Tag Archives: Conflict

Free Speech (or Not)

 Therefore this is what the Lord says about the people of Anathoth who are threatening to kill you, saying, “Do not prophesy in the name of the Lord or you will die by our hands”
Jeremiah 11:21 (NIV)

I have been intrigued to observe what has transpired in our culture over recent years with regard to our freedom of speech. I’ve watched the proliferation of social media in which every individual has a megaphone with which to broadcast their thoughts, opinions, and little kitty pictures to anyone who will listen. I think most of us have had an experience in which what could and should be a forum for discovery, appreciation, connection, conversation, and discussion quickly erodes into a quagmire of anger, disrespect, slander and anonymous trolls hiding behind usernames spewing hatred. And of course we are all now well aware that there are those with ill motives seeking to stir up dissension and chaos for political reasons.

At the same time, I’ve observed that our educational institutions are increasingly willing to suppress the free expression of thoughts and opinions from faculty and guest lecturers when those thoughts and opinions are unpopular or offend the listener. There are students who seek to be sheltered from any words, thoughts, or ideas that contradict or challenge their own world view. In recent years, those who hold unpopular opinions receive death threats, are physically attacked, or are simply dis-invited from speaking.

One one hand anyone can say anything they want (and do). On the other hand anyone who holds an unpopular opinion is unwelcome and silenced. Fascinating.

Free expression and conflict over words, thoughts, opinions, and ideas have always been part of the human experience. Examples abound, such as the prophet Jeremiah.

In today’s chapter the ancient prophet Jeremiah is made aware of a plot to kill him. The source of the threat comes from the town of Anathoth which was located a few miles north of Jerusalem. What’s fascinating to discover is that Anathoth is Jeremiah’s hometown. It is also a town that was given to the descendants of Aaron who were the priests in the ancient religious system of the Hebrews. Only a descendant of Aaron could be a priest. In other words, those who were seeking to silence Jeremiah and plotting to kill him were his own people from a town dedicated to leaders of the Temple.

I’m reminded this morning of Jesus’ observation that “a prophet is without honor in his own home town.” Jesus said this right after his own neighbors in Nazareth sought to throw Him off a cliff. He could very well have been thinking about Jeremiah when He said it. It was descendants of the crew who sought to kill Jeremiah who would plot Jesus’ death, as well.

I’m also reminded that history gives us many examples in various disciplines of individuals branded heretics in their day who were revealed over time to be right. Only now in retrospect do we regard them as heroes of history. These “heretics” often suffered terribly in their day for saying things that were unpopular, politically incorrect, or by challenging the prevailing world-view. Jeremiah is just one of them.

As I do each morning, I will publish this blog post and share it on Facebook. A few people will read it. Of those who do I hope there are one or two who appreciate the post. There may be some who get pissed off simply by seeing that idiot Tom and his stupid religious posts in their feed. I’m well aware that the vast majority of people will simply ignore it. C’est la vie.

I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to express what I’m thinking about on my daily spiritual journey and to put it out there where, instantly, anyone on the planet with an internet connection can read it. Through all of human history it is only in the past 20 years or so that this was possible.

I pray that I will always be free to do so.

Pesky Pessimism & Rose Tinted Ray-Bans

Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me.
1 Corinthians 9:1-3 (NIV)

Wendy and I read a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal this weekend. The premise of the article was that while it’s very popular to moan, groan and wax pessimistic about humanity’s rapid descent towards doomsday (a glance at your Facebook feed or a 24 hour news channel should prove this point), a look at actual data shows that life for human beings around the globe are better than they’ve ever been.

I have confessed in previous posts to having a pesky, pessimistic spirit. Ask Wendy and she can give you plenty of examples. It’s very easy for me to slip into doomsday mode with little justification for doing so. I have lived much of my spiritual journey in a form of holy pessimism. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

I’ve typically found that my fellow believers eagerly buy-in to the notion that things were spiritually so much better for the apostles and Jesus’ followers in the first century. They saw the resurrected Jesus with their own eyes. They had all these miracles happening everyday. They were living in the socialistic bliss of their local Acts 2:42 commune. In contrast, things seem spiritually worse today than ever. We’re accustomed to hearing this regularly from the pulpit and the media, and it’s a popular mindset. We’re going to hell in a hand basket. So my preacher and the news stations tell me so.

