Tag Archives: Culture

Divine Hospitality

Divine Hospitality (CaD Gen 18) Wayfarer

The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.

He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.”

Genesis 18:1-5 (NIV)

I walked into the small hut. There was no door that I recall, nor was there more than opening for a window. I was in a remote, mountainous region on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines. My interpreter, Victorino, explained that the hut belonged to the local pastor who ministered to villages in the area. We were guests in their home, the local parsonage.

The pastor and his wife were so excited to host us for lunch, and they went out of their way to be so very hospitable. They wanted us to see the large piece of linoleum that had been placed over the dirt floor. Victorino explained that it was likely a scrap that had been salvaged from a landfill near the city, but to our hosts it was a meaningful upgrade to their normal living conditions.

Our lunch consisted of pulled chicken freshly butchered, rice, fresh fruit harvested by hand nearby, and simple sandwiches comprising of white bread onto which butter had been spread and sugar sprinkled over it. The humble meal, Victorino explained, was a lavish feast in our hosts personal economy. They were sacrificing themselves to give us the very best they could afford.

I will never forget that experience. It was humbling. I couldn’t help but think of Jesus pointing out that the poor widow offering her only pennies at the temple was a far greater divine gift than the tithe of abundant riches offered by the wealthy. The meal in that hut was divine hospitality.

Today’s chapter tells of Abraham experiencing what scholars call a theophany, an experience in which God appears to a human in human form. Abraham greets them with gracious hospitality. Abraham makes sure his guests have shade from the sun and water to wash their sandaled feet. Sarah uses enough flour to make 60 loaves of bread, and a calf is slaughtered for the feast (a rare treat in that time).

As I read the chapter, I couldn’t help but recall memories of the incredible hospitality I’ve experienced in other cultures. The Philippine parsonage was just one example. There’s the Arab restaurant owner in Bethlehem during the intifada who, while his fellow countrymen treated me with contempt and threats, quite literally begged me to come into his shop where I was treated with what felt like royal hospitality. Then the experience in Nazareth village in which I was able to experience ancient hospitality much like Abraham in today’s chapter. A shelter for shade, fresh baked pita break made as Sarah likely would have made it thousands of years ago, and fresh olives and olive oil (see featured photo of this post).

My parents modeled hospitality as I was growing up. Everyone was welcome in our home, including friends who would stop by even when me and my siblings weren’t home. Everyone was offered my mother’s home cooking or baking. My parents loved talking to our friends, and our friends obviously felt loved, welcomed, and embraced.

Wendy and I have tried to continue the same kind of hospitality that was modeled for me by my parents, the same kind of generous hospitality we have experienced from others, and the hospitality that God desires from every follower of Jesus. I am reminded that I never know when I might experience a heavenly visitor in disguise, like Abraham:

Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.
Hebrews 13:2 (NIV)

As I close out this work week, I am humbled not only in remembering the hospitality I’ve experience from others, but also in considering the opportunities Wendy and I have to continue growing in generous hospitality, sharing all with which we’ve been generously blessed with others.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

More Than “Boy Meets Girl”

More than "Boy Meets Girl" (CaD Ruth 2) Wayfarer

So [Ruth] went out, entered a field and began to glean behind the harvesters. As it turned out, she was working in a field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelek. Just then Boaz arrived from Bethlehem and greeted the harvesters, “The Lord be with you!”
Ruth 2:3-4 (NIV)

When I told Wendy yesterday that I’d begun the story of Ruth, her response was, “Oh good! I love the story of Ruth!” I was not surprised by this. In fact, I mentioned it because I knew she would be pleased. When Wendy and I were married, we wrote our own vows. Her vows to me included Ruth’s vow to Naomi:

“Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.”

The story of Ruth often resonates deeply with women. It’s a boy meets girls story, and it is basically an ancient version of the film Pretty Woman. Destitute young woman who is a societal outcast and pariah meets older man of means. As I’m fond of saying: “All good stories are reflections of the Great Story.”

But there’s more going on under the surface of the boy meets girl romance in the story of Ruth. Ruth is a story of redemption, and it’s important for 21st century readers to understand a bit of context.

