Tag Archives: Conflict

Ruminating

Ruminating (CaD Ps 140) Wayfarer

Sovereign Lord, my strong deliverer,
    you shield my head in the day of battle.

Psalm 140:5 (NIV)

Ever since I was a kid, I have been one to excessively ruminate on conflict or personal problems that I encounter along life’s road. When this happens, I can’t stop thinking about it, mulling it over, replaying things again and again in my head. When it’s really bad, my ceaseless ruminations can steal my sleep and paralyze me from effectively managing other important things in life.

The word “ruminate” has only been a common part of the English language since the 1500s. It derives from a Latin word that refers to animals, specifically cows, who can dredge up already chewed and partially digested food from their stomachs in order to chew it again. This is commonly referred to as a cow “chewing the cud.” I realize that’s a rather gross word, picture. But, it is an apt word picture for the thing my mind does with problems and conflicts.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 140, is another song ascribed to King David. Like other songs of David, he is lamenting unnamed enemies who are bent on his personal and political destruction. What is interesting about the lyrics of this song is the multiple physiological metaphors David uses:

  • stir up war in their hearts
  • sharpen their tongues
  • poison on their lips
  • hands of the wicked
  • trip my feet

As is common with ancient Hebrew songwriting, the central stanza of today’s chapter provides the main theme for the song. And I couldn’t help but notice that David asks God to “shield my head” in the day of battle. Of course, head injuries in human battle can easily be fatal, but as I read it I immediately thought about the conflicts, problems, and relational battles I’ve encountered along life’s road and my seemingly endless ruminating when they occur. I have found that me regurgitating an issue and chewing it over, and over, and over can be as much a spiritual and emotional threat to my well-being as a warrior going into fire-fight without their helmet.

I love that David asks God to shield his head. It’s my own brain that so easily works against me in times of trouble. I also love that David poured out his heart, his conflicts, and his problems in musical and lyrical prayers. I have to believe it was a healthy form of expression that helped him get things out so that they wouldn’t be bottled up inside where rumination can easily lead to unhealthy places.

In the quiet this morning, I’ve thinking back on circumstances that have led to ruminating in the last year or two. I have gotten better at recognizing when I’m doing it and addressing it sooner. I’ve gotten better at getting it out in conversations with the inner circle of confidants I’m blessed to have in my life. I’ve also learned that expressing things in handwritten prayers in my morning pages can be a really good antidote for ruminating.

Along life’s road I’ve observed that my natural temperament, personality, and bents lead me to certain patterns of reaction to negative stimuli I encounter along the way. Some of these natural reactions are both unhealthy and unproductive. Being a follower of Jesus, my relationship has motivated and challenged me to actively address some of my less than stellar traits, like my ruminating. By choosing to get out my ruminations, I make room for my heart and mind to meditate on the things with which Jesus asks me to fill them.

Brooding

Brooding (CaD Ps 116) Wayfarer

Return to your rest, my soul,
    for the Lord has been good to you.

Psalm 116:7 (NIV)

I have always been a world-class brooder. It comes in tandem with the pessimism that marks those of us who are romantic individualists known as Enneagram Fours. If there is a major relational conflict or some kind of crisis in life, I will tend to brood on it.

Brood is actually an interesting word because the most common definition in the English language means “to sit on” and “incubate” as a mother hen sits on her eggs. What an apt word picture for what I can do with a conflict or crisis. I mentally and emotionally sit on it, keep it warm, keep incubating as I stir it in my soul over and over and over again. I may look like I’m perfectly normal on the outside, but inside I’m a boiling cauldron of angst, fear, negativity, and insecurity.

Along my life journey, I’ve gotten a lot better at recognizing when I’m going into brood mode and when I find myself there. As a young man, I know I spent long periods of time in brood mode never knew I was doing it. To the world around me, I appeared to be functioning normally, but I was actually mentally and emotionally disconnected for long periods of time. This is when having an Enneagram Eight as a spouse is really helpful. Wendy is quick to see me go into my brooding mode, and she’s quick to address it.