What’s fascinating is that the further I get in my spiritual journey and the more I study God’s Message the more contrarian I find myself becoming in these matters. I think I’ve spent most of my journey looking at the past, even the Bible, with rose-tinted Ray-Bans.

In today’s chapter Paul hints at a conflict that’s been simmering in the leadership ranks of the early church. The term “apostle” was not a title given lightly to the early believers. It generally referred to “the twelve” whom Jesus had chosen, trained and commissioned. There appears to have been some criteria for claiming the title (i.e. having seen the risen Jesus, having been sent by Jesus, performing signs and wonders, and etc.). Paul claimed to be an “apostle” in all of his letters. He begins today’s section of the letter basically citing his resume for being an “apostle” after admitting that some claim that he’s not. In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul somewhat sarcastically refers to the other apostles as “super apostles.” He gives a similar sarcastic tone to the term “esteemed apostles” in his letter to the Galatians (before calling Peter out and saying that Peter “stands condemned” for his hypocritical actions).

Something smells rotten in the early church” Shakespeare might have written. I think I gloss over how hard things were for the early believers, how much conflict and strife there was, and how miraculous it is that this fledgling movement even survived.

This morning I’m simply mulling over my own natural pessimism. This past weekend I’ve been thinking long and hard about my penchant for buying into “the past was better, the present is certainly worse and getting worser” line of thinking. I’m not sure the evidence supports that notion. In fact, I’m pretty sure there’s a glass that’s half-full with my name on it within easy reach.

Trust me. You won’t like it,” my pessimistic spirit whispers to me.

Arrrrrghhh. Happy Monday every one.

 

Quarrels Among Us

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God….
1 Corinthians 1:1 (NIV)

All of us have certain characteristics about the way we communicate. When we’re communicating face-to-face we have particular gestures we repeatedly make. In casual conversation Wendy likes to slap her hand on something. Usually it’s her thigh or the counter and sometimes she just claps her hands. It’s her physical punctuation mark to the message she’s conveying with her words.

I will often tell people I’m mentoring in the craft of public speaking to watch a video of themselves but push the fast forward button so that it’s playing at about four times normal speed. As you watch yourself in fast forward mode your repetitive gestures, pacing, and unconscious movements are revealed. I tend to swing my arms like a flapping fish out of water and will often make this weird movement bending my knees and tilting to one side. It’s pretty comical.

Even when we write we phrase things in certain ways or repeat certain phrases. We have signatures we prefer such as “kind regards,” “stay cool,” “be good,” or “shalom” which is a particular favorite of a few friends of mine.

In case you hadn’t noticed, Paul began most of his letters with “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.” To twenty-first century readers this is a stock greeting that we tend to gloss over. It’s just the way Paul begins his letters. Big deal. But this wasn’t an unconscious phrase. He used it for a very specific reason, and for the early followers of Christ reading the letter it had much greater significance and likely stirred up a simmering quarrel.

Apostle,” which is a Greek word meaning “one who is sent” was an unofficially official term for the twelve disciples of Jesus. Jesus Himself called them his “apostles.” A “disciple” was a follower, but an “apostle” was one who was sent out. Jesus message was clear. He was sending them on a mission. For the early church, then, the original “apostles” were held in high esteem and the designation “apostle” came to refer to those who had seen Jesus risen from the dead and had literally been designated by Jesus as an “apostle.”

Paul did not literally fit this unofficially official designation that had arisen among the early believers. He had been late to the party. He’d been a persecutor of Christians and was chief executioner of the first believer, Stephen, when he was killed for heresy. Yet Paul, the prosecutor and executioner of Christians, claimed to be confronted on the road to Damascus by the risen Christ. He was radically converted into a follower of Jesus, said he was sent by Jesus to preach to the non-Jewish believers in Greece.

So was Paul an “apostle” or not?

