dead husband and inherit his estate. Socially and financially there was no tangible reward for Boaz doing this, there was certainly a cost in doing it, and there was also potential risk.
Boaz marries Ruth. Ruth immediately gets pregnant and gives birth to a son. Naomi takes the boy into her arms and her community of women celebrate that she has “a son” to inherit his grandfather’s estate, carry on his name, and care for her in her old age. She came home from Moab empty. Her story ends in fullness.
Along my spiritual journey, I’ve learned that God sometimes gives a sign or a word and the fullness of its meaning is only understood further down life’s road. The day of the rainbow and the prophet’s words for Wendy, we hoped that it meant we might finally have a child together. That wasn’t the case. Nevertheless, Wendy and I have experienced our own kind of redemption in the fullness of life. Our tent pegs are stretched out and in our tent are numerous children of family and children of friends we get to love and in whose lives we get to invest. And, of course, I’ll never forget the day Wendy took our grandson Milo into her arms like Naomi holding little Obed.
From emptiness, to fullness.
Life is good.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. John 19:26-27 (NIV)
Our local schools start up next week. Social media is filled this week with pictures of parents taking their Freshman college students to campus. Many of our friends are among them. Next week it will be pictures of the first day of school and Wendy and I will exclaim repeatedly, “Oh my word, he’s grown!” and “Goodness, she’s gotten so big!” Time marches on.
I remember my parents commenting many years ago about reaching the point in life in which they “dodged the bullet.” They had added up the number of children of friends and relatives who, along the way, they had agreed to take in if the parents met with an untimely end. It was a big number. My parents are good people.
Fast forward to today. It’s Wendy and me watching the children of our friends and relatives becoming young adults coming of age. We’re beginning to recognize that we are getting ever nearer to that same “dodge the bullet” milestone.
Today’s chapter records the torture, death sentence, crucifixion, and death of Jesus. As I continue to follow the theme of identity woven through John’s biography, there were two things that stood out.
The first is the power-play happening between the religious leaders, who could not legally execute someone under Roman law, and the Roman Governor, Pilate, who knows that Jesus was not guilty of anything deserving death. Having been politically railroaded into sentencing Jesus to crucifixion, Pilate has a sign made that identified Jesus as “King of the Jews” in three languages and placed on Jesus’ cross. He certainly did it to insult the religious leaders; Mission accomplished. I could’t help but recall Jesus telling Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” and Pilate’s response: “Then you are a king.” Was there, perhaps, a hint of respect for this innocent man made political scapegoat?
Jesus hung on the cross naked, bloody, bruised, and beaten. He looks down from the cross to see His own mother. Next to her stands John, the only one of The Eleven with the courage to show up. Taking into account all four biographies of Jesus in the Great Story, Jesus made seven statements from the cross. One of them was caring for His own mother, and making sure that John would care for her. “She is now your mother, John. Mom? He is now your son.”
In the quiet this morning, I think about the roles we play in the lives of others and the way that changes. Last week Wendy had coffee with Kennedy, the daughter of our friends who is heading to college today. Wendy presented her with a ring. It was a rite of passage, and Wendy made it perfectly clear that in coming into adulthood Kennedy was joining a community of women who look out for one another. The ring is to serve as a reminder to Kennedy that she has a community of women she can count on. I guess it was Wendy’s way of acknowledging that she’ll still “take the bullet” for our friends and her daughter, it just hits one differently at this stage of life’s journey.
That’s what community is really all about. We look out for one another and their loved ones. We’re willing to “take the bullet” whether that means raising a friend’s children or helping care for a friend’s parents. We have a role to play, not only in the lives of our friends, but also in the lives of their loved ones. That’s what Jesus was talking about when He told His disciples the previous night: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” As Jesus lays down His life for John and for the sins of the world, John lays down his life for Jesus, and agrees to take in Jesus’ mother as his own.
May I always be willing to “take the bullet” so to speak, and lay down my own life, time, energy, and resources, for my friends and their loved ones.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
In the fall of 2018, m’luv Wendy was inducted into our local community theatre’s Walk of Fame. She gave me the honor of introducing her that evening. As I was going through some old files this weekend, I found the text of the introduction that I prepared and delivered that night. Please indulge me. I’d like to post this tribute to Wendy so that it will be preserved on the world-wide interweb until, and perhaps beyond, the apocalypse. She deserves that.