Having said that, I’ve also learned that I am an internal processor who has also, along my life journey, developed decent communication skills. This means that I can typically talk through what I am thinking and feeling with others, but not before I’ve taken some time to process it alone. I believe Wendy has done a great job of recognizing that there is a difference between me processing something internally and giving me time to do so, and me silently disconnecting and descending into my brooding pit where I might not surface for a while.

Brooding is like mental, emotional, and spiritual spelunking (those crazy people who descend into and explore caves). A wise spelunker always has a safety line that is attached to a strong ground anchor above. Along the way, I’ve also learned that I need spiritual, mental, and emotional “anchors” with which to pull myself out of my brooding pit.

That’s what came to mind this morning as I read today’s chapter and came upon the verse I quoted at the top of the post:

Return to your rest, my soul,
    for the Lord has been good to you.

When I descend too far into brood-mode I have allowed myself to go into a mental space that is not healthy. I have learned that one of the best anchored life-lines I have is my spiritual journey and my life journey. I can look back on that journey and recall several stretches of stress and crisis which were brooding bonanzas. In each one I can recount how faithful God was to me, how things worked out despite the difficulties, and how God used those moments to bring about growth, new levels of maturity, increased faith, and spiritual fruit. By recounting these both the crises and the progress it afforded in my spiritual journey, it helps me put my current crisis in perspective, to trust God’s faithfulness, and to left faith help lift me out of brood-mode.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself grateful for the waypoint I find myself in this life journey. I’m thankful for the things I’ve learned about myself, my loved ones, and how differently we engage in the world around us and in relationships with one another.

Socrates famously said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” This morning, Socrates has himself a witness. Were it not for my spiritual journey as a follower of Jesus, I’d have gotten stuck in a brooding pit years ago and might never have made it out.

(Did I mention Enneagram Fours have a flair for the dramatic? 😉

Of Change and Health

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Awake, harp and lyre!
    I will awaken the dawn.

Psalm 108:2 (NIV)

Do you ever have random conversations that stick in your memory? I was on a trip with a colleague. While aware that we are each followers of Jesus, we didn’t talk about spiritual things very often. My colleague comes from a very conservative, almost fundamentalist viewpoint on things and he surprised me by wanting to ask my opinion about the weekly worship among the institutional church where he was a member.

It happened that my colleagues tribe had recently made the switch from a very traditional worship experience that involved singing traditional hymns, many of them having been in existence for hundreds of years. The church was migrating to using songs of the present-day genre. He was clearly struggling with this.

I have shared many times that I have been a spiritual wayfarer who has experienced and participated in a rich diversity of spiritual traditions. I have been in the emotionally rockin’ pentecostal tradition, the corporate silence of the Quaker Meeting House, the high-church liturgy of Roman Catholic church, the call-and-response of the black church, the intellectual approach of mainline institutions, the simplicity and sincerity of rural worship in a developing country, and the down-home family environment of a “house church.” My attitude has never been to ask “Which is right?” In fact, I’ve never really worried about asking “Which is right for me?” I’ve always tried to be fully present where I have been been led and ask myself “What good can I gain from this experience?”

I am aware, however, that my colleague has a more black-and-white view of both faith and life. The change in music genres within his local gathering had him rattled.

Colleague: “I’m struggling with these ‘seven-eleven’ songs. It’s the same seven lines sung eleven times.”

Me: “You mean like Psalm 117 that only has two lines which were likely repeated in worship?”

Colleague: “It’s just so repetitive. Singing the same thing over and over.”

Me: “You mean like Psalm 136 that repeats ‘His love endures forever’ twenty-six times?”

Colleague: “It’s not right. They take little pieces of a great hymn and mess it up by changing it. It was meant to be sung in its entirety!”

As this point, I could have pointed my colleague to today’s chapter, Psalm 108, because the entire thing is simply a cut-and-paste mash-up of Psalm 57:7-11 and Psalm 60:5-12. In fact, there are multiple examples both in the Psalms and in the writings of the ancient prophets when entire sections would be cut-and-pasted into an updated work. There are also examples of this in other ancient Mesopotamian cultures. It was quite common.

