Tag Archives: Diversity

Keeping it to Myself; Holding it Together

For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
Romans 14:17 (NIV)

Yesterday Wendy and I were with our local gathering of Jesus’ followers and I met young ladies who were from Honduras, Nigeria, and Afghanistan. I was told that the first time my young sister from Afghanistan joined us I happened to give the message that day, and she was relatively new to living here in the States. At some point during the message I began to cry (that happens quite frequently, I’m afraid). She, however, was taken aback. Culturally, men in Afghanistan do not cry, especially in public. She laughed about it now, and the moment became an opportunity for her to learn and grow on a number of different levels. Very cool.

Along my journey I have encountered people from all manner of cultural, religious, and denominational backgrounds. People have all sorts of things that are important to them religiously, spiritually, or culturally from things you eat (or don’t), things you wear (or don’t), and certain days that are special (or not). We’re not talking here about matters of civil law or basic morality. This conversation is about preferences, practices, customs and traditions that are not the command of Christ, though they may hold some special spiritual significance to a particular individual or a particular group of individuals.

As Paul is writing to the followers of Jesus in Rome, he is aware that among all the fledgling local gatherings of believers there are very diverse cross-sections of humanity. Not just Jews and Gentiles, but people from different nations, tribes, cultural backgrounds, and socio-economic positions. This would especially have been true in Rome which was the cosmopolitan epicenter of the western world at the time. The Jesus Movement was breaking down barriers between people for the first time history and for the first time people were interacting with one another, eating together, worshipping together, and speaking to one another as equals on a regular basis. Of course this is going to create all sorts of minor clashes between people from diverse cultural, religious, social and economic backgrounds.

In today’s chapter Paul gives some very clear teaching on these various and sundry differences.

First, he points out that what a person eats and drinks (or doesn’t) and what days are of special spiritual significance (or not) are really of no concern to God but are merely concerns of personal, individual conscience. This, in and of itself, might be a huge eye-opener if my ego has convinced me that I am the universal spiritual template and standard by which all other followers of Jesus should abide by and be judged. Each individual, Paul instructs, should worry only about herself/himself and her/his own behavior in accordance with her/his own conscience before God.

Second, Paul explains that because many different believers have very different matters of conscience on these matters there is no binary “right” and “wrong” in these matters except within my own heart and mind. These things are a private matter between me and God.

That being said and established, Paul urges me to take off my Junior Holy Spirit badge and stop playing spiritual judge, jury, and executioner applying my personal conscience before God onto others who have very different consciences before the same God. “Worry about yourself,” Paul is saying, “and let God worry about others.”

Finally, Paul exhorts me to follow the example of Christ and put others and their personal consciences above my own right to exercise my very different conscience. If I know that a person holds that Sabbath is sacred, I’m not going to ask her/him to come over and help me move my couch that day. If I know that another person finds alcohol to be evil and prohibitive, I’m not going to make an appointment to meet that person at the local pub and I’m going to abstain from drinking in her/his presence.

And, if a sister finds that a man crying in public is wrong, well…I’ll try to hold it together!

Have a great week, my friend!

 

Cooperation, not Competition

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task.
1 Corinthians 3:5 (NIV)

Our local gathering of Jesus followers has two venues for worship, and each Sunday there are worship services that run in both rooms at the same time. For the past few years I have had the honor of working with a team of individuals who are developing their gifts and skills in teaching. Every season there is a rotating team of people who take turns teaching on Sundays and then meeting mid-week to discuss their experience and improve their skills. It’s a diverse group of both men and women of different ages, educational backgrounds, and vocational experiences. It’s been a fascinating experience for me to lead and participate. I’ve learned a lot.

One of the things I’ve tried to impress on our team of teachers is the reality that each week I get up to teach there will be those who are excited to see me up there, and those who who are not. As we represent a diverse cross-section of humanity, we each will appeal to different individuals within our gathering. Those who are gifted teachers and develop those gifts will naturally develop broader appeal, but no teacher enjoys universal appeal (not even Jesus). It just is what it is. I think that’s why Jesus’ followers are called a “body” and the spiritual gift of teaching is given to a diverse number of individuals across all parts of the body.

As I’ve been studying the early history of the Jesus Movement, I am repeatedly struck at how quickly the story shifts from the original twelve apostles to a host of other characters. In many cases, these almost anonymous individuals, such as Ananias (Acts 9:10-19), pop onto the scene like a bit player with a walk-on role, then make their exit never to be heard from again. Others characters are only referenced or mentioned, but nonetheless they played a large off-stage role. Apollos was one of these.