The early chapters of the Great Story are about God calling one man, Abraham, and growing his descendants into a nation. That doesn’t happen overnight, but over centuries as Abraham’s grandson has twelve male sons/grandsons who become leaders of tribes (the story of Abraham through Jacob and his sons is told in Genesis). Those tribes then become slaves in Egypt for 400 years before Moses led their deliverance. Then God has the difficult task of turning slaves who have had zero autonomy, freedom, or education for generations into a fully functioning nation. To facilitate this, God give them His law through Moses (this story is told in the books of Exodus and Leviticus). What’s utterly fascinating about the law of Moses is that it is an ancient blueprint for how a nation and society should function lawfully and it prescribes ways for managing common societal ills including immigration, incurable and infectious diseases, and poverty. Those issues sound familiar?

Having a blueprint is one thing. Actually convincing a couple of million former slaves in the brutal world of the ancient near east to actually implement it is another. The time of the Judges, in which this Pretty Woman story of Ruth takes place, is a time when the implementation is failing miserably. This new nation remains a tribal system with no central leadership, violent wars and feuds within and without, and little adherence to the laws and blueprint God had given them.

In today’s chapter, we’re introduced the prototype of Richard Gere’s character in Pretty Woman. We learn that Boaz is a “guardian-redeemer” or “kinsman-redeemer.” This was part of the societal blueprint God gave through Moses. Men in each family clan within each tribe were appointed as “redeemers” to care for those in their clan who’d been dealt a bad hand. The law required leaving part of your field unharvested so the poor in your clan could glean food for themselves. It required the redeemer to buy-back (e.g. “redeem”) clan members who, because of poverty, had been sold into slavery. It required them to help widows of child-bearing years to bear heirs who would then be responsible to care for them so they wouldn’t become a drain on the nation at large. Only, men in the time of the Judges were not known for living up to their responsibility or following the blueprint.

Boaz is far more than just a dashing figure with salt-and-pepper hair who looks good in an Armani suit and Julia Roberts on his arm. The first thing we hear from Boaz is his greeting to his own servants: “The Lord be with you.” Boaz is, first-and-foremost, God’s man, and that lays the foundation for the rest of the story. At a time when not following God and His blueprint led the nation into repeated chaos, violence, war, and tragedy, Boaz represents how when those with status, wealth, and power within the system trust God and faithfully follow the blueprint, they become agents of redemption and the entire society benefits.

In the quiet this morning, I can’t help but think about a larger conversation going on right now within our culture in which the Christian church is accused of not following Jesus’ blueprint of caring for “the least of these.” I won’t deny that this is true, though I believe that it is a broad-brush, black-and-white generalization that completely paints over the tremendous work of sincere followers of Jesus, throughout history, who fulfill Jesus’ mission of caring for the marginalized and improving life and humanity on earth.

I also can’t help but think about Boaz. He’s simply one faithful believer who is obedient within his clan. He may not be altering the course of the entire nation in those dark times, but he is altering the course of Ruth, Naomi, his clan, and his community. Boaz is an agent of redemption within his circles of influence. Imagine if there was one Boaz in every clan in every tribe in that day?

I often read the headlines over coffee with Wendy in the morning and enter my day feeling impotent to make a difference in the national and global problems plaguing the world. This morning, I’m reminded that I have the power and ability to be a Boaz.

“Be a Boaz.” That’s the cry of my heart as I enter this day.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

“All People”

"All People" (CaD John 12) Wayfarer

Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.”
John 12:20-21 (NIV)

And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
John 12:35 (NIV)

I recently read an interview with a social scientist in the Wall Street Journal who has spent his academic career studying the blending of people groups within a culture. With the current cultural conversation around prejudice and racism, he raised some interesting facts that no one is talking about. Leading up-to World War two, ethnic groups in America kept to themselves. Italian, Irish, Dutch, German, and the like congregated together in neighborhoods and/or small towns. Prejudice and conflict between ethnicities was strong. Even in my small town of Pella, Iowa there once was a time when a neighborhood on the south side, known as “South Pella” was predominantly Irish amidst our town of Dutch immigrants.

Then after the war, in which different ethnicities fought together side-by-side and gained respect for one another, people began to intermarry. Ethnic prejudice is relatively non-existent today compared to what it was. The “melting pot” blended ethnicities. Now, the scholar says, the number of bi-racial couples has been rising steadily for decades. Some 20% of our population no longer fit into the categories of White, Black, Hispanic, or Native American because they are the offspring of bi-racial couples for which we have no applicable choices on the census form. With each subsequent generation the number of mixed race individuals will grow. Races, he believes, will melt together just as ethnicities have done. It’s already happening, though no one is talking about it.