I don’t really know how the conversation landed with my colleague. I could tell that he was disappointed (maybe even a little frustrated) that I didn’t agree with him and provide him an affirmation of his opinions. He never brought it up again.

In my life, I have found change to be really difficult for people in almost any circle of life. When you mix in both change and religious tradition it can take on an added layer of emotion. Suddenly the change gets escalated to a level of religious orthodoxy. Sides are taken. The discussion escalates to arguments. Then comes entrenchment. Very often the next step is the severing of relationships. Groups split.

Along my spiritual journey, I have always assumed that change is a natural part of creation. Most things in life cycle in one way or another. What goes around comes around. Styles come back around and get freshened up. Religious traditions and practices that were once abandoned as “old and outdated” come back in vogue to bless a new generation of Jesus’ followers.

So it is that as I watch the changes that constantly happen around me on multiple levels, I try to keep my emotional reactions in check. Instead of digging in my heels and demanding that my love of the perfectly acceptable way of doing things is understood, I try to divert my energy to asking “What good might be gained from this change?”

In the quiet this morning, I find myself reminded of a mantra that I was introduced to by my friend. It made its way around the internet and I am unsure of the source. I once used it in a message, but I don’t know that I’ve ever referenced it in one of my chapter-a-day posts. It’s always stuck with me:

Healthy things grow.
Growing things change.
Change challenges me.
Challenges force me to trust God.
Trust leads to obedience.
Obedience makes me healthy.
Healthy things grow.
..

Unseen Choices

Unseen Choices (CaD Ps 71) Wayfarer

As for me, I will always have hope;
    I will praise you more and more.

Psalm 71:14 (NIV)

I have observed on multiple occasions that 2020 has, thus far, been the most challenging year of my life journey. Over the weekend I found myself hitting the wall with it all. COVID, masks, lockdowns, racism, riots, name-calling, finger-pointing, posturing, politics, put-downs, elections, and egos. I came to the realization that I just don’t want to talk about it anymore, nor do I want to hear anybody talk about it. It seems, however, that it’s the only thing people can talk about right now. I get it. We all need to process.

In the quiet this morning, I began peeling away all of the circumstantial elements of our currently stressful times. I separated circumstance and spirit, elections and eternity, coronavirus, and Kingdom. Under the surface of all the Jesus said and did there was a conflict that broiled but remained unseen, a struggle of the spiritual.

Without conflict you don’t have a good story, and at the heart of the Great Story lies the ultimate conflict: The power of Life and that which sets itself up against it.

That which celebrates death instead of life.
That which perverts justice with power.
That which perverts appetite with lust.
That which perverts humility with pride.
That which perverts truth with deception.
That which seeks to tear down rather than build.
That which seeks to turn faith into fear.
That which seeks to turn hope into despair.
That which seeks to turn unity into division.
That which seeks to turn peace into conflict.
That which seeks to turn order into chaos.

In our chapter-a-day journey, we are coming to the end of “Book II” of the anthology of Hebrew song lyrics known as the Psalms. Thus far, almost every song in the 70 we’ve read was penned by David. We’re coming to the end of David’s journey. Today’s psalm was written near the end of his life.

If you’ve been sharing this chapter-a-day journey with me the past few months, it’s obvious that David’s life was not a cake-walk. David saw his share of death. He experienced injustice as well as the consequences of his own lust. He suffered through the pride, hatred, division, conflict, and despair of his own son who tried to steal his Kingdom away. He has faced constant fear from enemies both without and within who worked to tear him down. Now, as he feels his life slipping away there is growing chaos regarding who will ascend to throne after him.

David sang the blues a lot, and with good reason. I imagine David shaking his head at me this morning.

“Dude, you’ve had a rough year. I, like, had 2020 for a lifetime.”

It was with that perspective that I went back and read today’s chapter, Psalm 71, a second time.

Though you have made me see troubles,
    many and bitter,
    you will restore my life again;
from the depths of the earth
    you will again bring me up.