Apollos was from the city of Alexandria in Egypt, a city of great influence in the ancient world. Apollos was from the upper crust of society in those days. He was highly educated and trained in oratory, the art of speech and debate, which was arguably the most esteemed skill at that time of history. We don’t know how Apollos became a believer, but he arrives on the scene using his speaking and debate skills arguing that Jesus was the Messiah. He was such a powerful teacher and speaker, in fact, that he naturally developed broad appeal within the Jesus Movement, especially with many of the believers of Corinth. Division sprouted among the Corinthians believers as some in the local gathering there began to treat it as if it was a “The Voice” type of competition. Some were on “Team Paul” and other were on “Team Apollos.”

Paul immediately shuts down these notions of competition between the two. It’s not a competition, Paul argues, but a cooperation. Both Paul and Apollos had a role to play in the Corinthian believers faith and spiritual growth. Each brought his own unique personality, style, background, experience, and appeal. Every believer in Corinth had something to learn from both Paul and Apollos. This wasn’t “either, or” it was “both, and.”

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking of the diverse team of individuals with whom I partner to teach among my local gathering of believers. It’s been a blast for me to watch each of them develop their own voice, speak from their own unique experiences, and watch our gathering grow and learn from such a broad range of voices. It’s a weekly and constant reminder that “the church” was never to be a monument to a particular, persuasive teacher or leader. Every local gathering has both a Paul and an Apollos (and an Ananias, and a Priscilla, and an Aquila, and a Chloe and….).

It’s not competition. It’s cooperation. Or else, we’re doing it wrong.

The Special People Among Us

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
1 Corinthians 12:21-26 (NIV)

Along my journey I have lived in a handful of different places from really small towns (e.g. 110-318 people) to larger towns (e.g. 10,000-30,000 people), and a couple of urban regions (e.g. 250,000- 9,000,000 people). Across all of the places I’ve lived I have served and worshipped in a number of churches, both small and large, and of different denominational or theological backgrounds.

One of the things that I’ve noticed is that there has virtually always been at least a couple of special people in every gathering in which I’ve been a part. In the quiet this morning I bring to mind a number of faces and memories I’ve not thought about in a long time. These special individuals are a combination of persons who get labeled “odd duck,” “slow,” “off,” or any number of phrases such as “a few bricks shy of a full load” or “the elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top.

I’m chuckling to myself as I recall one gentleman named Norman. Norman was a huge grizzly bear of a man, who was cross-eyed unkept. His hair was never clean or brushed. His clothes were always disheveled. He commonly paired an ratty, old suit jacket he owned with his dirty overalls. Norman’s speech was always gravely and slurred. His body odor generally arrived ahead of him and lingered well after he left. He would typically arrive late to the meeting and he was known to belch in the middle of my message with the decibel level of your average 737 at take-off.

Norman was also amazingly sweet spirited, regularly attended, never ceased to display a grateful heart, and he always had a kind word to say to any who would take the time to actually have a conversation with him.

Today’s chapter of Paul’s letter to the believers in first century Corinth is normally interpreted to be about how different individuals in the church have different gifts and abilities and they all work together to make up the whole. When Paul writes the words, The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” it is typically interpreted to mean that we all need each others gifts and talents. At least, that’s the way I’ve typically read it and presented it.

As I read the familiar passage this morning, however, I was struck by what Paul had just addressed in the previous chapter:

for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing?

In other words, the divisions among the followers of Jesus in Corinth were not just about differences of talent, culture, philosophy and doctrine. The divisions included the “haves” and the “have nots.” This might have been socio-economic status, but also might well have included those who were healthy and those who were sick, those who were “normal” and those who were…special. So when Paul writes, “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor” he was talking about those among us whom we typically marginalize, ignore, shy away from, and from whom we distance ourselves.

I’m reminded this morning that what originally differentiated the followers of Jesus in the first century was that they welcomed everyone to the table no matter the gender, race, nationality, background, health, talent, or socio-economic status. The “everyone is welcome” attitude was breaking down big-time in Corinth, as I observe it has in most places I’ve lived and worshipped.

This morning I’m thanking God for the special people in my midst who are typically difficult to appreciate, often painful to talk to, and sometimes are just plain awkward when trying to make connection. I’m also confessing that I too often shy away and distance myself from those who are different when I should be leaning in, honoring, and loving. Even if they belch loudly in the middle of my message.

Faith, Following, and Fairness

Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?’
Matthew 20:15 (NASB)

During my lifetime I have observed that fairness and equality have increasingly become societal expectations. There are certainly worthwhile issues to be addressed and ills to be confronted, but I have observed that expectations of fairness and equality can easily expand to encompass almost every area of life. It seems at time as though we want same-ness. Everyone should have the same, make the same, look the same, enjoy the same.

