Tag Archives: Control

Old Habits Die Hard

Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses,you cannot be saved.”
Acts 15:1 (NIV)

Yesterday I was with a young manager my client has asked me to mentor. The manager described a particular conversation they’d had with a peer in another department. The conversation was about some procedural changes that would affect both of their respective teams. The manager described their opposing views and the conflict that arose as the procedural change was not going to be universally popular.

The manager described the conversation and the slow descent they felt themselves falling into as they dug their heels in and felt stubbornness consume them. In that moment there was no possibility of compromise. The manager recognized what had happened, even felt it happening in the moment, but had been unable to stop it. The manager then confessed that this was a deep-seeded, long-recognized pattern of behavior. And, it was not a positive one. They even recognized the source: “That’s my mother!” the manager said.

Along life’s journey it’s become clear to me that old habits die hard for every one of us. If we are to make progress on our journeys, whether personally, emotionally, relationally, and/or spiritually, it will require old habits to pass away and new patterns of thought and behavior to come.

I found today’s chapter in the book of Acts to be an inflection point. Through the first fourteen chapters the explosive and expansive growth of the Jesus Movement had everyone frantically trying to keep up. When systems experience that kind of explosive growth, the system quickly goes into survival mode, setting aside minor and/or complex matters just to address the giant issues that are staring everyone in the face. As equilibrium is found, the long suppressed issues begin to surface. That’s what I see happening in today’s chapter.

The Jesus Movement sprung from the Jewish tribe with its centuries old set of religious and behavioral customs. It was, perhaps, inevitable that some of the Jewish believers were going to want to retain and cling to their Jewish customs. Old habits die hard. In today’s chapter a few of these habitual believers from the Jewish tribe tell a bunch of believers who weren’t from the Jewish tribe that they would have to adopt all of their old habits and customs in order to be a true believer in Jesus. Primary among these old Jewish habits was the rule that all men would have to be circumcised. Yeah, I’m sure that went over like a lead balloon.

So we have conflict brewing between believers from the Jewish tribe and those from non-Jewish (described as “Gentile”) tribes. While Dr. Luke describes a fairly well-mannered meeting of the minds and peaceful solution, Paul’s description of events is different. Paul describes conflict between he and Peter. He describes conflict in the relationship between Peter, believers from the Jewish tribe, and believers from Gentile backgrounds (Read Galatians 2). In Paul’s description, Peter said that he was all for Gentiles not having to adhere to Jewish customs, but then he hypocritically acted with favoritism towards the Jewish believers. Old habits die hard.

Then at the end of the chapter we find Paul and Barnabas in a sharp dispute about whether to take John Mark on their next missionary journey. The argument ends in the two friends and colleagues splitting up. What I observe is that Paul’s behavior and words in these conflicts with Peter and Barnabas don’t reflect the new code of love that Paul himself describes in his letter to the Corinthian believers, but reflects more of the old proud, arrogant, temperamental and fiery Pharisee who persecuted the church. Yep, old habits die hard.

As I wrapped up the mentoring session with my young business protege yesterday we discussed that recognizing negative behaviors and feeling the negative results from them is the first step toward positive change. The manager described the subsequent meeting between managers, their heart-felt apology, and the constructive progress towards compromise that followed. Well done. Old things begin to pass away as new behaviors and habits are formed.

This is a journey and old habits die hard, but I’ve perpetually found that they will eventually change when I surrender myself to Holy Spirit, when I diligently pursue the person I was created to be, and when I make my mission to be a person marked and controlled by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, perseverance, and self-control.

Have a great day, my friend.

The Runaway Train of My Brain

we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.
2 Corinthians 10:5b (NIV)

When I was in 8th grade I learned how to diagram sentences in English class and how great stories were structured. In high school I learned how to break down stories and characters into their component parts and how to construct a cohesive presentation. In college I learned how to critique, how to “beat” a script, and how to storyboard an idea. In my personal work with multiple counselors I’ve learned how to recognize my own patterns of thought and the conversations I’m always having with myself. I’m still a work in progress but I’ve been learning over my entire life journey how to meta-communicate. That is, to think not only about what is being communicated but how it’s being communicated.