“I have taken a billion photographs of Wendy. I take a lot of photographs period, and over the years I’ve noticed that I have this mysterious internal catch in my spirit when a certain photograph rises to the level of a personal favorite. I don’t always know why. I just know it’s special, and I have to spend time with it to figure it out. This photograph of Wendy is one of those. I’ve meditated on why it’s special and I’d like to share a few reasons why.
The first time I saw Wendy Hall was in the same place this photograph was taken. Our daughter Taylor and I were new residents of Pella and had been cast in USP’s South Pacific. We sat at the back of the Joan Kuyper Farver Auditorium as Wendy, Prop Master for the show, made her way to the front to make an announcement. I saw her from behind just like this photograph as she strode with purpose and intensity up the aisle toward the stage. First impressions. Oh my, that hair – which I’ve come to love as metaphorical of the wild-child, the explosion of passion tinged with red.
Wendy stood on that stage and gave the well-known rule for all large cast shows filled with children and teens: “Look!” she said, “Rule number one! If it’s not yours, DON’T TOUCH IT!” That little bit of a thing with the wild, red-streaked hair spoke with such assured, intense authority. I knew in that moment I was NOT going to touch a prop that wasn’t mine. I was a little scared.
In this photo, we see Wendy in the off-stage darkness, which is where I first got to actually know Wendy Hall during South Pacific. What I learned about Wendy back stage is that she knew theatre, she cared about doing theatre well, and in her arena of responsibility things were going to be done well down to the minute details. While on-stage as Captain Brackett, I had to eat a sandwich.
“What kind of sandwich do you like?” she asked me in one early rehearsal.
“Why?” I asked honestly, caught off-guard by the question.
“If you have to eat a sandwich on stage it might as well be something you like,” she responded as if it was the most logical question in the world.
But as a stage veteran, it wasn’t the most logical question in the world. Anyone who’s been involved in theatre of any kind, especially in community theatre, knows that props are thrown together at the last minute using whatever is expedient by half-hearted volunteers who aren’t sure what they’re doing. I expected a sandwich that was two slices of cheap white bread hastily purchased at the Dollar General before tech rehearsal two weeks ago and by opening night it’s dry and crusty with hints of mold.
But Wendy Hall was in charge. She was Prop Master. You’re going to have a freshly made sandwich, a real sandwich that is something you like. Because, I was Commander Bracket (dammit!), and Commander Bracket would eat a sandwich he wanted prepared for him by the mess cook.
In one of my South Pacific scenes, I had to sit on stage for a period of time while action and dialogue were focused elsewhere. During the final weeks of rehearsal, each night I found on Captain Bracket’s desk clipboard different things to read. A Shakespeare sonnet one night, a list of corny jokes the next, a Robert Frost poem. Prop Master Wendy Hall figured if you have to sit there on stage looking at a clipboard you might as well have something interesting to read. I’d never met a Prop Master or Stage Manager who cared about the actors and their experience down to the smallest of details.
An unknowing person looking at this photograph is likely to see only a dark, contrasting figure. A two-dimensional shape: “Female figure in black.” Over the years I’ve observed that people who don’t really know Wendy, this is what they see. A simple figure contrasted by her intensity, her strong opinions, her kick-butt and take-charge attitude which is so easy to dismiss just as simply: Female figure in black.
I look at this photo and observe she is not in the spotlight but in the shadows off-stage because Wendy, the amazingly capable and talented leading lady, has no need for the spotlight. In fact, she does her best work on-stage during the rehearsal process. Her best work off-stage is in the shadows where she is intensely focused on what’s happening on-stage and thinking of every detail that will make this production sing – not just for the audience but for the actors and the crew members. She cares, not just for the show that takes place on stage but the experience of the entire production from the first audition to the post-production cast party. Those who only see and hear an oft intense director demanding exactly what she expects and exactly the ways she wants it do not see her on the couch at home obsessing about actors not having to be at rehearsal if they don’t have to be, parents being able to count on a well-thought-out rehearsal schedule that will make for worry-free planning, or people having a great experience from first to last.