A modern reader can scarcely understand how racial, gender, and religious prejudice were a way of life in Jesus day. One of the things that made Jesus a “radical” in the eyes of the religious leaders was His intentional crossing of every social boundary. Jesus crossed both ethnic and gender lines when he spoke to the Samaritan woman. He then taught and performed miracles in Samaria at a time when good Jews typically went out of their way to travel around Samaria because the hatred between Jews and Samaritans ran so deep. Jesus’ ministry among the Samaritans threatened the orthodox ethnic prejudice that was part of the culture of the day. Jesus healed a Roman Centurion’s son when Roman were the hated, occupying enemy. Jesus touched lepers. Jesus partied with tax collectors and unrighteous sinners that any good, religious Jew would self-righteously avoid.

In today’s chapter, John slips in an interesting fact. It’s the last week of Jesus’ earthly life, a group of Greeks ask Jesus for an audience. Greeks were another racial group that good Jews avoided since they regarded them as dirty and inferior. Jesus, however, welcomed them, though John does not share any of the conversation He had with them. The fact that Jesus welcomed them is important to John’s first century readers because the number one conflict in the early Jesus Movement was the long-standing prejudice between Jews and non-Jewish Greek “gentiles.” John was addressing those who might say, “Jesus never hung out with Greek gentiles, so why should we?”

John is also connecting the welcoming of the Greeks to something Jesus says later in the chapter: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” In drawing “all people,” Jesus boldly sets forth His mission to bring love, salvation, and redemption to anyone who believes regardless of DNA, gender, skin color, ethnicity, social status, economic status, family of origin, tragic mistakes or messed up life.

The Greek word that John uses for “lifted up” is hypsoō which has multiple definitions. It means literally “lifted up” (as on the cross) and also means “exalted” (as in resurrected and glorified). How fascinating that “exaltation” comes through suffering, just as Jesus said in today’s chapter: “Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

In the quiet this morning, I’m feeling both inspired and challenged. I’m inspired by Jesus’ example, and His mission. John would also write the book of Revelation in which he is given a glimpse of eternity. He describes people “of every tribe and people and language and nation” gathered together to “exalt” the glorified Christ.

Or, as U2 describe it:

I believe in the Kingdom come,
when all the colors bleed into One.

At the same time, I am challenged to reclaim Jesus’ example of crossing any and every social boundary, excluding no one in channeling God’s love, and to exhort fellow believers in my circles of influence to do the same…until, together, all colors cross into a new reality and bleed into One.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Cancelled (Not)

Cancelled! [Not] (CaD Ps 130) Wayfarer

If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
    Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
    so that we can, with reverence, serve you.

Psalm 130:4 (NIV)

I’ll never forget the story of a woman I know who told me the story of being a teenager who made a foolish choice. Once it was discovered, she was brought before her church and publicly shamed for her mistake. They threatened her with expulsion and vowed to make her an outcast unless she repented. She told me this as an adult, but the spiritual and emotional scars of the experience were still very much present.

As a student of history, I can tell you that public shaming, scapegoating, and what today we call “cancelling” have been around as long as human civilization. It morphs into various forms, but it is a staple of fundamentalist systems no matter the flavor. When allowed to run amok, it leads to guilt by accusation, mob justice, and the kangaroo court of illogical and unreasonable group-think. It can be lethal, as the residents of Salem, Massachusetts found out when a group of silly girls leveraged the fundamentalist bent of their Puritan faith and began accusing people they didn’t like of being witches.

I find it fascinating to watch what is happening in our own current version of it. I observe that cancel culture has all the same quintessential ingredients that existed among the reviled Puritans of Salem. I have had more than one person tell me in the past year that if an enemy at their workplace chooses to go back and uncover the silly, foolish things they did and said in their youth and make them public, they’re screwed.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 130, is an ancient Hebrew song that expresses the emotions of one crying out from “the depths.” The metaphor of the original Hebrew lyrics are that of deep waters. The songwriter is drowning in a sea of their own mistakes and foolish choices. In experiencing God’s forgiveness, mercy, grace, and redemption, the songwriter is moved to gratefully serve God.