Throughout his writings, Paul seems intent on claiming that he is. He starts every letter with it. In his second letter to the believers in Corinth he refers to the “super apostles” hinting that he is not part of the club with the original twelve. In his letter to the Galatians Paul begins by saying he is an “Apostle, not sent from men nor by man” the subtext of which is “Christ called me and sent me no matter what you may have heard from other people regarding whether I’m an ‘apostle’ or not.” He then tells the Galatians that he went to Jerusalem to meet with the “esteemed apostles” (subtext: “I’m not ‘esteemed’ like they are“) and confronted Peter, the leader of the twelve, for acting in a hypocritical manner.

Conflict, quarrels, power, control, authority, who’s in, who’s out, who measures up, who is worthy of the title, and who doesn’t quite cut the mustard. These were some of the things that the early believers fought about.

And, let’s be real. These are some of the things over which we still experience conflict. People are people. Get involved with any “church” and you’ll soon see some of the same arguments about titles and offices and leaders and loyalty and membership and requirements. I’ve got almost 40 years in this journey following Jesus and I’ve seen it again, and again, and again.

This morning I’m thinking about quarrels, controversies, and concerns. It’s the stuff we have to navigate if we’re going to live together in community. It’s inescapable. Having been through Paul’s letter to the Corinthians a few times, I know where Paul will eventually end-up. I’m reminded that while Paul begins his letter addressing the conflicts (even stirring them with his claim of being an apostle) he ends by reminding us all that followers of Jesus have one leader who gave us one law: love that is patient and kind, not envious, boastful, or proud; Not dishonoring, self-centered, or easily annoyed, nor clinging to negative feelings or attitudes towards others. Not easy, even for Paul and Peter. At least we’re in good company.

If together we focus on the law of love, we can make it through the conflicts and learn to live together, honor one another, and support one another. Despite their differences, even Paul and Peter did that. So can I.

 

Human Manipulation Present and Historical

While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate the sacrificial meal and bowed down before these gods. So Israel yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor. And the Lord’s anger burned against them.
Numbers 25:1-3 (NIV)

One of the reasons that I enjoy being a student of history is that it so often affords me the wisdom to put current events into historical context. In the 24/7/365 world of network news and social media it is fascinating to watch people getting whipped into a frenzy by every trending story of the moment. In this past year the story about Russian interference in American elections has driven an incredible amount of airplay. The truth is that countries attempting to effect the outcome of foreign elections, or the opinions of a foreign people, has a very long and rich history around the globe and including my own government here in the United States. There are always slimy political agents willing to play both sides, or any side, for profit.

Today’s chapter is an ancient case in point.

Balaam the Seer may have appeared to be a faithful follower of God in the previous few chapters. Balaam knew God’s voice and he knew enough that it was not profitable for him to curse Israel if God was on their side. Balaam was also the prototypical double-agent. If military victory against the Israelites was out of the question, perhaps a campaign of religious and moral subversion would introduce chaos and disruption to weaken the Israelites.

So, women were sent to seduce Israelite men into joining them in the rather depraved sexual fertility rights of the local fertility god named Baal (Btw, men being easily seduced sexually for political or personal advantage is another well-documented historical pattern). It was not just a one night stand, but the narrative says the men “yoked” themselves to the Canaanite deity, which is a word picture of servitude. The disruption worked. The spiritual, moral, political, and religious struggle between God and Baal would continue for nearly a thousand years and eventually become part of the recipe that divided Israel into a long civil war.

What is fascinating is that the shadowy political operative manipulating things behind the scenes was none other than Balaam the Seer. In a few chapters (31:16) we discover that it was Balaam who instigated the Moabite women to seduce the Israelite men into Baal worship.

This morning I’m thinking about manipulation. I can be manipulated so easily. I live in a world in which the microphone on my cell phone can pick up my conversation and feed marketers the ads I’m likely to be interested in. I live in a world in which I may see only what the cameras of my news program of choice want me to see. I live in a world where relatively few inflammatory social media posts, strategically placed, can disrupt the collective thought of a nation. This isn’t new, it’s just old spiritual, commercial, political, and social paradigms discovering new and more powerful tools.

As I enter into a new work week, I’m reminded over Jesus excellent advice to His followers:

Be shrewd as a serpent; gentle as a dove.”

Have a good week, my friend.