When I look at the woman in this photograph I see someone who knows what she’s doing. She’s standing tall, intensely focused, doing the work, orchestrating the action; Pen in one hand and the other hand open and ready to edit the show and the production if they are the right changes to advance the quality of the show and the good of the whole.
From 2003 through 2017 Wendy has been credited with 43 roles in USP productions, only 12 of them as an actor. Seven of those 12 roles I had the privilege of playing opposite her, and there is no one I would rather be on stage with than Wendy because I’ve rarely met another actor who shares my passion for the process of bringing a character to stage. Thirty-one of Wendy’s roles were off-stage roles: Producer, Director, Assistant Director, Front of House, Make-up, Costumes, Props, Publicity – she’s done it all and that doesn’t count some 15 years of continuous service on the USP Board of Directors, organizing Award Nights, helping organize Drama Camp registrations, Picnics, Costume Shop help, and of course making lots-and-lots of cheesecake.
The final thing I want to point out in this photo is the mystery it makes me feel. You don’t see this woman. You don’t really see her. You see just an impression of her. When I look at this photo, I both enjoy the mystery and experience the selfish satisfaction of being a secret keeper. I do know her. I have been granted the privilege of seeing what no one else sees.
My theme song for Wendy, and I’m not sure I’ve ever shared this with anyone, contains these lyrics:
Tonight as I stand inside the rain Ev’rybody knows That Baby’s got new clothes But lately I see her ribbons and her bows Have fallen from her curls She takes just like a woman, yes, she does She makes love just like a woman, yes, she does And she aches just like a woman But she breaks just like a little girl
In this journey of theatre with Union Street Players I have shared her public triumphs and wiped away her private tears. I can tell that both spring from love: love of God, love of doing things well, love of theatre, love of this crazy organization, and most of all love for each of you with a depth and passion you likely know not – from this two-dimensional, female figure in black.
May I present to you my leading lady, my best producer, my life director, my muse, and my partner on Life’s journey. M’luv! And the newest member of Union Street Players Walk of Fame, Wendy Vander Well...”
Those who are even occasional readers of my posts know that I often make reference to the Enneagram. We were first introduced the Nine Types by our daughter many years ago. As it’s grown in popularity, we have been asked to introduce it and discuss it with various groups. We are, by no means, experts. We have simply shared our personal experiences of understanding and how the Enneagram has helped our relationship as we have come to understand and appreciate one another in deeper ways.
Over the years we’ve had many, many conversations with individuals, couples, and groups about the Enneagram. Of course, one of the first questions that is asked is, “Do you know what type you are?” Wendy and I quickly began noticing a certain pattern among women who are card-carrying followers of Jesus living primarily in Christian community.
They almost all say they are Type Twos (a.k.a. “The Helper”). Here’s the summary description of Type Two from the Enneagram Institute:
Twos are empathetic, sincere, and warm-hearted. They are friendly, generous, and self-sacrificing, but can also be sentimental, flattering, and people-pleasing. They are well-meaning and driven to be close to others, but can slip into doing things for others in order to be needed. They typically have problems with possessiveness and with acknowledging their own needs. At their Best: unselfish and altruistic, they have unconditional love for others.
The problem, of course, is that it’s not possible for 80-90% of Christian women to be Twos. Either only females who are Twos follow Jesus, or those who do follow Jesus are miraculously transformed into Twos by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. As Wendy and I pondered and contemplated this phenomenon, we came to the realization that “Twos” sound eerily similar to the ideal wife and mother described in the epilogue of Proverbs; She is otherwise known as “The Proverbs 31 Woman.” Motherhood, in and of itself, requires the actions of self-sacrifice and unselfishness that come naturally to Twos. Yet, a person’s Enneagram Type is not rooted in actions, but motivations. I have come to believe that many individuals fall prey to this confusion. They may project themselves to be, or truly desire themselves to be, that idealized version of womanhood that both the church and Christian community have relentlessly told them they should be.