I couldn’t help but notice that David’s faith, hope, trust, and praise are not the result of his circumstances. They don’t spring from a cushy life on Easy Street. What became clear to me is that David is choosing them despite his circumstances, the same way he always has…

When he was on the run from Saul.
When he had a price on his head.
When he found himself alone in his enemy’s fortress.
When he was living in a cave in the wilderness.
When his own son raped his own daughter.
When his other son killed his own brother.
When that same son almost took his kingdom.
When he faced scandal from his adultery.
When his conspiracy to commit murder became public.

David’s lyrics, written across his life journey and making up roughly half of the Psalms, stand as testimony that time-and-time again he chose into praise, faith, hope, and trust when he had every reason to give in to the anger, fear, despair, and hopelessness.

In today’s song, the old man nears his journey’s end. He looks back at all he’s been through and everything he’s experienced. And this is the center verse, the lynch-pin of his song:

As for me, I will always have hope;
    I will praise you more and more.

I am reminded this morning that in the early chapters of the Great Story God said to His people, “Life or death. You choose.”

David teaches me that the choice is still there. Every day. Every year. A choice that, in the eternal perspective, is more consequential than my November vote for any politician.

As I enter this week of Thanksgiving, I choose Life. I choose hope.

Always.

As 2020 keeps punching, I choose to double-down on praise.

Doing Something

…on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord.
Exodus 12:12 (NRSVCE)

We are living through strange times.

Yesterday Wendy and I attended our local gathering of Jesus’ followers which was meeting corporately for the first time in months. With everything set up and following social distancing rules by local and state authorities, it just felt weird and disconcerting. This physical and relational reality only intensified the spiritual and emotional turmoil Wendy and I found ourselves in as we grapple with the inexcusable murder of George Floyd and the intensity of reactions it sparked across our nation and the world.

As worship began I fell to my knees as the emotional dam burst within me. Wendy and I wept together. Like almost everyone else with whom we discuss the situation, we are sad and angry. We agonize over what we can and must do in the wake of this crime and the evil, complex, vast, and multi-dimensional injustice of racism that continues to perpetuate in our nation, as it has for hundreds of years.

As I read today’s chapter, I felt the synchronicity that often comes in the morning when I open to the chapter that has fallen onto my schedule that day. It felt like no mistake that I was reading of the Hebrews’ climactic escape from their slavery in Egypt. What struck me this morning, and which I never internalized in the countless times I’ve read and studied it, is that the event is more than just the freedom of the Hebrews out of the chains of their slavery. Their escape took place amidst the wailing cries of their oppressors. God arranged for the oppressors to experience the pain, suffering, and loss that they and their system had visited on others for hundreds of years.

I also cannot help but mull over the fact that this same Hebrew/Arab conflict has lasted for millennia. The hatred and acts of aggression, oppression, and violence have gone back and forth and lasted for so long that I personally consider it impossible to completely plumb the depths. Guilt and innocence, oppression and suffering are found on both sides throughout history. From ancient tribal disputes to the settlement disputes on the West Bank today. How strange to read today’s chapter and to realize that the events lie at the root of yet another vast, complex, multi-dimensional human conflict that continues to perpetuate to this day.

So where does that leave us?

Wendy arranged for us to have a Zoom meeting with our children yesterday afternoon. From their homes in South Carolina and Scotland, we all talked and shared about our thoughts, feelings, experiences, struggles, and desire to do something. Every one of us shared our thoughts and intentions around what we can do.

In our local gathering of Jesus’ followers, we heard a humble, vulnerable, and honest message from Kevin Korver who, to his credit, passionately addressed the situation head-on. In the end, he led us in this corporate action list:

As we remain and abide in the circle of love, the divine dance of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we will:
Repent and confess
Bear good fruit
Listen, hear, and pray with love
Bless not curse
Love sacrificially
Become a bridge builder
Seek new friends
.

Will it make a difference? It’s not a miraculous answer to the evil, complex, vast, and multi-dimensional injustice that continues to perpetuate in our nation. But, perhaps if I who profess to be a follower of Jesus actually and intentionally do these things it will make a change in me and those around me.

I’m reminded this morning that Harriett Tubman led approximately 70 slaves to freedom on some 13 missions. Seventy out of some 6 million slaves. She courageously and intentionally did what she could.

