Tag Archives: Experience

Coincidental Presence

That night the king could not sleep; so he ordered the book of the chronicles, the record of his reign, to be brought in and read to him. It was found recorded there that Mordecai had exposed Bigthana and Teresh, two of the king’s officers who guarded the doorway, who had conspired to assassinate King Xerxes.
Esther 6:1-2 (NIV)

I am currently listening to the book The Volunteer by Jack Fairweather. It tells the true story of a Polish army officer who volunteered to be arrested and sent to Auschwitz concentration camp in order to smuggle out news of what was happening in the camp and to attempt to create a resistance movement from within. After enduring the hell-on-earth realities inside the camp for years, he escaped and was able to offer primary source evidence of what was happening inside the camps to the Allies.

As I’ve been listening, it has brought to mind the story of Corrie Ten Boom (told in her book The Hiding Place), a Dutch Christian who ended up in the Ravensbruck concentration camp with her sister. She and her family hid Jews in their home until they were caught by the Nazis and sent to concentration camps. She was the only member of her family to survive. I have a connection to Ten Boom through my mentor, and the founder of our company, who was head of marketing for the feature film made about Corrie Ten Boom’s life (also called The Hiding Place). He spent a lot of time with her and she had a tremendous impact on his life. As long as I knew him, he had a photo of Corrie in his office and he loved telling stories about her.

The first-hand accounts of life and death inside the Nazi concentration camps are always sobering and difficult to read or hear. They are so horrific and difficult to fathom or absorb. I’m reminded, however, of Corrie’s description of her sister, Betsie, who never failed to experience God’s presence, and even joy, amidst the terror of their daily existence inside the camp. Corrie was released from Ravensbruck because of a clerical error. She spent the rest of her life telling her story and telling whoever would listen: “There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.”

In today’s chapter, we reach the narrative center of the story of Esther. Things look bleak. Esther, Mordecai, and the Jewish exiles are in a deep circumstantial pit. The king has decreed the annihilation of the Jews throughout Persia and his highest official is bent on leading the genocidal slaughter, beginning with Mordecai. But now, unexpectedly, a coincidental event becomes the pebble that starts an avalanche of events which turn the tide of the story. The King has a bout of insomnia and he insists that the annals of his reign be read to him. It just so happens that the story of Mordecai unearthing an assassination plot (about five years earlier) is read to him, and he realizes that Mordecai was never honored for bringing the dark plot to light.

As I’ve pointed out in previous posts, God is never mentioned in the book of Esther. But I find God present and active in the coincidences and events that happen in the story. If God is omnipresent, and most followers of Jesus would cognitively say that He is, then God is always present even when His presence isn’t acknowledged. Even in the deepest and darkest of pits. Betsie Ten Boom didn’t just believe in God’s omnipresence, she experienced it amidst the hell of a Nazi concentration camp, and her sister Corrie was, coincidentally, released by a clerical error in order to tell the story to millions of people.

In the quiet this morning I find myself meditating on the notion of God’s omnipresence, and what that really means. I’ve always found it odd that people in church pray almost every week for God’s presence, and in doing so deny the very thing we say we believe. If God is omnipresent, then it’s silly to ask Him to be present. What we really should pray is that we actually experience God’s presence there, here, everywhere, at all times in all circumstances. Because God is always present.

I remember sitting at the bar just inside the front door of our local pub last summer. The door was propped open to allow fresh air in the place and a friend from my local gathering of Jesus followers happened to walk by and see me there. He stood in the doorway and greeted me, then engaged me in a conversation, but it was obvious that he was not about to step foot inside the establishment and the whole conversation felt incredibly awkward. Knowing a bit about my friend’s background, I realize he was raised to believe that one should never go inside a bar and I honor his conscience. Nevertheless, I’ve known fellow believers who would avoid going into a pub as they believe it to be a godless, evil place. I’ve had some amazing God experiences and conversations in pubs. God is there.

I want to experience God’s presence at all times, in every place, and in each circumstance. It’s then that I begin to see the coincidences of clerical errors and ironies of a King’s insomnia for what they really are.

Drilling Down to Spring Generosity

In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.
2 Corinthians 8:2 (NIV)

About 12 years ago Wendy and I made the decision to purchase my parents property at the lake. At the time the property had a  70 foot single-wide from the early 1970s which I used to refer to as “The Love Shack.” At the end of a gravel road, the property requires a well for water and a septic system for waste management. After agreeing to make the purchase my dad walked me through the process they went through each year to have their water supply tested and treated against the nasty things that can get into a natural water supply. It was pretty gross just thinking about it.