As I read through the teachings of Jesus, I don’t find religious shaming and cancel culture. In fact, the most pointed condemnation Jesus dished out were to orthodox religious fundamentalists who were carrying out their own brand of cancel culture. Jesus actions and words were gracious, forgiving, and redemptive. Paul, one who was drowning in his own deep waters on a trip to Damascus, told Jesus’ followers in Rome that its God’s kindness that leads to repentance not shaming, condemnation, and threats of cancellation. He also wrote to the believers in Corinth that it was Christ’s love that compelled him to risk life and limb to share that love with others. In my experience, condemnation, hatred, public shaming, and threats don’t compel anything worthwhile.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself recalling the “deep waters” of my own life journey. I find myself mindful of the many foolish thoughts, words and actions that dot my journey, and for which others would gladly cancel me. I find myself grateful for Jesus who, by His own words, claimed that he didn’t come to condemn the world, but to save it through love, servant-heartedness, self-sacrifice, forgiveness, grace and redemption.

As He has not condemned, shamed, nor cancelled me, I find myself compelled not to condemn, shame nor cancel anyone else.

Every Tribe and Tongue

Every Tribe and Tongue (CaD Ps 129) Wayfarer

“they have greatly oppressed me from my youth,
    but they have not gained the victory over me.”

Psalm 129:2 (NIV)

Wendy and I watched Godfather: Coda a few weeks ago. For those who aren’t familiar, it is the recent re-edit of the final film in the Godfather trilogy by the film’s director, Francis Ford Coppola. Originally released as The Godfather III back in 1990, the film has always been largely criticized for not living up to the first two films. Coppola claimed that he was at odds with the movie Studio on how the story should be told and was forced to rush the film to market. He was finally allowed, 30 years later, to recut it and tell the story as he and Mario Puzo imagined it.

The trilogy is really the story of Michael Corleone. Raised in a mafia family, he swears early on in the first film that he’ll never be part of the family business. The overarching story is how Michael descends into the underworld with the intent to save his family and then can’t escape, as his family is slowly torn apart.

One of the subtle storylines in the third film is that of Michael Corleone’s son, Anthony. Anthony, like his father, wants nothing to do with the family business. “I’ll never be part of the family business,” Anthony states. He then adds, “I have bad memories.”

“Every family has bad memories,” his father replies.

That line has always resonated in my soul because I find it to be true. Just the other day I wrote about my journey of discovery and uncovering some of my families’ bad memories when I was a young man. But there is also the larger reality that we are the product of the systems into which we were born. We are a product of our people. Michael wanted to escape, yet he chose in and tragically couldn’t find the exit.

Wendy and I are both products of a Dutch American tribe who risked everything to come to America, settled as a tribe on the plains of Iowa, and prospered. That prosperity was fueled by our tribe’s deeply rooted values of faith, frugality, and hard work. Wendy and I often acknowledge that we are products of our people with both the blessings and curses that come with every human system.

For the Hebrew tribes, history and identity as a people is one of constant struggle against other tribes and nations and their subjugation by human empires. That is what the writer of today’s chapter, Psalm 129, is pressing into with his lyrics as he describes being enslaved and beaten:

Plowmen have plowed my back
    and made their furrows long.

Psalm 129 was likely written after the return of exiles from captivity in Babylon. The sting of the experience would have still been fresh in the memories of those singing this song on their pilgrimage. It is the cry of a people that first acknowledges that God has blessed them and they have not been overcome, then asks God to justly deal with their oppressors.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself confessing that there are a host of human experiences that I can’t completely fathom because I haven’t experienced them myself, but that doesn’t mean I can’t seek to understand, to empathize, and to learn lessons from the experience of others. Our Dutch American town holds an annual festival of our Dutch heritage. The motto of the festival is “Everyone’s Dutch for a day!” and visitors are encouraged to learn the history, try on a pair of wooden shoes, learn a Dutch dance, and eat lots of pastries. When invited in to learn and embrace the knowledge of other cultures and people groups, I observe that everyone benefits. When excluded from doing so, I observe that the walls of prejudice are fortified to the detriment of all.

One of the sins of the institutional churches and the abuse of their power in history is the perpetuation of prejudice, injustice, violence, and indifference for the sake of power and empire in the kingdom of this world. The Jesus Movement that was about tearing down walls of prejudice and spreading love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness to every human tribe became a human empire. In the black-and-white binary choices to which the world likes to reduce everything, Christianity has been summarily dismissed by many.

I have found, however, that the heart of the Jesus Movement has always continued in the hearts and lives of individuals who embrace it and seek to carry out the original mission. A mission in which every human being of every people group can experience love, forgiveness, and redemption. When given a vision of eternity, John described the crowd as persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. When U2 described it in their psalm they sang, “I believe in the Kingdom come, when all the colors bleed into one.”