Facing Opposition

Korah son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, and certain Reubenites—Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth—became insolent and rose up against Moses. With them were 250 Israelite men, well-known community leaders who had been appointed members of the council.
Numbers 16:1-2 (NIV)

Every leader of an organization, whether it be politics, business, community, church, or non-profit, will face opposition. It is, I’m afraid, simply part of the  territory.

In today’s chapter, Moses and his brother Aaron face yet another round of opposition to their leadership. They’ve already faced multiple waves of criticism, experienced sharp drops of popularity, and had to address multiple acts of defiance. Now, a Levite and three men from the tribe of Dan were ring-leaders of a 250 person rebellion. Their beef was that Moses and Aaron sat a lone at the top of the religious system. They wanted a piece of the power. “We’re all holy,” they argued. “Why is it only the two of you alone get to enter the Lord’s presence and speak for the Lord?” 

I’ve found it very common for leaders to face opposition from members of the group who envy all of the benefits of leadership. I also have found that these individuals often ignore the very real responsibilities and burdens that come along with that leadership. I’ve also observed that where there are a few passionate opposition leaders, you will soon find a growing group of supporters that they will have stirred up in order to support their own feelings and desires.

We later find that part of the opposition wasn’t just about power and control, but about material possessions. The Levites weren’t allowed to own property. God intended for them to take care of the temple and to be provided for through the temple and the offerings and sacrifices of the other tribes. Those opposed to Moses and Aaron’s leadership eventually reveal that what they want is the ability to own property like everyone else.

I’ve observed that opposition is often rooted in others’ appetites for power/control, money, or both.

I also observe this morning a couple of important lessons from Moses’ response to this latest round of opposition:

  • Moses didn’t ignore the opposition. Moses acknowledged the opposition and even allowed for a test of their opposition. He confronted Korah the Levite directly. He attempted to speak with the leaders of the opposition from Dan, but they wouldn’t speak to him. Opposition rarely just goes away and it often refuses direct communication. Left unchecked, opposition typically grows to become a larger and larger issue. Good leaders rise to the challenge and find ways to address opposition. There are many and diverse ways of addressing it, but I have learned (in some cases through failure, I confess) that it needs to be addressed.
  • Moses differentiated between opposition and the whole.  Rather than stepping back and accepting God’s anger to burn against the entire assembly, Moses’ pled for the consequences to be confined to those responsible. It’s easy from a position of leadership to perceive that the opposition is greater than it really is. Trying to remain objective and place responsibility and consequences where they are due can be critical to future success.
  • Moses continued to exhibit love and compassion for those under his leadership. At the end of the chapter we find Moses pleading with Aaron to make atonement for the entire assembly before a plague gets too far out of hand. It is easy when frustrated by opposition and the weariness of leadership to stop caring. Moses continued to exhibit deep concern for the people, despite the never-ending headaches they caused him.

This morning I’m thinking about my own experiences and qualities as a leader. I’ve had my share of successes along the way, but I’ve also failed at every one of the three leadership qualities I observed in Moses this morning. Specific situations, individuals, and circumstances come to mind. As I ponder these failures it humbly brings a final thought on leadership to mind: I can’t let failure stop me from trying. Learning from failure is perhaps the most critical lesson any leader can embrace.

As I get ready to start my day, a familiar quote from Teddy Roosevelt comes to mind:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

The Litmus Test

Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.
1 John 4:20 (NIV)

For a brief two-year period of my journey I worked as a youth pastor. I was not tremendously good at it. The evidence of this fact was the meeting requested one night by a few of the mothers in which they needed a legal pad to record all of the issues they had with me and my performance. It was a much-needed lesson in honesty and humility. Nevertheless, I loved the young people under my charge some of whom I still connect with from time to time.

I recall a young person in my charge from a fine, educated, upstanding white-collar family. I loved this young person and enjoyed the opportunity to build relationship. I recognized very quickly, however, that underneath a well maintained personal facade there hid a seething spirit of anger. It came out only on occasion, but when it did it was a scary thing to behold.