A year or so later we had a new well dug on the property. I’d never experienced this before, and I was fascinated by the process. The young man who owned the drilling service loved his work and I’ll never forget the passion and enthusiasm with which he went about his drilling a well. By the end of the day he’d explained to me that the old well on the property had been way too shallow which was why the water was prone to some of the nastiness that had to be tested and treated. The driller had to go much deeper than planned and get through some tough stretches of rock to reach the aquifer which would pump clean water to our house. I’ll never forget the guy grinning from ear-to-ear. “You’re pumping ‘crystal clear’ now, dude!

That little experience really got me thinking just how much I take for granted the luxury of a clean water supply that I don’t have to think or worry about. That got me digging a little deeper for information about water in the world. The good news is that since 1990 great progress has been made. In just 25 years a staggering 2.5 Billion people have gained access to an improved water supply free from fear of contamination. I love it! That’s huge progress that we can feel good about. [cue: We are the World]. Nevertheless, there’s still 665 million people in the world who don’t have access to a simple, clean water supply. Most of them are in Africa. For many years Wendy and I have been supporters of Blood:Water Mission, a group actively working to improve access to clean water across Africa.

Along life’s journey I’ve had to confess that it sometimes takes an  experience for me to wake up to the needs of others, and the opportunity I have to make a difference.

In today’s chapter, we discover one of the major reasons Paul was writing his letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth. There was a severe famine in area of Syria and Israel. Historical records confirm that a massive famine broke out in that region in 47 A.D. during the reign of Emperor Claudius. People were literally starving to death, and Paul had been taking up an offering among the believers in Greece and Asia Minor to take much needed supplies to the believers back in Jerusalem.

There was kind of a cool spiritual principle at work. Back when Jesus was tempted to turn stones to bread He quoted a verse from Deuteronomy to the enemy: “You shall not live on bread alone, but on every word the comes from the mouth of God.” The believers in Jerusalem had blessed Greece and Asia Minor by sending the Word and spreading Jesus’ Message through Paul and others. Now those believers in Greece and Asia Minor had the opportunity, in turn, to save the believers in Jerusalem from starvation by providing for their physical needs.

Yesterday I wrote about Paul finding joy in “all his troubles.” He uses that same same spiritual principle again, and takes it a step further, as he describes the believers in Macedonia who found joy amidst their trials and generosity amidst their poverty.

This morning in the quiet I find myself counting my blessings. Our hot water issue was fixed yesterday. It was a pesky annoyance caused by build up of ice that choked the flow of air to the system. Ultimately, it was a small problem. Such a luxury, and what an opportunity I continually have to make a difference in the lives of others through the abundance with which I’ve been blessed. The Macedonians, Paul wrote, had been generous despite their poverty. How much more generous can I be out of the wealth with which I’ve been blessed?

Featured photo courtesy of Seeds of Hope International Partnerships: http://sohip.org

The Cloud of Unknowing

For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
1 Corinthians 2:2 (NIV)

There is something mystical that can happen on stage for an actor. It’s a rare thing, and I can only claim to have, perhaps, touched it maybe once or twice. I’ve read others’ accounts of the rare occurrence and have corresponded with those who’ve experienced it. It happens when one gets so lost in the reality of the characters and the scene in the world of the play you’ve created that you lose your rational knowledge that you are an actor, pretending to be a character on a stage with other actors. It’s like slipping into a different reality and briefly letting go of the one you’re actually in. I know it sounds weird, but it happens and it is both wild and disconcerting when it does.

This past weekend I was introduced in my quiet time to the writings of an anonymous medieval mystic entitled The Cloud of Unknowing. It’s a bit of a slog to wade through given the vocabulary and middle english language of the 14th century. Nevertheless, I found myself in the quiet of the wee hours inspired by the author’s message.

Mystics also call themselves “contemplatives.” The concept is that we can learn, and even experience, much in disciplined contemplation. Kind of like the mystery of losing one’s sense of rational presence on stage, The Cloud of Unknowing is a state of being that the author describes as a place where one knows nothing but the feeling of a “naked intent unto God“:

“Let not, therefore, but travail therein till thou feel list. For at the first time when thou dost it, thou findest but a darkness; and as it were a cloud of unknowing, thou knowest not what, saving that thou feelest in thy will a naked intent unto God. This darkness and this cloud is, howsoever thou dost, betwixt thee and thy God, and letteth thee that thou mayest neither see Him clearly by light of understanding in thy reason, nor feel Him in sweetness of love in thine affection.”

In Paul’s letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, he touches on this concept of knowing and unknowing as part of the spiritual mystery of being a follower of Jesus. He tells the believers that he resolved “to know nothing” while he was with them “except Christ and Him crucified.” It sounds a lot like he intended to exist in a cloud of unknowing. He goes on to speak of the reality of a relationship with Christ in terms of a mysterious wisdom that is hidden from those who are wise in the rational realities of this world.