My heart this morning is crying out with the prayer of St. Francis. Perhaps it expresses more succinctly what my heart is trying to say in this post:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offense, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.

Of Voices & Family

Of Voices and Family (CaD Ps 117) Wayfarer

Praise the Lord, all you nations;
    extol him, all you peoples.

Psalm 117:1 (NIV)

Wendy and I read a fascinating interview in the last week of an expert in race and culture. In the loud cacophony of voices lecturing about race and culture with stark in-group and out-group labels and distinctions, this academic stands as a proverbial “voice in the wilderness.” He has been studying trends for 50 years and pointed out facts that no one else is talking about or acknowledging.

The number of bi-racial and bi-cultural couples getting married and having children has increased significantly in the last 50 years and continues to rise. Both Wendy’s and my family are classic examples. Between our siblings, nieces, nephews, their spouses and children, we have the following races and cultures represented in just two generations: Dutch-American, Anglo-American, African-American, Korean-American, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, and Mexican.

In other words, the simple, binary labels on the census list are increasingly obsolete. For this, I am increasingly joyful.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 117, is most known for being the answer to trivial pursuit questions. As just two verses long, it is the shortest psalm and the shortest chapter in the Bible. (If anyone is starting this chapter-a-day journey with me today, you’re getting off to an easy start. Just a warning, the longest psalm is just two chapters away, so you might want to get a head-start! 🙂

In its brief content, however, this ancient Hebrew song of praise has a significant purpose in the Great Story. This short song, traditionally sung each year as part of the Hebrew Passover, calls all nations and all peoples to worship and praise. This fits in context with the calling of Abraham, father of the Hebrew people when God promises Abraham that through his descendants all nations and peoples will be blessed.

If we fast forward to the Jesus story, we find Jesus breaking down the racial and cultural walls that His tribe had erected to keep those they considered spiritual and racial riff-raff out. Jesus followers went even further to take the message of Jesus to the Greek, African, and Roman worlds and beyond. This created upheaval and conflict among Jesus followers of strictly Hebrew descent. It was Paul (who called himself “a Hebrew of Hebrews”) who used today’s “trivial” psalm when writing to the followers of Jesus in Rome to argue that from the very beginning the Great Story has been about all nations, all races, all cultures, and all peoples.

When John was given a glimpse of heaven’s throne room, this is what he saw and heard:

And when [the Lamb who had been slain] had taken [the scroll], the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. And they sang a new song, saying:

“You are worthy to take the scroll
    and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
    and with your blood you purchased for God
    persons from every tribe and language and people and nation
.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.”

Revelation 5:8-10 (NIV) emphasis added

In the quiet this morning, I am reminded of texting our daughters of Suzanna’s engagement to Chino in Mexico a couple of years ago. The response to the news was, “Yay for more beautiful brown babies in the family!” (by the way, the first of those arrives this summer and we can’t wait to meet our newest nephew).

Along my life journey, I have observed that we humans like to reduce very complex questions into simple binary boxes and choices. As a follower of Jesus, I found that the journey seemingly began that way. I could choose to follow, or not (though my theologian friends will be happy to turn that into a very complex question for you). After that, things get exponentially personal and complex. Just yesterday, I gave a message among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers and I made the same argument about the season of Lent. Religious institutions want to make things top-down prescriptive when Jesus was always about things being intimately and spiritually bottom-up personal.

I find myself this morning meditating on the contrast between the voices of culture and the experiences of family. There are such complex questions we face today of race, gender, and culture. I don’t want to diminish or dismiss them. At the same time, I find myself encouraged by a profound truth simply stated in today’s chapter.

Praise the Lord, all you nations;
    extol him, all you peoples.

Wayfarer Weekend Podcast: Where it’s All Going

This week’s Wayfarer Weekend podcast comes on the heels of the most contentious Presidential election in recent history during the most strange year of our lifetimes. Where is it all going? Thoughts from a “wayfaring stranger traveling through this world of woe.”