In today’s chapter, the book of ancient wisdom ends with a rather eloquent description of a “wife of noble character.” She’s the picture-perfect supportive spouse who is an asset to her husband’s public image and career. She’s the super-charged industrial homemaker and the perfect mix of Joanna Gaines and Martha Stewart. Her clothes, decor, and children are all Pinterest-worthy. She’s tireless and shrewd. She’s the undisputed CEO of the home which always runs with efficiency, organization, productivity, timeliness, and keeps the household budget always in the black. She is intelligent, spiritual, and practically wise; a combination of Beth Moore and Jen Hatmaker. Her children think she’s the coolest mom in the world, and they all dutifully reflect her Proverbs-Thirty-One-ness in dress, appearance, and behavior. Her husband would never look twice at any of the “wayward” and “adulterous” women that Proverbs has been incessantly mentioning for thirty chapters, and this is because…well…while charm may be deceptive and beauty fleeting, “The Proverbs 31 Woman” actually has those, too! She’s the whole package.
Except, no woman is all these things. In my almost 40 year journey of being an adolescent-to-adult male and a follower of Jesus, I’ve never met a Proverbs 31 Woman. I’ve met women who seem to look like her. They project her image, but it’s never real. She’s just an air-brushed model on a magazine cover painted and lit to look like the ideals of maternal, marital, and spiritual virtue.
I’m probably going to get into trouble writing this, but let me share with you the observation of an old dude who’s spent his entire life surrounded by and in relationships with amazing girls and women.
Unintentionally, the book of Proverbs can easily do a disservice to the women in my life. The ancient sages Solomon, Agur, and Lemuel lived in a brutal, patriarchal society that developed out of a need for a strict social order (as I explored yesterday) to ensure survival. Women are presented in Proverbs in a binary fashion: bad (wayward, adulterous, contentious, quarrelsome) or ideal (The Proverbs 31 Woman). So, lady, what’s it going to be? Do you want to be good or bad? And, if you want to be good, then you must be ideal.
I’ve observed along my journey that the women in my life often allow themselves to fall into these binary mental traps: fat or skinny, beautiful or ugly, sexy or lonely, smart or dumb, popular or not, trendy or so-not-with-it, and etc. So, what I’ve observed happening are perpetual cycles of pressure, hopelessness, despair, striving, depression, and never-ending comparison to others hoping (and/or judging) “If I’m not ideal then at least I’m better than….”
So, I’m going to wade into dangerous territory this morning and I beg your grace and forgiveness upfront. If this old husband, father, grandfather, son, brother, employer, mentor, colleague, neighbor, and friend were to re-define what Proverbs calls a “woman of noble character” for all the amazing women in my life it would go something like this:
A Becoming Woman
If you find a becoming woman, you are blessed.
She is learning to embrace the individual, in mind, body (all of it), and spirit just as her loving Creator intentionally and uniquely knit her DNA together.
She has made an honest inventory of both her personal strengths and her intimate struggles; She is persevering in her efforts to build on the former while diminishing the latter.
She seeks roles and positions that make the most of her unique gifts and abilities, though they may not fit the dreams she once had, the norms of her community, or the expectations that others have placed on her.
She is learning how to accept God’s grace and forgiveness for all of the mistakes, faults, imperfections, and sins that she knows so well, even when others have not forgiven her; She is learning how to be gracious with herself, letting go of her own desires for perfection. She embraces the knowledge that she’ll still be learning all of these things when she reaches the end of this earthly journey.
She loves her husband and children genuinely, sometimes passionately, though often deficiently. She embraces the journey of becoming that is being a friend, a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother, and a grandmother. She presses on, neither denying the many faults and mistakes of her past nor becoming complacent in the onward journey of becoming that is always leading her further up and further in.
She is doing her best for her family even though it feels like a thankless task most days. She is struggling constantly against the lie that she is a hopeless failure in her role and responsibilities. She is learning to let it go when all that she has already done is summarily ignored while the incessant demands for more keep building up, seemingly with every moment.