On my spiritual journey I have come to accept that the overarching fairness I observe us striving for does not exist in God’s economy. Everyone has access to the Life, love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness which Jesus purchased through His death and resurrection. Once on the path of following Jesus, however, I discover that God never promised that all followers would all enjoy the same lot in life, be called to the same path, or have the same purpose. In fact, God’s self-revelation gives evidence to infinite and creative diversity in being, calling, giftedness, purpose, and experience. The Trinity itself reveals unity in diversity; Three distinct persons – One God.

In today’s chapter Jesus tells a simple parable that addresses this very issue. A vineyard owner hires workers throughout the day. Some in early morning, late morning, noon, afternoon, and some more for the last hour of the work day. The owners agreed to pay them each the same wage. At the end of the day the laborers who worked all day are indignant that the workers who only worked one-hour received the same amount of money.

Hire a lawyer! Call the Labor Board! Organize a union!

That’s not fair!

But, Jesus points out that each laborer readily agreed to the wage when they began. The issue, then, was not the fairness of the employer but the envy of the workers.

In find it ironic that Matthew follows this parable with the story of Jesus’ own disciples having conflict over who among them were Jesus’ favorites and who would get positions of honor in God’s Kingdom. Jesus response matched the parable He’d just told: “Don’t worry about each other’s rewards; Focus on the job you’ve each been called to do.” 

This morning I am reminded once again that my job is not to concern myself with comparisons to everyone else. My focus is to be on my personal relationship with God, existing in the flow of God’s Spirit, faithfully walking the path God places before me, and fulfilling my role to the best of my ability. When I embrace and embody my unique person and purpose, I contribute to the unity of God’s Kingdom.

Popcorn Prayers

Then the king said to me, “What do you request?” So I prayed to the God of heaven.
Nehemiah 2:4 (NRSV)

When you have intimate, long-term relationships with others you find that communication takes a myriad of forms. Wendy and I are together almost all of the time. We live together, work from home together, serve in the community together, and spend most of our free time together. We have layers of communication:

  • Conversations about culture and world events over breakfast and  the news.
  • Brief exchanges from the top of the 2nd floor landing to the bottom of the stairs on the main floor.
  • Text message exchanges.
  • Non-verbal body language cues.
  • Short notes left on stickies on the counter.
  • Emotional rants of aggravation.
  • Nuts and bolts planning and scheduling over calendars.
  • Cell phone conversations when one of us are running errands.
  • Long, intense personal conversations over drinks or a meal.
  • Pillow-talk as we retire for the night.

I have found that my conversations with God have similar diversity of communication. From long, structured, formal give and take to brief exchanges and casual conversations of spirit. There are blurted exclamations of anger, frustration, gratitude, or need. I quiet my heart and open the ears of my spirit to hear what God might have to say during my coffee with God each the morning. I sometimes pour out my heart to God in long, hand written letters. If prayer is simply communication with God, then each one of these mediums is a different, yet legitimate form of prayer used as needed based on the time and circumstance.

In today’s chapter we learn that Nehemiah served the Babylonian king, Artaxerxes, in his court. His heart heavy with the news of the destruction of his hometown Jerusalem’s destroyed walls, Nehemiah cannot help be send non-verbal cues regarding his mood. The king notices and asks him why he looks so depressed.

We cannot fathom today the pressure placed on servants in ancient royal courts like that of Artaxerxes. Kings and Queens held ultimate power and routinely took the mantel of diety upon themselves. Servants in a royal court were expected to always be in a good mood, always serve with joy, and to treat the royals as if they were gods who lived in a higher dimension of being than everyone else. Any slight, mistake, errant word or look could result in an immediate death penalty.

When King Artaxerxes notices the cloud of depression on Nehemiah’s face, his immediate reaction is fear. Nehemiah doesn’t know whether to answer truthfully, beg forgiveness, say “it’s nothing,” or make up some plausible story. One wrong word or move, a simple raising of the King’s ire, and Nehemiah’s a dead man. Nehemiah chooses to tell the truth about his depression over Jerusalem’s walls. Then, Artaxerxes raises the stakes even higher by asking, “What do you request?”

Nehemiah is now in an even more treacherous fix. Ask too much and the king could take it as arrogant insubordination. Blow off the request and it could be perceived as false humility and refusing to answer a direct question. But Nehemiah needs to answer the king and he needs to answer it quickly. What does Nehemiah do?

He throws up a prayer.

Nehemiah had no time for religious ritual. He couldn’t stop the moment to languish in conversation about this situation with God. He could ask the King to spare him a moment while he got on his knees and recited a psalm. Nehemiah threw up what I like to call a “popcorn prayer.”