I happen to be married to Wendy, who does the same thing. It makes marriage interesting.

Thus it was that when I came across the phrase above from today’s chapter what initially struck me was not the spiritual meaning of this phrase, but the fact that it is a recurring theme in conversation between Wendy and me. “Taking every thought captive” comes up regularly in our discussions as we process through patterns of thought and behavior. So, I’ve been thinking about that in the quiet this morning.

I’ve realized along my life journey that my thoughts are often a runaway train. My brains neurons, synapses and transmitters got wired a certain way like a set track and when particular situations or circumstances present themselves my thoughts mindlessly follow where that track leads. There’s no meta-communication. There’s no thought about my thoughts. I just follow the tracks and end up at the same stations of words, emotions, behaviors and situations.

When “taking every thought captive” comes up in conversation between Wendy and me, we are essentially referencing the process from the old Westerns of riding fast to grab control of the train engine and pull on the hand brake. We’re forcing ourselves to think about our thinking and then do something about it.

Wait a minute. I keep going to down this ‘train’ of thought and I never like where it leads me (or us). Why am I thinking this way? What situation/experience/circumstance/word triggered my brain engine to take off down this track? What assumptions have I made in thinking this way? What am I not considering? What am I afraid of? What do my thoughts, words, and actions reveal about what it is I really want or desire? What am I not seeing in my limited view of the situation? Is my perspective skewed, and, if so, by what?”

Forcing myself to consider and answer these questions put the brakes on the runaway train, take the mindless thoughts captive, and begin the process of choosing new paths of thought toward better places in life and relationship.

This morning I’m thankful for God-given brains that are naturally powerful at learning, adapting, and changing. I’m grateful for God who is infinitely gracious with this wayfarer’s life-long journey of chasing down runaway thoughts and laying down new tracks. I am equally grateful for the spiritual power that assists in the mental processing. I am reminded that Jesus great commandment includes loving God with all of my mind as well as my heart, soul, and strength.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a train to catch.

Contrasting Rulers

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.
Matthew 2:16

In recent weeks the world watched on video tape as two females approached the half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jon Un in a Malaysian airport and, wiping a nerve agent on his face, assassinated him. This is the dark side of worldly power, and it has been this way since people began ruling over one another. Once you ascend to power you have to figure out a way to stay there, which means eliminating those who might try to take your place.

What a powerful contrast Matthew provides us in today’s chapter. Herod had qualities not unlike the North Korean dictator. A regional monarch put into power by the Roman Senate, Herod “the Great” murdered his own wife, three sons, his mother-in-law, his brother-in-law, his uncle and many others whom he suspected might try to rob him of his position and power.

Contrast this with the infant Jesus, who…

had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion. Philippians 2:5-8 (MSG)

This morning I’m thinking about my place in this world. It’s easy, even in relatively small ways, to succumb to the desire to gain,  keep, and cling the things this world has to offer. As a follower of Jesus, the example I’m given is to embrace an eternal mystery of kenosis: in order to have anything of eternal value, I must let go of everything and empty myself.

Herod’s slaughter of the boys of Bethlehem, commonly referred to as “the massacre of the innocents,” stands as a horrific testament to the lengths one minor regional ruler will go to maintain his addiction to power, and it stands in stark contrast to the baby who emptied Himself of omnipotence to show us a better way.

I’m continuing to seek after the way of empty.

The Continuous Struggle

If a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be ceremonially unclean seven days…If she bears a female child, she shall be unclean two weeks….
Leviticus 12:2, 5 (NRSV)

I am going to be honest. There are still many things that cause me to scratch my head as I journey through God’s Message. I am content to accept the fact that my 21st century American brain cannot completely fathom the realities of life in the middle east c.1500 B.C. It does not stop me from being curious and inquisitive.