She is realizing that the Creator has lovingly made each of her children as unique as she, herself, is unique. She desires that each of them becomes the individual God has made them to be. She desires that each child discover the unique purposes God has for them, even as she’s learning in fits and starts to let go of her own personal desires and expectations which can feel so instinctual and can be so strong at times.
She is learning to care more about the emotional and spiritual needs of her child than she cares about how her child’s appearance, actions, achievements, failures, words, and/or behaviors might influence how others, especially other women, in the community perceive her and her mothering skills.
She is purposefully mindful of her own needs and is learning that taking care of herself in mind, body, and spirit is necessary to manage every other role and relationship in her life.
She is purposefully mindful of her husband’s needs. She is learning to meet the unique needs that fill his love tank (though it may not fill hers), speak his unique love language (though she may not be fluent), and to be gracious with his unique shortcomings as she needs him to be gracious with hers. She is learning to encourage his own unique gifts, strengths, and purposes even when she realizes that they aren’t what she once thought they were or what she wants them to be.
She has surrounded herself with other good women who know her faults and love her anyway and who speak truth into her even when she doesn’t want to hear it. They are present even when time and/or miles create physical separation. They pick her up when she is down. They cheer her on in her endeavors and celebrate her in her accomplishments. They struggle through and survive relational strife with one another, learn to forgive one another, and graciously walk life’s journey together all the days of their lives.
She is learning, persevering, seeking, letting go, embracing, pressing on, realizing, desiring, purposeful, struggling, endeavoring, loving, giving, caring, forgiving, and she is surrounded.
A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!
One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” Titus 1:12 (NIV)
A while ago I enjoyed coffee and caught-up with an old friend as she was passing through town. It was not surprising to hear her observations of our little town and its citizens. Our town has long had a reputation of being very conservative and very religious. Like most stereotypes, there is some truth to it, though it is not close to what urban legends have made it for people like my friend.
I’ve learned along my life journey that this is a problem with stereotypes. Like all generalizations and prejudices, they may be rooted in specific things that are, or were, true. They are never universally true, however, and most of the time I’ve found them to be a lazy way of categorizing a group of people in order to fit them into the box of my world-view.
Wendy and I have, for many years, lived and operated in both the Christian community and the arts community in our region. We have observed that many members in both communities paint the other with broad brush strokes of stereotypical generalizations that diminish each other in tragic ways. The generalizations only serve to perpetuate misunderstanding and negativity toward one another.
Today’s chapter begins an instructional letter Paul wrote to Titus. While Titus is never mentioned in the book of Acts, he is referenced thirteen times in Paul’s letters. Titus was a trusted companion and coworker with Paul, and had left Titus on the island of Crete to help organize the fledgling groups of Jesus followers throughout the island. His letter was meant to provide encouragement and instruction in the work.
In the opening of his letter, Paul references a stereotypical view of Cretans sourced from a Cretan prophet. All Cretans are liars and gluttons, the prophet said. Paul acknowledges the truth of the stereotype and urges Titus to rebuke them.
As I sat and listened to my acquaintance over coffee it struck me that her view of the world was based on sweeping generalizations. She saw the world as a scary place full of hatred, oppression, and fear, when facts say the opposite is increasingly true. I humored her by laughing at her perceptions of our community and acknowledged that there is some truth to it, but I also felt a twinge of sadness that she would likely never experience all the positive ways her generalization falls apart when knowing, working with, and living among the incredibly diverse members of our community.
In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking about the stereotypes with which I’ve been labeled and painted by others across my journey. I’m also thinking honestly about the people and groups whom I generalize and pre-judge in my ignorance. It seems to me that this is one of those Golden Rule moments in life. I have to lead by example and treat others the way I, myself, would want to be treated; Not as a stereotypical member of a group, but as a unique individual who doesn’t fit neatly into the box of another’s perceptions.
We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves.Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. Romans 15:1-2 (NIV)
Annoying to be around. That was the bottom line. Abrasive, abrupt, and usually off in left field in most matters. I can still remember the silly arguments and petty details that occupied this person’s thoughts and conversation at, seemingly, all times. It was hard not to roll my eyes and want to head for the nearest exit when the mouth opened and the judgmental, legalistic rhetoric began to flow. Nevertheless, this person was a sincere follower of Jesus. Truly, despite all the annoyance. And, this person was a part of my local community of Jesus’ followers.