Like a kernel of popcorn jumping up quickly in the heat to explode into bloom, popcorn prayers pop out of my spirit in a moment and last little more than a breath. Popcorn prayers often get uttered in heated situations. They acknowledge in an instant that God is always present, always listening, always open to listen in all of the diverse ways two beings in an intimate relationship communicate.

There are times for long conversation, and there are times for popcorn prayers. Both forms are legitimate methods of communicating with God. God answered Nehemiah’s popcorn prayer, and the desires of Nehemiah’s heart were about to miraculously be answered via a blurted prayer from Nehemiah’s spirit.

Today, as I quietly listen to what God might be saying to me through the chapter, I hear this: “Keep popping.”

Confession of a Spiritual Brick Layer

 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him.
Romans 10:12 (NIV)

Six years ago Wendy and I were in London and had the pleasure of attending the National Theatre. The production that night was a fascinating play about the different waves of modern immigrants who flooded into London over the past few hundred years. The play was set in one low rent tenement building that became home to all of these various ethnic groups, and in the pub on the street below.

When the French Huguenots moved in the poor Brits in the pub grumbled about the “F*#@ing French!

When the Indians moved in the assimilated French Huguenots in the pub grumbled about the “F*#@ing Indians!

When the Irish moved in during the Great Famine the assimilated Indians in the pub grumbled about the “F*#@ing Irish!

When the Russian Jews moved in during the Russian pogroms the assimilated Irish in the pub grumbled about the “F*#@ing Jews!

You get the picture. We are such a homogenous and exclusionary society. Even in the “great melting pot” of the United States, which over the past 250 years may have easily become the most racially and culturally diverse society in the history of the earth, we still grumble about the next wave of immigrants. We feel suspicious about people who aren’t “American” and don’t speak English.  We talk about building giant walls to keep people out.

I have observed that followers of Jesus are not immune to this phenomenon. As children we are taught to sing:

“red and yellow, black and white,
they are precious in His sight,
Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

What our Sunday School teachers left out was the bit about these children not being particularly precious in our sight. They didn’t teach us the qualification about these children being “precious in His sight in their own country of origin.”

In today’s chapter, Paul announces to those following Jesus in Rome that the walls the people of Israel had built up in their hearts to exclude non-Jews (known as Gentiles) had been toppled once and for all by Jesus. Beyond that, read the Jesus story and you discover Him toppling walls between genders, walls between social strata, and walls between political camps. Wherever those walls still exist today (and they exist all over the place), it’s because we who have followed Jesus have exerted ourselves to rebuild those walls in our hearts, lives, homes, churches, and communities.

Today I’m reading my own post and examining my own heart. As usual, as I point my finger at others there are three pointing back at me. I live in an incredibly homogenous community comfortable in its lack of diversity. I must confess to you: evidence suggest that I am quite an accomplished spiritual brick layer myself.

God, will you lend me your sledgehammer?

Thanks.

Step back, please.

 

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Choices and Ripple Effects

The Benjamites, however, did not drive out the Jebusites, who were living in Jerusalem; to this day the Jebusites live there with the Benjamites.
Judges 1:21 (NRSV)

Going through a divorce was not a pleasant experience. I continue to learn a number of deep life lessons, both tragic and redemptive, through the process. I have observed that divorce often gets considered and treated as an event and a label. I was divorced in 2005. I am divorced. Yet, the event is a climactic moment in a long story, and the label is merely an adjective which reveals nothing of the context.

Though I now look back on the divorce event from a waypoint further along life’s journey, I continue to observe the ripple effects of  that event in my life and the lives of my children. That’s life. Divorce is an easy example, but I have learned along life’s journey that we all make life choices which will produce generational ripple effects and consequences, both tragic and redemptive.

Tucked in today’s chapter is such an event. The tribe of Benjamin conquered the city of Jerusalem during the conquest of Canaan, and rather than driving out the Jebusite inhabitants they chose to co-habitate the city. That decision would have ripple effects throughout history which we continue to feel today.

Fast forward a couple hundred years or so and you find David making the city of Jerusalem the capital of Israel. David, who had spent years in the wilderness leading a band of multi-cultural renegades (including Jebusites), found in Jerusalem a politically and culturally diverse population stuck between the northern and southern factions of Israel. He had been uniquely prepared to lead and succeed from that position. Jerusalem, to this day, remains a global hotspot of racial, political and religious diversity.

Today I am thinking about ripple effects of life choices. We live in a fallen world in which seemingly innocuous choices made, even with the best of intentions, can lead to tragic events. I have also, however, found God to be the master of redemption, creating life-giving results from deathly circumstance. I cannot control the ripple effect of my choices, only the choices themselves. This day, and each day of my journey, my job is to continue to pursue peace, joy, and love – and to choose life.

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