Jesus also touched on this mysterious wisdom:

At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.
Matthew 11:25 (NIV)

As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”
Luke 19:41-44 (NIV)

This morning in the quiet I find myself mulling over both the rational and the mystery. I find myself a player on Life’s stage, as Shakespeare aptly put it, making my routine daily entrances and exits. The further I proceed in my journey the more called I feel toward a wisdom that lies, not in the nailing of my lines and hitting my cues, but in finding that rare place that can only be found somewhere in the mystery of unknowing.

 

Arriving

Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”
Acts 10:34-35 (NIV)

Wendy and I have been enjoying photos and videos that Taylor has been sending us this weekend from Stockholm, Sweden. She, Clayton, and Milo are visiting the Scandinavian city with their friends and, according to the visual evidence, having a marvelous time.

I’ve been thinking this morning about the experience of travel. When going to a new place, one can learn many things about the destination. You can learn about where you will be, you can be told about it, but until you actually get there, you don’t really experience it for yourself.

In today’s chapter, Peter is called by God to visit the home of a Roman Centurion named Cornelius. The resurrected Jesus had told Peter and the rest of His followers that they were to share Jesus’ story and their first-hand accounts of their experiences with Him to “the ends of the earth.” Nevertheless, the followers of Jesus had remained a Jewish sect. While there may have been some Gentile (that is, non-Jewish) converts, the twelve had continued to be headquartered in Jerusalem and they still centered their activity around the Temple and the Jewish community.

Now God calls Peter to visit the home of a Gentile, which was against Jewish custom and law. To enter the home of a Gentile was to make oneself spiritually unclean. It was a strictly taboo in the Jewish religion and culture of the day. Not only was Cornelius a non-Jew, he was also a Roman Centurion, which added an entire layer of political and social stigma on top of the religious prohibitions. The Romans were military occupiers of Judea. They were hated and they were detested by the Jewish people.

Now God is once again blowing-up human division and Jewish tradition by sending Peter to visit the unclean home of what a good Jewish man would have considered a “vile and detestable” Roman officer. Cornelius and his entire household believe Peter’s stories about Jesus, and Holy Spirit pours into them. Peter says, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”

Peter had witnessed Jesus breaking social barriers. Jesus made friends with a Samaritan woman and healed a Centurion’s child. Peter had been told by Jesus that they were to take the good news of Jesus to the “ends of the Earth.” I’m sure that the earlier believers had already been talking, even debating among themselves, whether they should accept non-Jewish converts and how that was going to work. God had been leading Peter and the other believers towards this reality in their journey. At Cornelius’ house, Peter finally arrived and knew for himself where Jesus had been leading them. It was waypoint in Peter’s journey that would change the course of the Jesus movement and human history.

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking about our lunchtime conversation yesterday with a friend. She shared about a major spiritual break though that she’d been moving towards for four years. It finally arrived this past week and we all shed tears hearing about her experience. It was not unlike Peter’s experience. She’d been moving toward this spiritual reality for years, but didn’t really experience it until she arrived at that waypoint.

This is a spiritual journey. We don’t experience things once and for all. We experience things progressively as we continue to press on in faith asking, seeking, knocking. In my experience it can be frustrating, but it also exciting to look ahead and wonder what God has in store there on the horizon.

Have a great week everyone. Time to press on.

 

Wisdom You Only Find Away from Home

“This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Like these good figs, I regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I sent away from this place to the land of the Babylonians.”
Jeremiah 24:4 (NIV)

I can remember running away as a child only once. Despite a memory that recalls some of the most arcane details of my early years, I can’t for the life of me remember what made me so angry that day. I couldn’t have been more than five or six years old when I announced to my mother that I was running away. I remember that she didn’t seem particularly worried. I left without packing a bag or giving a single thought to where I was going, how I was going to get there, nor what I would do for the most basic of necessities. (Wendy will not be surprised by this.) I hadn’t gone as far as two blocks up Madison Avenue before the realities of my poor decision making caught up with me. I turned around and headed home.

I never attempted to physically run away from home again. I learned along my life journey, however, that terms of exile and running away can happen as much in the heart, mind, and spirit as they do in the body.

Today’s short chapter is a brief word picture God gave the ancient prophet Jeremiah. He writes from the rubble of Jerusalem he had long foreseen and prophesied. The best and brightest of his people had been taken captive back to Babylon. The royal family had either been killed or fled to Egypt to escape being killed. Jeremiah is given a vision of two sets of figs: one good and one rotten. The word picture was simple. The poor exiles in Babylon were good fruit that God would bless and prepare for an eventual redemptive return. The royals and politicians who propagated the mess were rotten figs who would continue to rot.