Sometimes the Message is ill-served by the way early scholars divided it into chapters and verses. One of the best study tools I’ve experienced is to read the different books and letters without all the chapter breaks and verse references. It’s amazing what you see differently. When I’m reading a chapter-a-day, I can easily forget that today’s chapter is connected to yesterday’s chapter as well as being a lead-in to tomorrow’s chapter. When I read it in prescribed, daily chunks it’s easy to lose context.
Today’s chapter is like that. In yesterday’s chapter Paul addressed the conflicts that can arise because of differences in culture, background, heritage, and traditions. People from different tribes have all sorts of differing, non-essential rules about food, clothing, special days, rituals, and the like. These aren’t necessarily bad things, but they’re by no means essential to being a follower of Jesus.
The first two verses of today’s chapter are really a summation of yesterday’s chapter. Paul ends this conversation by saying that those believers who have the grace and maturity to see that all of these rules, customs and traditions don’t matter to God, should bear with those who do. We could argue about it, get self-righteous about it, and then watch the emotions escalate as the conversation sinks into anger, name calling, discord, division, and even to hatred. Paul urges the mature believer to graciously channel the fruit of Holy Spirit towards those who are stuck in their traditions and rituals: love, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control.
In my memory banks this morning are a number of fellow believers, like the one I described at the top of this post, who I’ve shared part of my journey with in this or that community. I’m seeing their faces and laughing to myself at some of the memories.
In the quiet I am also reminded of my own immaturity, particularly in the early years of my spiritual journey. I confess that I have my own annoying quirks and have, through the years, embraced my own share of non-essential, petty thoughts as well as silly moral or religious causes. I have very specific memories of me being the source of rolling eyes and bit tongues. Now, in hindsight, I can appreciate the forbearance my elders and peers showed me in loving, kind, patient, and gentle fashion. Thank you for that, if you’re reading this.
I’m on this journey with every other person who is on their own respective journey. Each of us are having our own conversation with Life. Grace (undeserved and unearned favor) is required. Sometimes it’s required that we receive it. Sometimes it’s required that we give it. It’s the only way we’ll successfully reach our destination together and progress to that which is beyond.
I have forsaken my house, I have abandoned my heritage; I have given the beloved of my heart into the hands of her enemies. Jeremiah 12:7 (NRSVCE)
I’m assuming that for many living in the melting pot of America, the concept of a heritage and a people may not be as strong as it once was. My father moved our family away from his home when I was young and I grew up removed from the Dutch heritage in which he was raised. As an adult, I doubled-down and returned to my roots, moving to a town that is rabid about its Dutch heritage. I have an appreciation for what it means to embrace and celebrate the people and the culture that are your genetic roots.
In my Dutch heritage there is a word that you’ll still hear old-timers pull out once in a while: afscheiding, It means to “separate.” When an individual or group left the fold they became tagged “afscheiden.” I get the sense that in most circles it was once the Dutch version of a scarlet letter.
In the previous chapter we learned that Jeremiah had so incensed the people of his hometown with his prophecy that a price had been put on his head. There was a plot to kill him. How appropriate then, to read in today’s chapter, that the weeping prophet is feeling like an afscheiden. God has called Jeremiah to declare the destruction of his unrepentant people over and over and over again. Now his own people have turned against him. He feels separated, ostracized, and alienated. Jeremiah loves his people, his culture, and his heritage and yet his prophecy is all about Judah’s fall and destruction. There is a war raging inside him. Following God meant separation from his heritage.
Along this life journey I have walked alongside many people who have had to battle the deep internal struggle of parting ways with the faith and/or culture of their family and heritage. Every culture and heritage has it’s strengths and corollary struggles. A time comes when for the spiritual health of an individual or family there must come separation from a church, a family system, or a community. It is tremendously difficult for some to risk social and relational stigma and fallout. Jeremiah is feeling that. Following God feels like a betrayal of his family, people, and heritage.
