Tag Archives: Connection

Structure and Flow

In every province and in every city to which the edict of the king came, there was joy and gladness among the Jews, with feasting and celebrating.
Esther 8:17 (NIV)

Over the past few years, I have served as a mentor to a group of teachers. I will typically review outlines and provide encouragement and advice prior to their message, and then give feedback after the delivery of their messages. It’s been rewarding to watch individuals improve their preparation and presentation skills, and it’s challenged me in a number of unexpected ways. I honestly think I’ve been a better learner than I have a  teacher in the process.

One of the biggest observations I’ve made over my tenure in this role is the importance of structure. If you have a well-ordered structure then your words and ideas have flow. The hearer, almost sub-consciously, follows the flow and ends up right where you want them at the end. Without structure, there is no flow. Transitions are clunky and the hearer gets lost not being able to follow how what you’re saying now related to what you just said before. When an audience is lost they check out. Casual observers rarely appreciate how a great story, song, play, painting, building, sculpture, movie, or presentation is almost always well-structured.

Which brings us to today’s chapter of Esther in which the villain, Haman, has been dispatched. Mordecai, his nemesis, is elevated to Haman’s position and given his possessions. It’s such a good story, but the casual reader does not realize that the story-teller has carefully structured the narrative in what’s known as a “chiastic” style. The author uses the same phrasing in both introducing Haman and then describing Mordecai’s redemption to highlight the reversal of fortune. Commentators Karen Jobes and Janet Nygren help us see the structure:

In the quiet of my office this morning I find myself thinking about structure and flow. The further I get in my life journey the more aware I’ve become that everything is connected. It’s the design of creation. Even a seemingly random sight of trees in a forest has what scientists call a fractal structure. Whether it’s my work, a message I’m giving, a story I’m telling, our weekly schedule, the vacation plan, our meal plan for the week, or how our living room is arranged there is both structure and flow. If I structure things well then things flow better and the results are generally good. If things are disjointed, disconnected, and there’s no real flow, then everything feels unstable and out of whack.

And with that, I enter the structure of my day.

Flow well, my friend.

The Source Makes All the Difference

Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great:
He appeared in the flesh,
    was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
    was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
    was taken up in glory.
1 Timothy 3:16 (NIV)

Cleanliness is next to godliness,” the old saying goes.

That is not in the Bible, by the way. Scholars say it originated as a proverb in ancient Hebrew and Babylonian texts. It was first quoted in modern times by Charles Wesley in a sermon in 1778.

That’s the thing, though, isn’t it? What human traditions grow up around spiritual themes that actually take focus away from the Spirit to whom I’m supposed to be connected?

The Dutch protestant culture from which I spring has always been fastidious, clean, and hard-working. We memorialize it every year during Tulip Time as we first scrub the streets before the parade can begin. Eventually, however, the social and religious pressure to keep up clean and orderly outside appearances with all we are and all we own takes precedence over a Life-filled inner Spirit. The result is what Jesus described of the religious people of His time:

“Frauds! You burnish the surface of your cups and bowls so they sparkle in the sun, while the insides are maggoty with your greed and gluttony. Stupid Pharisee! Scour the insides, and then the gleaming surface will mean something.

“Frauds! You’re like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds.

Along my life journey I’ve been taught many ways to godliness; Spiritual disciplines, rule following, and following the trending spiritual fad hawked by Christian marketers (looking to make a buck) and the spiritual gurus they put on pedestals for us to idolize. I found myself struggling for so long. On the outside I appeared the poster chid of spiritual health as I dutifully kept up with all the outside rules, disciplines, and exercises. Inside my life was dark and out of control.

In today’s chapter Paul writes to his young spiritual protégé about the mystery [“Mystery is not something we can’t understand, but something we endlessly understand.” – R. Rohr] from which true godliness springs, and it has nothing to do with tidying up a la Marie Kondo. Paul goes on to quote what was an ancient poem or hymn about Jesus. True godliness is sourced in the person and work of Jesus. That’s it.

Paul has just finished giving Timothy multiple lists of qualifications for those who will lead the local gathering of Jesus’ followers. He then ends by reminding Timothy that all of these qualifications are not sourced in religious rule keeping and the keeping up of appearances, but in the endless pursuit and discovery of deep Spirit connection and Life-giving relationship with the resurrected Christ. Paul never wrote “I want you to know how to be good religious rule followers,” but he did write “I want you to know Christ, and the power of His resurrection.”