(WW) A Wayfarer's Thoughts: Where it's All Going Wayfarer

Losing the Truth of Loss

Losing the Truth of Loss (CaD Ex 22) Wayfarer

You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.
Exodus 22:21-24 (NRSVCE)

I find it fascinating, as I read the laws of Moses in today’s chapter, that the Hebrews were commanded by God to take care of foreigners living among them, and to take care of socially and economically disadvantaged groups within their society. By the time Jesus arrived on the scene some 1500 years later, the Temple in Jerusalem had become a religious racket (which is why Jesus drove the currency exchange vendors out of the Temple). The religious system prescribed through Moses had become an institution that made money for the the chief priests and religious leaders who then leveraged their power and authority to line their own pockets at the expense of their own people, while they prejudicially looked down on anyone who wasn’t one of them. They religiously kept the rules that made them look pious while finding excuses for ignoring those that might require real compassion and generosity.

One of the reasons the early Jesus Movement grew so rapidly was the fact that Jesus’ followers were radically challenging the social structures of the day. There were no church buildings. They met in homes around the supper table and, at that table, everyone was welcome to sit together. Both women and men, Jews and non-Jews, and even slaves were welcomed to sit at the table with their master. Beyond that, the followers of Jesus took care of those who were socially and economically disadvantaged in the society of that day including widows, orphans, and lepers.

When Christianity became the state religion of Rome a few hundred years later, the Jesus Movement became a powerful religious and political institution almost overnight. The good news is that Christians would no longer be persecuted and fed to the lions in the Roman Circus. The way was paved for sincere teachers and theologians to meet together, debate, and establish core doctrines. With the authority of the Roman Empire, there was an opportunity for real change.

Interestingly enough, what followed was ironically similar to the very things Jesus criticized in the religious leaders of His own people. The movement moved from the supper tables in peoples homes to churches and cathedrals, which required a lot of money. Generosity to disadvantaged groups was curtailed as funds were shifted to lining the pockets of the church leaders and their churches and residences. Women were once again diminished as male dominance was established within the institution. Those who threatened the emerging orthodoxy, like the desert fathers and mothers, were branded heretics and either killed or forced to flee. Leadership positions in the church suddenly became positions of socio-economic and political power that were bought, sold, and traded by rich, powerful, and connected families. That’s how we eventually ended up with an eleven-year-old pope (Pope Benedict IX).

In the quiet this morning, I find myself asking a lot of questions. Our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has spent the last year grappling with the mega-trends we’re seeing in our culture and our world. There are fewer and fewer individuals claiming to be Christians. Churches, especially here in rural and small-town America, are closing for lack of members. Christianity is no longer accepted as the prevailing cultural worldview in our culture, and there is open and growing antagonism as the historic sins and failings of church institutions spark anger and resentment in many circles. Meanwhile, around the world, Christians are being persecuted and killed without earning much attention.

As a follower of Jesus, I find myself wondering if all of this is simply going to lead Jesus’ followers back to our roots. The history of the Hebrews and the history of Christianity both reveal to me that when the heart of God’s message to care for strangers, aliens, and disadvantaged groups is lost amidst the desire for social, economic, and political power, then there is a loss of spiritual potency and legitimacy. I can’t help but believe that the loss of cultural prominence is actually the road back to spiritual progress. The way of Jesus has always been about letting go, giving up, and leaving behind. The diminishment of self for the gain of others is not an optional path for those followers of Jesus who want an advanced spiritual placement. It’s foundational to being a follower at all:

“and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

-Jesus

I think that this has been lost. I confess that as I reflect on my own journey it’s clear that I am as guilty as anyone.

My heart and mind return to yesterday’s post. I want to stop being an ally to Jesus’ teachings and become an accomplice in putting them to work in tangible ways.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Poison on the Team

As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire,
    so is a quarrelsome person for kindling strife.

Proverbs 26:21 (NIV)

There is a client of mine who had a team that had been struggling for some time. While other teams around them were making great strides in their service performance, this one particular team languished in mediocrity. My quarterly training sessions with this team were sometimes painful. Silence. Arms crossed. No eye contact. No participation.

There was one member of this team who was, by far, the worst performer of the group. His performance on the phone calls we regularly assessed were so bad, that one almost had to willfully try to be that consistently awful to their customers. Over several years, the management team tried just about everything to motivate a change in this person. They tried offering cash bonuses for better performance, they provided remedial coaching (I had the joy of conducting many of the coaching sessions…ugh, also painful), they wrote him up on multiple Performance Improvement Plans with HR, and they made threats to fire him. Nothing worked. The longer this went on, I believe the more convinced he was that he didn’t really have to change and the more stubborn he became.