There’s no reason I can’t expect the same from myself.

Escalation, Truth, and Discomfort

“[The teachers of the Law] devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”
Mark 12:40 (NIV)

Over the years I have had the privilege of serving certain clients in the monitoring, coaching, and providing Quality Assessment (e.g. “Your call may be monitored for quality and training purposes.”) for their collections teams. The process of working with customers who owe you money can be a sticky wicket. We’re not talking about third-party collection agencies who just want to bully people into paying so they can quickly get their cut and make their margins. My clients are businesses who want to collect the debt, but also want to keep most of their customers knowing that the lifetime value of that customer’s business far exceeds the amount they are past due in the present moment.

As I always remind both my team members and my clients: “When you are dealing with people’s money, the conversation takes on additional layers of complexity and emotion.”

In today’s chapter, Mark continues to share episodes from Jesus’ final days. There had always been conflict brewing between Jesus and the religious power brokers and rule keepers in Jerusalem. Most of His ministry, however, had been in the region of Galilee far from Jerusalem. Now Jesus is in Jerusalem and is teaching in the temple during the most crowded week of the year. Three times in previous chapters Jesus has told #TheTwelve that He was going to Jerusalem to be arrested, beaten, and killed, and then He would rise from the dead. The episodes Mark relates in today’s chapter illustrate the escalation of conflict between Jesus and the institutional religious powers.

In the first episode, Jesus tells a parable that metaphorically states what He has said plainly before: The religious rule-keepers killed the prophets that God had sent in the past, and now they’re going to kill God’s own Son. The parable antagonized Jesus’ enemies who have already been looking for a way to make sure Jesus “sleeps with the fishes.” Ironically, Jesus said that, like Jonah in the belly of the fish for three days, He would spend three days in the grave. [FYI: That’s a reference from The Godfather for those of you who didn’t catch it.]

What follows is three different attempts to trip Jesus up with religious questions that were political hot potatoes. The intent in at least two of the three questions was to try and get Jesus to say something that His enemies could either spin to diminish His approval rating or condemn Him. Each time, Jesus deftly handles the question and leaves His enemies flummoxed.

On the heels of these trick questions and attempts to trip Him up, Jesus speaks critically of His enemies and warns His audience to “watch out” for the teachers of the law. He then offers a curious accusation that is lost on modern readers. Jesus says that the religious power brokers “devour widows houses.”

In most cases, women had very poor legal and social standing in Jesus’ day. This was especially true of older widows who might have been left with her husband’s debts. With limited means and a social system that made it virtually impossible for her to produce an income, the widow was incredibly vulnerable. Unless she had an influential and/or wealthy male advocate, the widow fell prey to wealthy and powerful men (remember, the religious power brokers were “Teachers of Law” (aka lawyers) within the Jewish religious, legal, and social system. These lawyers would use the law to seize a widow’s home and assets, leaving her destitute and living off the mercy of others. Even though the Law of Moses demanded special consideration for the defenseless (including widows), the “Teachers of the Law” found legal loopholes to justify their greedy victimization of these women.

What was most fascinating for me in today’s chapter is the very next episode. Right after criticizing the Teachers of the Law for their treatment of widows, Jesus leads His followers to the place where people came to give their “offerings” to the temple treasury. Wealthy Jews from around the known world were in town for Passover, so there were certainly many wealthy travelers using the annual pilgrimage to give generously (and publicly). Jesus sits and watches the riches being offered to the temple coffers. Then an old widow (I wonder which Teacher of the Law there at the temple now owned the home she once shared with her husband along with all of its possessions?) steps up and puts in two pennies.

“Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

Two things stuck with me this morning. The power brokers in this world have their way through systemic advantage, intimidation, instilling fear, dishing out punishment, and eliminating the opposition. This is true of any number of systems including criminal, political, governmental, organizational, business, financial, social, educational, legal, military, familial, and even religious systems. It is obvious in the episodes Mark shares that there is rapid escalation between Jesus and His enemies, and His enemies have political, religious, social, legal, and financial systemic power. They want Jesus dead, and Jesus knows this. In fact, He knows that they will kill Him. Nevertheless, Jesus continues to fearlessly speak spiritual truth that both condemns His enemies and pushes the buttons that will ensure the signature on His death warrant.