The source from which I seek godliness makes all the difference.

“Sea”

He made the Sea of cast metal, circular in shape, measuring ten cubits from rim to rim and five cubits high. It took a line of thirty cubits to measure around it.
2 Chronicles 4:2 (NIV)

Earlier this year Wendy and I went on our second cruise in a handful of years. I love being on a cruise. I could sit on deck and look out over the ocean for hours and be perfectly content. I don’t know how this land-locked Iowa boy gained a love for the sea. I’ve had it since I was a kid and the ocean was just a picture in a book and figment of my imagination.

In today’s chapter, the Chronicler continues to describe Solomon’s temple and all of the furnishings that were crafted by an artisan named Huram. I couldn’t help notice that it describes Huram making a “Sea.” It was really a giant water reservoir or pool. The water was used for ritual washing and cleansing. But the Hebrew word used by the Chronicler translates “Sea.” Interesting choice.

In the Hebrew rituals, washing and cleansing were an important part of worship. You know, the whole “cleanliness is next to godliness” motif. Jesus and his disciples, however, were criticized by the religious leaders for not ceremonially washing before they ate (That’s right. Jesus was a religious rule breaker!). Jesus’ response was classic. He made it clear to his critics that washing their hands religiously while ignoring their filthy souls was completely hypocritical. Jesus would elsewhere claim to be “Living Water”: An internal, eternal, spiritual spring within to quench, refresh, sustain, wash, and cleanse.

In the quiet this morning I’ve been meditating on the “Sea” described by the Chronicler. A ritual pool intended to be a word picture of the internal, spiritual washing we all need. By Jesus day, the word picture had been lost to empty religious regulation. Jesus sought to redeem the metaphor. He would be the “sea” and “spring.” He would be the Living Water not for the washing of dirty hands, but the cleansing of our stained souls.

Paul wrote to his friend, Titus:

“[Jesus] saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” [emphasis added]

As I sit on deck of a ship and look out over the seemingly endless ocean, there’s something that it does for my soul. I think my spirit connects the sea to something deeper in Spirit. I look out over the sea and my spirit touches the word picture intended by the “Sea” made by Huram. My spirit connects to the “Sea” of Living Water endlessly springing up within, filling, quenching, sustaining, washing, and cleansing.

Back home in Iowa, a photo and a memory will have to suffice as a reminder (until our next cruise!).

[sigh]

Getting to the Heart of the Matter

“Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”
Matthew 15:16-20 (NIV)

Religion has always been good at making a lot of rules. This was certainly true in Jesus’ day and we read about it in today’s chapter. Jesus’ followers didn’t ceremonially wash their hands before they ate. The religious leaders were appalled that Jesus’ followers didn’t follow their rules. Jesus rolled His eyes. This was one of many religious rules that Jesus and His followers broke from not picking grain on the Sabbath day of rest, to healing on the Sabbath, to fraternizing with sinners, and on and on and on.

Rules aren’t necessarily a bad thing. God gave the initial set of rules through Moses, and they were a guide for life lived decently and in order. Of course, over time the religious people took the basic rules and made even more rules to clarify the original rules. Then they added more rules labeled “traditions.” Rules, upon, rules, upon rules that moved things away from the heart of the matter until rule keeping became a religious, behavioral litmus test. But, at the core the original rules meant to guide life still hold true. Jesus said, “I didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.”

In today’s chapter, Jesus makes it very clear where He is coming from on the subject of rules. He tells us that it all comes down to the spiritual condition of our hearts. If my spirit is diseased with pride, anger, hatred, grudges, greed, lust, prejudice, bitterness, envy, malice, jealousy, impurity, et al than it doesn’t matter how well I follow the religious rules about propriety and what to eat, what to wear, or what not to do. And, simply following a labyrinth of religious rules is not going to change the spiritual condition of my heart.

Jesus came to do heart surgery for humanity. He came to change our hearts, knowing that a heart that is spiritually healthy and connected to God’s Spirit will continually beat with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control. It will be motivated to naturally fulfill the only important rules. Out of that healthy, Spirit-connected heart will flow thoughts, words, and actions marked by that same love, joy, peace, kindness, gentleness, consideration, faithfulness, and self-discipline.