Coincidentally, I was asked at one point to mentor this team’s new supervisor. The newbie had been a member of the team for a long time and was promoted to his first managerial position. I watched him go through all of the same efforts as his predecessor trying to motivate behavior change in the team’s entrenched curmudgeon.

“What am I going to do with him?” the supervisor eventually asked me directly.

“Fire him,” I responded just as directly.

The supervisor seemed shocked by response. I explained.

Look,” I said, “Your management team has wasted their efforts for years trying to get this person to perform. There is a well-documented track record of a bad attitude, poor performance, and an unwillingness to do any more than the very least that is required to avoid getting fired. His attitude has poisoned the entire team and your team will never be healthy until you get rid of the problem at the source.

I had made this same suggestion multiple times to the supervisor’s predecessor and managers, but they could never take the final step of terminating his employment. I actually expected nothing different from the new supervisor, because he was new and firing a team member went against this client’s corporate culture.

I was, therefore, surprised to learn that my managerial protégé took my advice and fired the team member a short time later. Wouldn’t you know it? That year the team that had been mired in mediocrity reached their service quality performance goal for the very first time. I handed out more year-end performance awards to members of that team than ever. The team that had been so painful to train for so many years was laughing, cheering, clapping, and celebrating.

In today’s chapter, Solomon wisely says that a quarrelsome and contentious person is like adding wood to a fire. It spreads. My client’s entire team was stuck in their contentious mediocrity and poor performance because of one team member’s poisonous attitude. I wish I could say that this is the only example I’ve seen in my years of helping my clients improve the quality of their customer service, but it’s not. It’s actually fairly common. What isn’t common is a client’s willingness to do the right thing for everyone (especially their customers) and decisively extract the poison from the system whether it is firing the person or moving them to a different job with a different team that might be a better fit.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking about other poisonous team members I’ve encountered in my vocational journey and the reticence, even in my own company, of confronting it. What I’ve observed over time is that these individuals really don’t want to be in their positions. Sometimes getting rid of a poisonous team member actually frees that person to find something better for themselves. I have followed the careers of a few fired team members on social media and it appears that they are much happier after finding a job that better suits their talents, desires, and personalities. And, some appear to be tragically angry and contentious people in any role no matter where they work.

At least a company can fire such a person. When the contentious and quarrelsome individual is part of a family system, it’s a far more difficult situation. Solomon had another proverb for such tragic circumstances:

To have a fool for a child brings grief;
    there is no joy for the parent of a godless fool.

Sex and a Larger Wisdom

Keep to a path far from her,
    do not go near the door of her house

Proverbs 5:8 (NIV)

One of the challenges in the reading of ancient wisdom is embracing the historical, cultural, and social differences I find rather than letting them get in the way. In our current culture of reactivity and the quick dismissal of anything that doesn’t fit neatly in the personal box of my world view, I’m afraid many miss out on the larger wisdom that is still there for anyone willing to see it.

The role and status of women in ancient cultures is a fascinating study. Just a few chapters ago I wrote about the fact that when the ancients personified wisdom she was a woman. Contrasting that honoring celebration of the feminine, today’s chapter is a head-scratching corollary. Solomon warns his son to beware of a caricatured predator: the adulterous woman.

It seems hypocritical for King Solomon to preach such monogamous virtue to his son, given the fact that the “wise” King was recorded to have had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Of course, it could also be argued that he was writing out of the pain of his own folly, as it is also recorded that he was “led astray” by having 1000 women at his disposal (though I doubt he was an unwilling victim).

Along my life journey, I’ve experienced that it takes two to do the tango of adultery. The peddling of forbidden sexual fruit is not discriminatory by gender, nor is the temptation to taste its pleasures. It is also my observation that gender is inconsequential when it comes to matters of seduction, sexual temptation, sexual surrender, promiscuous relationships and the bitter consequences typically experienced at the dead-end of those paths. It would be foolish of me not to look past the cultural differences between the ancient Hebrews and my own time to see the larger wisdom that Sophia has to share for anyone willing to listen to what she has to say about the foolishness of sexual promiscuity.

In the quiet this morning I find folly and wisdom in multiple layers. There is the obvious folly of promiscuity and the wisdom of relational fidelity presented in the text. I also find the folly of what I see on both sides of our current cultural discourse, in which I can easily be dismissive of others who don’t comfortably fit inside the box of my comfortable world-view. I find there is typically larger wisdom present if I’m willing to seek her out.