The second thing that struck me is that I have infinitely more in common with Jesus’ enemies than with the widow whom Jesus praises.

From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded,” Jesus said, “and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

In other words, Jesus is in the Collections business.

Most days the chapter and my meditation leave me encouraged, challenged, inspired, contemplative, and even comforted.

Today, I leave my quiet time very uncomfortable.

Bad Blood Boiling Over

All the royal officials at the king’s gate knelt down and paid honor to Haman, for the king had commanded this concerning him. But Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor.
Esther 3:2 (NIV)

I recently read a fascinating op-ed by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali by birth who became a member of the Dutch Parliament. In the article, she shares about her journey of understanding that she was culturally and systemically raised to hate Jews and blame them for everything, and how she overcame that hatred.

Feuds are as old as humanity itself. Whether it is unresolved interpersonal conflict, blood feuds between familial tribes, or long-standing hatred between people groups, there are countless examples of systemic hatred and generational conflict throughout history.

For the casual reader, there exists in Esther an underlying conflict that is not easily detected on the surface of the text. Mordecai was a Jew from the tribe of Benjamin. The tribe of Benjamin had a famous ancestor in the person of Saul, the first King of Israel. Saul had warred against the Amalekites and their King, Agag. Saul’s disobedience to God’s command in the battle against King Agag led to Saul’s downfall which, in turn, brought shame to the tribe of Benjamin. Haman was an Agagite, a descendant of Saul’s famous enemy. There are over 500 years of bad blood between Haman and Mordecai’s tribes.

This adds a whole new layer of understanding to the story. Mordecai had thwarted an assassination plot against Xerxes in yesterday’s chapter, and yet he received no real reward for his courage. Haman, in contrast, is elevated to a place of unprecedented power within Xerxes administration and no reason is provided to explain why he was deserving of such favor. The King demands that everyone bow before Haman. Bowing and kneeling before others was a common form of public respect in ancient Persian culture. It would be similar to shaking hands in our culture or taking your hat off in respect. Mordecai’s refusal to offer this basic courtesy to Haman was not treated as treasonous, but as culturally impolite and disrespectful. Mordecai was scolded and lectured, but still, he refused to bow. Each day he stood as Haman passed by and each day the insult pricked Haman’s ego and pride. With each passing day the 500 years of cultural bad blood between Benjaminite and Agagite, between Jew and Amalekite, slowly simmered to a boil. Haman plots to have Mordecai and all of his people annihilated.

This morning I find myself contemplating Jesus’ command that I forgive my enemies. This not only includes the interpersonal conflicts or wrongs which I have suffered, but I believe also includes the deeper cultural, ethnic, moral, and religious prejudices I may hold against other people groups; Prejudices that I may have been systemically and culturally taught without even realizing it.

Which brings me back to Ms. Ali, a woman from a different culture, tribe, and religion than my own. I found her willingness to confess her hatred of the Jewish people and turn from the cultural enmity she’d been taught a shining example of what Jesus asks of me. I find myself taking an honest inventory of my heart this morning. As King David (ironically, God’s replacement for the disobedient King Saul) wrote in the lyrics to his musical prayer, “Search me, God, and know my heart.” Addressing prejudice and cultural hatred has to begin with me.

Broken Relationships; Divine Purpose

Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.
Philemon 1:15-16 (NIV)

If you’re not a regular reader, please know that I’ve been reading and blogging through the letters of Paul in the chronological order they were likely written. In my last post, Seasonal Companions, I wrote about the conflict and reconciliation between Paul and John Mark. But that isn’t the only story of reconciliation hiding in the back stories of the personal greetings found at the end of his letter to the followers of Jesus in Colossae. Paul writes:

Tychicus will tell you all the news about me. He is a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. I am sending him to you for the express purpose that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts. He is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you. They will tell you everything that is happening here.