In today’s chapter, we read the Levitical system’s prescribed purification rights for women after they’ve given birth to a child. If a woman gave birth to a male child in the that culture she was deemed “unclean” for 40 days. If she had a female child, the period of being “unclean” doubled to 80 days. Even the scholarly text notes in my study Bible states: “It is not clear why the period of uncleanness after the birth of a baby boy (40 days) was half the period for a girl (80 days).” [cue: scratching head]

There is no doubt that ancient cultures, by-and-large, valued male births more than female births. It was a brutal period of human history. Daily life was a bloody, violent version of “king of the mountain.” Wars between tribes, clans, and towns waged non-stop. Power ebbed and flowed through never ending battles of local conquest. Boys became warriors and hunters required to protect, provide, and conquer.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. In the past year there has been a lot of press about China’s infamous program of population control, and the Chinese government’s moves to change the policy now that its unintended effects are shaking their society. Over the years China has gone to horrific lengths to control the birth rate of their people. Hearkening back to the misogynistic practices of history,  male births were preferential to female births. According to one report, by 2020 there will be 30 million more men in China than women. A certain amount of societal chaos is now anticipated.

Beyond the natural, cultural considerations, however, there is a spiritual context that has to be considered. Going back to the Garden of Eden, to original sin, and to the harsh spiritual realities that were unleashed at the beginning. God speaks to the Serpent, to Eve, and to Adam of the consequences of their willful disobedience.

Among the woeful, core consequences is “hatred” between the serpent and the woman. Misogyny is evil, and at the very beginning of the Great Story we see that Evil (a la, the Serpent) is expelled from the Garden with a core, misogynistic hatred of women. The never ending power struggle between male and female is also alluded to as a foundational spiritual consequence of the Fall and continues to be a hot topic in our society, our political campaigns, and our current events.

This morning I am, once again, amazed that God saw fit to surround me with strong, beautiful, capable, intelligent, wise women. I will confess to you that, in certain moments of life, I have experienced pangs of that common male desire to have a son and occasional pangs of grief that it was not part of the plan for me. Fascinating to think about in the context of today’s thoughts. Nevertheless, I have been blessed to be surrounded by females, and it has made me a better man.

This morning is one of those mornings when I walk away from my quiet time with more questions than answers, more curiosity than certainty. I am, however, thinking about the women in my life. I’m thinking how much I truly honor and appreciate them and their femininity. I am again inspired this morning to continually root out deep seated misogynistic tendencies in my own heart, and to seek ways to join the struggle against the enmity against women that has been present from the Fall. I have been surrounded in this life journey by women, and I love ’em.

Things I Don’t Control and Things I Do

Now Jephthah the Gileadite, the son of a prostitute, was a mighty warrior.
Judges 11:1a (NRSV)

Jephthah, son of prostitute. How long had that moniker followed him? His glories in battle, his deliverance of his people, and his leadership could not wipe the reference away. Dale Carnegie taught us, “you never get a second chance to make a first impression” and for thousands of years, the first impression we have of Jephthah is that he was born to a prostitute.

The fact that he was progeny of an anonymous woman of the evening was not under Jephthah’s control. He had no say in the matter. Still, this heritage marked him for life. It led to being driven away by his half brothers. I can only speculate (having known those of similar fate) that he had a chip on his shoulder throughout his life.

When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, the first consequences of their sin was shame. They realized they were naked. They felt their exposed bodies were bad and something they had to cover despite the fact that God said that the way He created their bodies was good and the Garden had been a nudist paradise to that  point. Once sin entered the picture, humanity has forever been locked in a struggle with our shame, and we see that struggle in the story of Jephthah.

What I find interesting about Jephthah is that his story is bookended by contrasting examples of sin and shame. At the beginning of the chapter it was the sin of the father (sleeping with a prostitute) that led to shame being visited upon his son for the rest of his days. At the end of the chapter, it was Jephthah’s own foolish actions that led to the despicable human sacrifice of his daughter and solidified his story as a tragedy for the ages.

This morning I’m thinking about the fact that I have things that I don’t control (the family into which I’m born) and things that I do control (my own thoughts, words, actions, and relationships). Shame, that core pain in the depths of my heart that perpetually whispers to my soul that there is something terribly wrong with me, originates from both sources. It runs in the blood of my forebears and it is confirmed in my own foolish choices.