As time when on it was revealed to me that there was a generational spirit of hatred that descended through this young person’s father. There was hatred and suspicion of anything and anyone outside of the legalistic, straight-and-narrow norm. There was hatred of anyone and anything “different.” There was racial hatred, ethnic hatred, and you name it. What I eventually came to perceive was a warm-hearted, confused young person who was raging inside because of a very real spiritual conflict churning inside. I believe that everything this lovable, valuable and capable youth had been systematically taught to believe in the family system was at war with the truth John writes about in today’s chapter:

My beloved friends, let us continue to love each other since love comes from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and experiences a relationship with God. The person who refuses to love doesn’t know the first thing about God, because God is love—so you can’t know him if you don’t love.

I personally struggle with the concept of “litmus tests” as used in the political arena because it tends to reduce broadly complex people, issues and circumstances down to a singular thing. As I read this morning’s chapter, however, I couldn’t shake the fact that John is expanding on the “litmus test” that Jesus, Himself, provided: “They will know you are my followers if you love one another.” John simply takes that to the next step. If you have hatred inside you, you can’t possibly have received the love of God. When you experience the love of God, it transforms hatred into love.

This morning as I prepare for a day of presentations and coaching sessions I am thinking about the diverse group of people I have the privilege to train and coach. For the most part, they are very different from me racially, ethnically, in life experience, and circumstances. But what wonderful, lovable, valuable, and capable people. What an opportunity I have to make new friends, to inspire nervous young people in their first “real” job, to equip struggling leaders in their first managerial positions, to teach eternal truths that drive sound business principles, and to love others well.

There is so much hatred out there. Count me as a simple “grunt” in Love’s army.

As for the young person I referenced earlier in my post, I’m afraid I can only pray that love eventually won that battle. I’ve come to realize that we are constantly part of stories of which we will never get to know the end in this life journey.

Love well, friends.

Hollywood Moment in Colossae

But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary.
Philemon vs. 14

One of the things you learn in the world of theatre, film, and story is that conflict is what makes a story interesting. It’s Friday before 4th of July weekend as I write this, so we’re all being treated by Hollywood to blockbuster conflicts of good and evil in the form of comic book heroes and alien invasions. Fun epic conflicts that feed the adrenal glands while requiring very little of us emotionally. The more personal and human a story’s conflict, the more deeply it affects us.

Paul’s letter to Philemon is an overlooked personal story amidst the grand epic of the Great Story. It’s a deeply personal moment between two men: Philemon and Onesimus. It’s a moment made possible by an unexpected, divinely appointed meeting.

Philemon is a man of means. He’s a respected local businessman in the city of Colossae, where he met Paul and became a follower of Jesus. Philemon became a generous benefactor to the believers in Colossae. He opened his home for them to meet and worship. He was generous in love and deed and greatly respected by Paul.

Onesimus was a slave owned by Philemon. At some point in time, Onesimus stole from his master and ran away. Under Roman law, Onesimus was guilty of crimes punishable by death.

The exact details of the historical story are sketchy, but as a story-teller I’d dare to believe that as a runaway slave, Onesimus likely stuck to a life of petty theft to stay alive and on the run. Petty thieves, especially those who are poor runaway slaves, get caught and thrown into prison. As fate would have it, Onesimus is thrown into jail with a religious disturber of the peace named Paul. Paul recognizing the thief as a member of his friend, Philemon’s household, befriends Onesimus. The runaway slave becomes a sincere follower of Jesus.

Paul tells the slave and fledgling follower that while he has repented of his sins and his sins have been forgiven through Jesus sacrifice, he still must make things right with his master. Onesimus the runaway slave must return to his master, Philemon, as a brother in Christ. Paul pens his short letter. Onesimus, upon his release from prison, returns to his master in Colossae, letter in hand.

What a Hollywood moment. What a churning mixture of emotions as slave owner sees thief and runaway slave walking back through his door. What a moment when Philemon reads the letter from Paul and begins to fathom how God has orchestrated this story. What layers of meaning on personal, spiritual, and cultural levels as matters of slavery and human conflict gets intertwined with fate and personal faith. Runaway slave returns as a fellow follower of the faith. I can only imagine Onesimus’ fear mixed with memories of anger and hatred toward to this man who “owned” him. Philemon’s feelings of legal rights, personal betrayal, and desire for justice is now in conflict with his conscience as the word’s of Jesus’ prayer run through his head: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgiven those who sin against us.”

Today I’m reminded that the test of our faith is in our interpersonal conflicts.

 

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