Onesimus was a runaway slave from Colossae who was owned by one of the believers there named Philemon, a friend of Paul. We don’t know all of the facts of the story. What we do know is that Onesimus seems to have stolen from Philemon and fled. In what I’d like to think was a divine appointment, Onesimus ends up running into Paul in Rome and he becomes a follower of Jesus. Now, Paul is sending Onesimus back to Colossae to make things right with the master from whom he stole and fled. Onesimus is carrying with him Paul’s letter to the Colossians, which we just finished reading. Onesimus is also carrying a letter to Philemon, which is today’s chapter. (Paul’s letter to Philemon became the shortest book in the Bible, FYI.)

Paul’s letter to Philemon is brief, but warm-hearted in its appeal to Philemon to be reconciled with Onesimus. Paul asks Philemon to consider sending Onesimus back to help Paul while he is in prison. Paul urges Philemon to see how God used Onesimus’ offenses to bring about His divine purposes. Onesimus left Philemon a runaway thief, but Onesimus is returning as a brother in Christ trying to make things right.

In the quiet this morning the theme of my thoughts continues to swirl around lost and broken relationships. Paul’s letter to Philemon is a good reminder that sometimes a season of relationship ends because one or both parties need the separation in order to learn, experience, and grow so that a new season of deeper and more intimate relationship can come back around.

I find myself, once again, thinking on the words of the wise teacher of Ecclesiastes. There is a time and a season for everything. That includes a time for conflict, and a time for reconciliation. There is a time to make amends, and a time to forgive. Sometimes the time in between is just a moment. Other times it takes many years. Along the journey, I’ve come to embrace the reality of, and necessity for, both, along with the wisdom necessary to discern which is which.

Seasonal Companions

My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.)
Colossians 4:10 (NIV)

“There are friends who are friends for a season, and there are friends who are friends for life.” Thus said a  wise woman to me while I was a Freshman in college. It was the first time I remember really thinking about the purpose and tenure of friendship in life’s journey.

Everyone knows that Jesus had twelve disciples, but Luke records that there was a wider circle of seventy-two disciples that Jesus sent out (Luke 10:1). Among the twelve it was only Peter, James, and John that Jesus called out to join Him when He was transfigured, when He raised Jairus’ daughter, and when He was in His deepest despair in Gethsemane. Like most of us, Jesus had concentric circles of relationship from the intimacy of His inner circle of three to the wider and less intimate relationships He had with the twelve, the seventy-two, and an even larger group of 500 followers to whom He appeared after His resurrection.

Along my life journey, I’ve had a number of friends, mentors, and protégés who became part of my “inner circle” during a particular stretch. Looking back, I observe a certain ebb and flow of pattern and purpose in relationships. As the wise woman stated, some paths converge for a season and then organically lead in opposite directions. Conflict, sadly, severed some relationships. In a few cases, I’ve realized it’s best to leave be what was. In others, reconciliation brought differing degrees of restoration. There is longing to experience reconciliation in yet others when the season is right. Then there are a few in which time ran out, and only memories both bitter and sweet will remain with me for the rest of my earthly journey.

Most readers of Paul’s letters skip through the personal greetings with which he typically tagged his correspondence at the beginning and/or end. This morning, it was one of these oft-ignored greetings at the end of the chapter that jumped off the page at me. Mark, the cousin of Barnabas, sends his greetings to the believers at Colossae. There is a back story there.

Mark, otherwise known as John Mark, had been a boy who was part of Jesus’ wider circle of followers. Mark’s mother was a prominent woman who also followed Jesus and likely supported His ministry financially. When Peter escaped from prison it was to the house of Mark’s mother that Peter fled. It was Mark’s cousin, Barnabas, who brought the enemy turned believer, Saul (aka Paul) into the fold of Jesus’ followers. Barnabas and Mark were part of Paul’s inner circle on his first missionary journey.

Then, it all fell apart.

In the middle of the journey, Mark left Paul and Barnabas and went back home. Paul felt abandoned and betrayed. Years later when it came time to make a return journey, Barnabas wanted to take Mark along. Paul, still angry that Mark wimped out and abandoned them, would have none of it. There was a big fight. There was a bitter separation. Paul went one way with Silas. Barnabas went the other way with Mark. The season of Paul, Barnabas, and Mark was over.