This morning I’m reminded that rules of behavior are impotent to change the condition of my heart, but my heart, transformed by Jesus, will powerfully and perpetually change my behaviors and relationships for the betterment of myself and others.

A Small Detail of Culture and Economics

healing of maryAfter this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.
Luke 8:1-3 (NIV)

I mentioned last week that I appreciate Luke for the small details he researched and added into his telling of Jesus’ story. The opening of today’s chapter is an example. Luke is careful to point out that Jesus was accompanied, not only by the twelve, but also by some women whom Jesus had healed. When reading “Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household,” Luke’s contemporaries would have read that description and immediately understood that Joanna was a woman of means. Herod was a regional king ruling under the authority of the Roman Empire, and managing Herod’s household would have been a well paying position. Luke points out that the women were traveling with Jesus and helping to support Jesus ministry financially. This little detail fascinates me.

In Jesus day, women in Palestine had very low social status. The Jewish culture at that time, it can be argued, was misogynistic. Women were treated with contempt and good Jewish men could be heard reciting ritual prayers thanking God that they had not been born Gentiles (non-Jews), dogs, or women. I can’t imagine how that made women feel when they heard their husbands reciting such a thing.

Jesus, however, cut against the grain of the contemporary culture. He spoke with women in public which scandalous in that day. He socialized with broken women of ill-repute and treated them with love, compassion, and forgiveness. He did not discriminate in performing miracles. He was not only seen publicly healing men, but also touching and healing women of their infirmities both physical and spiritual. Jesus didn’t fear wrath and ridicule for these things, and He received a generous dose of both. Jesus did what was right in the face of popular culture and treated women with the love, honor, and respect that is due to all daughters of Eve. THAT is the Jesus I follow and strive to be like.

In giving us this detail, Luke also clues us in to how Jesus’ traveling ministry operated financially. At least part of the funds required to support Jesus and his followers came from the financial means of his followers, women of means in particular. The principle here is simple. Jesus followers and those whom He healed gave out of their gratitude to support Him and His ministry. It should be no different today. I give regularly to the on-going work of Jesus, not out of blind obedience, guilt, or shame, but out of gratitude for what Jesus has done in my own life.

Another thing this little detail makes me think about is the case of Joanna. Her money was coming directly from Herod’s palace. Herod was a corrupt, evil, murderous tyrant. I can hear the conversations of Jesus’ followers around the fire at night arguing whether Jesus should accept such “dirty” money. Doesn’t that come from evil means? Isn’t accepting that money just a vote of support for Herod and his evil ways? There is no mention of Jesus having any qualms about accepting Joanna’s gifts, despite the fact that it flowed from Herod’s coffers.

There is a timeless, on-going debate about the financial inequalities among peoples and social groups. Financial inequalities existed in Jesus’ day. In fact, it can be argued that the inequalities were even more extreme than what we experience in modern western culture. Yet Jesus’ own ministry would not have been possible were it not for the financial support of followers who were among the rich of that day. I find it interesting that while Jesus taught constantly about money, the teaching was almost always focused on the spiritual connection between individuals and their finances. Jesus never spoke out about the corrupt Roman tax system, but He spoke to individual tax collectors about not using the system to extort money from others. Jesus did not condemn the rich for having money, but He did warn individuals that their love of money was leading them down a spiritual path to condemnation. The only time Jesus made any kind of broader statement was with regard to the extortion racket being carried out by the religious leaders in the temple.

This morning I’m thinking about Jesus, who showed love and compassion to those His culture did not love. I’m thinking about Jesus, who was not as concerned about the macro economic and political issues of this world, as He was about the micro-spiritual connection between our money and our hearts. I’m thinking about Jesus, whom I want to emulate in my thoughts, words and actions this day.

Connected Stories

Source: Steve Czajka via Flickr
Source: Steve Czajka via Flickr

The sons of Judah:
Er, Onan and Shelah. These three were born to him by a Canaanite woman, the daughter of Shua. Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death. Judah’s daughter-in-law Tamar bore Perez and Zerah to Judah. He had five sons in all.
1 Chronicles 2:3 (NIV)

The first section of the record that the scribe penned was following the family line from Adam through Noah to Abraham and Israel. Now the scribe lists out the twelve tribes of Israel, but notice that the scribe immediately moves to the tribe of Judah and ignores the other eleven tribes. Judah was David’s tribe. It was the tribe from which God established His throne.