This morning in the quiet I’m saying a “thank you” for all the great things that my family system, heritage, and culture have afforded me. I am also making a renewed commitment to follow wherever God calls me, wherever I’m supposed to be, even if I’m branded an afscheiden.
The Lord said to Moses,“Say to the Israelites: ‘Any man or woman who wrongs another in any way and so is unfaithful to the Lord is guiltyand must confess the sin they have committed. They must make full restitution for the wrong they have done….'” Numbers 5:5-7 (NIV)
Many of the client offices in which I’ve worked over the years are cramped quarters. Numerous people work in confined spaces with little barrier between desks. During the winter months it is quite common to hear stories of entire departments decimated by the flu or other viruses that spread quickly with little or no warning. Over the years when I’ve found myself with a nasty bug I have felt compelled to call clients and explain, “You don’t want me visiting you right now.” I can’t remember a single client who wasn’t grateful for me being considerate of their operation and team members.
When reading through the ancient marching orders for the Hebrew nation in the book of Numbers it’s easy to for me to find myself perplexed in the simple reading of the text. It is so easy to read it from a 21st century American perspective and scratch my head. There is little connection between me (the modern, western technological age reader) and a nomadic nation of semitic people in Arabia around 3500 years ago.
Stepping back and looking at today’s chapter as a whole, the rules prescribed through Moses had to do with things that were threats to their community, starting with that which was physical and easy to see and ending with that which was relational and much harder to judge.
It begins with that which was physical and quite easy to diagnose. In that time period infectious disease could wipe out an entire people in little or no time. While my cold virus might wreak havoc on my client’s workforce and productivity, in the days of Moses a nasty virus could bring death and plague to the entire nation. So, those who showed clear physical sign of what might be a disease were to be quarantined outside the camp. Next came the broad category of “wronging” another member of the community. I think of this as the type of neighborly disputes that might end up in small claims court at my local courthouse. Finally, the bulk of the chapter deals with the most intimate and difficult things to know or to judge: marital infidelity.
It’s easy as a modern reader to get mired in the struggle to understand rules made for an ancient, middle-eastern culture. Wendy and I had a fascinating discussion over coffee last week about the historical and cultural contexts of these rules. Still, I walk away from today’s chapter reminded that all cultures need laws, rules, and regulations that protect the good of the community. Infectious disease, personal disputes, and the breakdown of marriage all have consequences that radiate throughout the community. God through Moses prescribed very specific ways to determine and deal with them for the good of the whole.
This morning I’m thankful to live in a community with a strong system of law that protects our community, state, and nation as a whole. I’m also reminded this morning of my individual responsibility to be considerate of my community as a whole. In fact, I report for jury duty in two weeks.
So Moses, Aaron and the leaders of Israel counted all the Levites by their clans and families.All the men from thirty to fifty years of age who came to do the work of serving and carrying the tent of meeting numbered 8,580. Numbers 4:46-48 (NIV)
Along life’s journey I’ve come to understand that the organization of human beings to accomplish a particular task (or tasks) is an art form in and of itself. Anyone who has had to lead any kind of large scale endeavor understands this. There are numerous models and theories for doing so.
In this morning’s chapter we find the Hebrew clan of Levites were dedicated to the care, maintenance and moving of their nation’s mobile temple and all its furnishings. They alone of all the Hebrew clans set it up, took it down, carried it on the march, and did the work of the Temple while encamped. If you were born into the Levite clan you would not be a warrior, you would work be assigned religious duties the rest of your life.
Throughout history this paradigm has also been followed by many societies. A father is apprenticed into a trade by his father, and teaches the trade to his son. You were born into your occupation just as sure as you might be given the surname of that occupation: Miller, Thatcher, Farmer, and Doctor.
Had things still been done this way, I might be a carpenter today, just as my great-grandfather was apprenticed to be before he came to America as a young man. Anyone who has experienced my carpentry skills knows that this would be a tragedy. While I am capable to do some basic projects, you definitely don’t want me building your house!