As I write this, less than two weeks from Christmas, I’m reminded that it was Jesus’ mission to address my shame. The progeny of God, born in swaddling clothes and placed in a manger, came that He might take on all of my sin and shame when He died in my place on the cross, so that I might be unshackled from my shame and find redemption.

God made him [Jesus] who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.
The courage to change the things I can.
And, the wisdom to know the difference.

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featured image by Gwen Meharg

Things I Can’t Control and Things I Can

All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered.
1 Timothy 6:1 (NIV)

It is hard, I believe, to understand with our 21st century experience what daily life was like for those who followed Jesus in the days of Paul and Timothy. I have often heard individuals criticize the fact that God’s Message does not specifically condemn slavery, and those arguments come to mind when reading today’s chapter. I have a lot of historical, cultural, and contextual thoughts about why this is the case. Nevertheless, I will admit that it’s only one of many questions I have about the things God says and the subjects on which He chooses to be silent.

What I take from today’s chapter, however, is a human challenge that is as relevant today as it has ever been. At different waypoints along life’s journey we will all find ourselves in situations we cannot escape and that will not be fair. It could be a situation at work, a family relationship, life tragedy, or a legal obligation.  Sometimes in life we are powerless to change our circumstances.

Paul’s entreaty to those who follow Jesus was to manage those things that we can control in otherwise unmanageable situations. We can choose how we act, how we respond to others, what words we choose to use, how we will think, and the attitudes with which we will approach a situation.

Paul was powerless to change slavery in his day. It would be 1800 years before humanity began to address that issue in earnest and it still plagues our fallen world today. What Paul, and his friends who were slaves, could address was how they lived their lives each day within their given circumstances.

Today I am reminded that I cannot always control my circumstances, but I can control my mind, my tongue, my eyes, my ears, my feet and my hands. What I choose to do with them is what matters.

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Contrasting Events; Contrasting Outcomes

prison2Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”
Acts 16:26-28 (NRSV)

Earlier in the book of Acts, Luke chronicled the story of Peter being held in prison by Herod. When an angel appeared to Peter and led in his miraculous escape Herod quickly executed all of the guards for letting Peter escape (Acts 12:19). Justice in the Roman Empire in those days was swift, severe, and not always just. If your job was to guard a prisoner and the prisoner escaped, the penalty was death.

It was interesting to read a contrasting story in this morning’s chapter about Paul and Silas being thrown into prison in Philippi. When a violent earthquake frees them to make a run for it, Paul and Silas choose to stay in prison. They were, in effect, saving the jailer’s life, and their unexpected act of grace leads to the jailer and his household choosing to become followers of Jesus.

I find myself pondering the differences and the outcomes of these two stories this morning. Peter followed the angel to freedom and all of the guards were executed. When given an opportunity for escape, Paul and Silas chose to stay as an act of love and grace towards the jailer. Why didn’t Peter stay as a witness to his captors?

The situations were different. Peter was instructed to leave by the angel and was under heavy guard. He was in Jerusalem and being persecuted by Herod who was a ruthless, violent, insane dictator. In contrast, Paul and Silas were in a relatively small backwater Greek town being held in jail with only one jailor being mentioned. The stakes were much lower and Paul held a trump card which he plays at the end of the chapter. He was a Roman citizen which came with it a host of privileges that were being denied him. Despite the momentary suffering of incarceration, Paul knew that he actually held an unknown advantage.

Along life’s road I have observed that the institutional church and many Jesus followers desire faith and life to be simple and one-size-fits-all. As I wander through God’s Message I am reminded time and time again that following Jesus isn’t always that simple. God through Paul was merciful to the Philippian jailer, but all of Herod’s guards were summarily executed. Where was the mercy for them? Different time. Different place. Different circumstance. Different stakes. Different outcome.

Today, I’m pondering the reality that God sometimes chooses to move in different ways in different times, places, and circumstances. My job is not to try and categorize, confine, and control what God will do, but be open to the fact that God, His intentions, and His actions are beyond my categorization, confine, and control. My job is, by faith and obedience, to continue following where I am led and let God work as He wills.