Often in reading the chapter each day and writing these blog posts I find myself focused in on the micro details of something in the chapter. There’s some little word, phrase, detail or nuance that resonates with me that morning and with where I find myself on life’s road. When reading the long lists and genealogies I also pay attention to the small details that the scribe inserts about certain individuals. I ask myself, “Why did he mention that little detail when he said nothing about all these other people?” Today, however, I found myself thinking about this family tree on the macro level:

  • The long line of descendants tie the stories together. When reading God’s Message we often think about the stories and characters from different eras and ages to be disconnected as if they are random snapshots from different times in history, but when you step back and look at them through time and family line we see that they are all connected. It’s all one storyline and one family. We read the book of Ruth and the touching story of her marriage to Boaz, but we forget that Ruth was Kind David’s great-grandmother.
  • Because God told David that his throne would be established forever, the subsequent generations knew that Messiah would come from David’s line and from the tribe of Judah. When Matthew and Luke write their biographies of Jesus and make claim that Jesus was the Messiah, they knew that their Jewish readers would immediately question Jesus’ claim based on his family tree. That’s why Matthew and Luke trace Jesus’ pedigree back to David, and why the Christmas story of the census that sent Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem was so critical to the larger storyline. Bethlehem was the “City of David” and Jesus, the Messiah, was born in David’s home town. The story of Jesus is intricately woven into to the story of David.
  • There were eleven tribes left out of this list. Siblings don’t abide favorites and the fact that the tribe of Judah was getting the better end of this monarchy thing was not lost on the other tribes. Keep in mind that Judah made David their king long before the rest of the tribes signed on. Keep in mind that Absalom’s rebellion was rooted in powerful individuals from the other tribes while it appears that those of the tribe of Judah maintained their steadfast support of David. Keep in mind that once David’s grandson takes the throne the nation will split in two along these same tribal lines and years of civil war will follow.

Even in our own stories, it is sometimes good to step back and look at things at a macro level. What’s the story of my life? How, if I can see it, does my story connect with the Great Story? What are the overarching theme’s of my story? Who are the main characters of my life epic? Can I see individuals in my story (family, friends, teachers, mentors, spouses, children) who fit classic archetypes?:

  • Innocent
  • Orphan
  • Hero
  • Caregiver
  • Explorer
  • Rebel
  • Lover
  • Creator
  • Jester/Fool
  • Sage
  • Magician
  • Ruler

Today, I’m thinking about my story on a macro level and musing on the larger, connected story being told through my journey. I hope you’ll think about yours. Perhaps over a cup of coffee, a good meal, or a pint we can swap stories.

Chapter-a-Day Romans 16

Jail Cell
Image by abardwell via Flickr

Hello to my cousins Andronicus and Junias. We once shared a jail cell. Romans 16:7a (MSG)

Just last week I was on a business trip that sent me and my coworker driving down I35 from San Antonio, Texas to Laredo and back. While we driving, I suddenly had a flood of memories. I was on that same stretch of interstate when I was 16. Around 40 kids from my church youth group drove from Des Moines, Iowa to Acapulco, Mexico and back in four vans of questionable road worthiness (talk about road trip). Even though it was 30 years ago, there are experiences from that trip that are permanently, vividly etched in my memory:

  • Breaking down. Frequently. (especially fun in the desert)
  • Sleeping on concrete. A lot.
  • Learning the true meaning of Montezuma’s Revenge, then thinking my sister really loved me enough to give up her “free day” in Acapulco to nurse me back to health. Later I found out she really just wanted an excuse, while I was unconscious in bed, to steal a pair of underwear from each of the boys so the girls could tie dye them all purple.
  • Singing, laughing, fighting, and sharing Jesus with others.

Shared experience connects us with others. You know that behind Paul’s greeting to Adronicus and Junias, there is a story. You don’t share a jail cell without there being a story or two.

Today, I’m grateful for those with whom I’ve shared some really incredible experiences along the journey.

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