In today’s paradigm, we are taught as young people that we “can be anything we want” and this is somewhat true. In our culture we are free to pursue any trade or occupation. I have noticed, however, that just because you desire to pursue an occupation doesn’t mean that you are gifted at that occupation. I have witnessed for years those who desired to pursue certain ministry tasks or roles within the local church only to frustrate the entire congregation by their lack of skill or giftedness. I’ve known preachers who can’t preach their way out of a paper bag, singers who can’t carry a tune with a handle on it, and directors of worship who are consistently lost and unable to capably give direction to anyone.
Just as the generational paradigm had its weaknesses, so also does the “you can do whatever you want” paradigm. Desiring an area of giftedness does not necessarily make you good at it.
This morning I’m thinking about my experiences in leadership with business, church, community organizations, and even the project management required of producing or directing a show. I’ve come to believe that one of a leader’s critical tasks is helping people find their areas of giftedness and helping them both embrace and develop those areas. Sometimes there is a journey of acceptance required to bring us to a waypoint of understanding that I ultimately find joy when I am doing what I am gifted and meant to do.
Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. 1 John 2:9 (NIV)
A topic of much conversation in our home and circles of friends of late has been that of community. It’s a topic our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been pushing into. In short, we’re talking about how we all do life together and related to one another. It doesn’t take long for the conversation to bring out three common observations:
“It is messy.”
“It is hard.”
“It is complicated.”
Yes. It always has been, and it always will be living East of Eden.
Along this life journey I often encounter those who love the description of believers in the heady first days of the Jesus’ movement as described by Dr. Luke in his book The Acts of the Apostles:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.All the believers were together and had everything in common.They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts,praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
This is often held as an ideal to which all of us should strive and aspire. Striving for unity, sharing, and love in life with others is a worthy goal. I have actually had experiences that feel a lot like what Luke describes.
This idyllic experience usually happens at a camp or some kind of retreat environment. It’s that long weekend or week with other like-minded individuals in beautiful natural surroundings. I often hear it described as a “mountain-top experience.” You want to stay there. You want to bottle it up so you can can continue to consume the experience over and over and over again. When you’re at camp having a mountain-top experience you don’t want to leave and go back to “real life.” You’d love to “stay here forever.”
But, that doesn’t happen.
It didn’t happen long-term for the believers in Jerusalem, either. Jesus’ twelve disciples were scattered across the known world sharing the Message. Most of them endured violent ends. Despite the mountain-top experience of that early period of time, history tells us that the believers in Jerusalem eventually faced persecution, conflict, disagreements, strained relationships, and struggle.
Most of the books of what we call the New Testament were originally letters. The letters were by-and-large addressed to individuals or small “communities” of Jesus’ followers. What motivated the authors of the letters was typically problems that were being experienced in community. There were disagreements, relational struggles, theological controversies, moral controversies, personal controversies, persecutions, attacks from outside the community, and attacks from within the community. Leaders such as John, Peter, Paul and Timothy took up their stylus and papyrus to address these problems.
The letter of 1 John is exactly that. A philosophical movement known as gnosticism had sprung up both outside and inside the community of believers teaching things contrary to what John, the other disciples, and the leaders of the community had originally taught about Jesus and his teachings. John was writing to directly address some of these issues. Breaking down today’s chapter, I find John addressing several of them in and between the lines of almost every sentence.
What struck me this morning, however, was John’s bold claim that anyone who claimed to be in “the light” but hated someone in the community, that person was clearly not in the light, but in darkness. In other words, if you are part of Jesus, the “Light of the World” then your life will be marked by love. Jesus taught that we were to love both our friends and our enemies. John is reminding us of the utter foundation of all Jesus’ teaching. Love God. Love others. Everything else is built on these two commands. We have to get that right before anything else.
This morning I’m thinking about some of the disagreements, controversies, relational strife, strains, and struggles I know in my own life, relationships, and community. I experience the “mountain-top” for a moment or a period of time, but eventually I find myself back in the valley of relationship. Community is messy. Community is hard. Community is complicated. John’s reminder is apt.
As a follower of Jesus, I have to accept that there is no exemption from the command to love. If I’m not ceaselessly, actively working to get that right every day with every relationship, I’m not sure anything else really matters.