As Paul writes his letter to the Colossians it has been many years since the conflict with Barnabas and Mark. Paul is in prison and is nearing the end of his life. Mark is with him. We don’t know how the reconciliation happened or what brought them back together again, but Mark is there sending warm greetings through Paul. It’s nice to know that sometimes in this life we get over our conflicts. We let go of the past and embrace the present. Seasons of friendship can come back around.

In the quiet this morning I’m looking back and thinking of all the companions I’ve had along my journey. I’m whispering a prayer of gratitude for each one brought to my life and journey, despite where the ebb and flow of relationship may have led. And, in a few cases, I’m praying for the season when the journey might lead divergent paths back together, like Paul and Mark.

Non-Essential Liberty

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.
1 Corinthians 8:9 (NIV)

The local gathering of Jesus’ followers to which Wendy and I belong has been growing steadily in the years since I began regularly joining for worship and serving in the community. What has been interesting is that the growth is largely coming from other local and regional churches and gatherings who have been slowly fading and even shutting down. The result is that among our community of believers we have a growing, yet increasingly diverse, population who bring with them a host of different traditions, beliefs, customs, and worship practices.

What I’ve observed among the leadership and staff of our community is that the attitude has not been a black and white “This is our way and we don’t do it your way” type of attitude. Rather, I’ve observed an open attitude asking “What can we learn from the richness of all these other traditions?” The result has been a fascinating and unique experience. A traditionally “mainline” church operating in the gifts of the Holy Spirit typically found in gatherings labeled “Charismatic” or “Pentecostal.” A contemporary-style worship service that incorporates pieces of ancient liturgy and generally follows the ancient church calendar. A gathering that most casual observers would label “modern evangelical” and yet during the week many in our community pray the ancient, Divine Hours. During Lent you’ll find members of our community journeying through the Stations of the Cross. The whole thing has been less “either, or” and more “both, and.”

As I read today’s chapter this morning it struck me that Paul wrote to a fledgling gathering of believers in Corinth who were experiencing their own melting pot of diverse backgrounds and belief systems. The Christian faith came out of a typically rigid, black-and-white religious system of Judaism. Yet in Corinth there would have been believers who had come from pagan backgrounds and  knew nothing of Judaic traditions or beliefs. There would have been intellectual Greeks who were mostly steeped in philosophy and had little practical understanding of any religion. The result was a clash among the local gathering of Corinthian believers. Good Jews were horrified at the notion that the meat on their table may have been once sacrificed in a pagan temple. The former pagans and those who weren’t raised in the Jewish tradition couldn’t quite understand why, on Earth, it was that big of a deal.

Paul’s wisdom was the adoption of a “both, and” spirit rooted in Jesus’ law of love. Those who rolled their eyes at fellow believers from Jewish tradition (who couldn’t handle the idea of meat sacrificed to idols) were to respect their brothers and sisters who were. If the Abrahams are coming over for dinner do the hospitable thing and keep it kosher. Those of Jewish tradition were to respect that not everyone was raised in their life-long, black-and-white religious traditions. It’s not the same for them. Take off the Jr. Holy Spirit badge. Let it go. Take one for the team. Love one another in the diversity of our consciences and convictions.

I believe St. Augustine nicely summed up what Paul was getting at a few centuries later: “In essentials unity. In non-essentials liberty. In all things charity (i.e. love).” Whether or not you care that your rib-eye had been butchered in the Temple of Apollo is a matter of individual conscience. It’s a non-essential. Love and respect those believers in your midst who come from different backgrounds and may not believe the same way you do.

This morning I’m grateful for the diverse group of believers with whom Wendy and I regularly worship. From the “frozen chosen” believers from mainline backgrounds to the former Roman Catholics and all the different forms of baggage they carry to the Charismatics who spiritually bring in da noise and da funk. I admittedly don’t always understand, nor fully appreciate where they’re all coming from. We just shrug our shoulders, keep an open mind and spirit, and love, love, love, love, love. When it comes to stuff like this I always want to live, learn, love, and operate in “non-essential liberty.”