This morning I mulled over Jeremiah’s vision and the realities faced by the poor exiles facing the harsh new realities of life in Persia. I’ve come to accept along this journey that there are pieces of wisdom that are only found away from home. Abraham was led away from his home and family. Moses was sent down river in a basket and later ran to the land of Midian. Joseph was exiled in Egypt, and his father Jacob redeemed his son only when famine drove him and his family to their own exile. David the anointed boy-king would spend years of exile in the desert wasteland before finally ascending to the throne. The prodigal son only learned how good he had it back home when he found himself covered with pig slop in a distant country. The prodigal’s elder brother, meanwhile, had no idea how lost he was at home.

As a father I came to expect that my children would someday run away in one way or another whether that was a childish block-and-a-half trek up the street or a secret exile of the young adult soul. Looking back I can see that each of them did so in their own way, though they may not be completely finished. Exile and running away can be cyclical or repetitive occurrences along one’s life journey. I realized early in my experience as a father that I would be foolish to shelter, hinder, or deny them the wisdom they will only find along those stretches of their respective journeys.

This morning I’m smiling at the memory of a young boy, in full-blown childish tantrum, announcing he was running away and storming out of the house. My mother didn’t stop me. She didn’t run after me. She didn’t try to convince me of the error of my ways or my foolish lack of preparation. She wished me well and watched me walk up Madison Avenue. A short time later she silently said nothing as I returned home having gained nothing but a simple piece of wisdom that has served me well the rest of my life.

Thanks, mom.

featured photo courtesy of wespeck via flickr

The Power of Expressing “Willingness”

not because you must, but because you are willing
1 Peter 5:2 (NIV)

My company measures service quality (e.g. “Your call may be monitored for quality assurance and training purposes“) and then we train and coach agents how to provide a better customer experience when talking on the phone or other mediums of communication.

I’ve always taught my clients that Rule #1 of Customer Service is “do the best you can with what you have” because every team member at every level of the organization is limited in some way. The problem is that we tend to get mired in the excuses and frustrations of what we can’t do instead of what we can. Front line agents may not be empowered to functionally do everything for the customer they would like to do, but they often underestimate the power they have to positively impact the customer experience simply by what they say and how they say it.

One of the most under utilized skills in customer service is expressing a willingness to help, to listen, to take responsibility, and to serve. In the business world we call it an “ownership statement.”

Here’s what I hear on about 95 percent of the calls I assess:

Customer: I have a question about my account.
Agent: Account number?

That’s an agent doing what they are obligated to do. But when you simply and consistently communicate a positive, willing attitude you improve the customer experience:

Customer: I have a question about my account.
Agent: Sure, Mr. Vander Well. I’ll be happy to help. May I have your account number, please?”

There is so much power in simply communicating a positive, willing spirit. And it goes so much further than customer service business transactions. This is what Peter was getting at in this morning’s chapter when he told the leaders among Jesus’ followers to carry out their responsibilities “not out of obligation but because you are willing.” I can improve how I relate with my friends, family, and loved ones simply by learning to consistently communicate willingness:

Friend: Hey Tom, are you available to help me move a piano?
Me: Happy to help. When do you need me to be there?

Wendy: Tom? Will you carry the laundry to the laundry room?
Me: You got it, my love. Laundry Man is on his way.

Madison: Dad? Can you get me a new insurance card?
Me: I’d love to, sweetie. Let me call our agent and arrange it.

I know it sounds simple because it is. We can positively impact every one of our interpersonal relationship experiences by simply and consistently communicating a little positive willingness. And, my experience is that “what goes around, comes around.” Give a little positive willingness and you just might find that “it will be given unto you.”

I’m going to focus on expressing willingness with every opportunity I’m given today. Will you join me?

Diversity, Unity, Liberty…Love

But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.
1 Corinthians 14:40 (NIV)

Along my journey I have attended worship gatherings across a diverse spectrum of Jesus’ followers. I’ve worshipped at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin and at small rural churches in the middle of Iowa cornfields. I’ve participated in worship at raucous Pentecostal meetings and in the relative silence of a Quaker Meeting House. I’ve worshipped with fellow believers in the African American community, in the Arab Israeli community, among the American country club set, among native Americans on their reservation, with homeless in urban shelters, in suburban mega-churches, and among small groups of believers meeting in their homes. I’ve worshipped with children at camp, the elderly in nursing homes, and some version of almost any Christian denomination you can name. As I recall all of these memories, I am a bit amazed at the veritable plethora of worship experiences I’ve had with other followers of Jesus across my lifetime.

I have always been what traditional believers would regard as a “non-denominationalist.” I choose to love and fellowship with any who follow Jesus, no matter what brand of Christianity they hold onto. I have long followed the wisdom of St. Augustine who taught: “In the essentials: unity. In the non-essentials: liberty. In all things: charity.”

In today’s chapter, Paul is addressing a fledgling group of believers at the very beginning of the Christian faith. There were no long standing traditions. There were no well-established rules. Organizational structure is loose, at-best. Worship was a bit of a free-for-all. To this chaos, Paul attempts to bring some sense of order. After laying out his basic thoughts on structure, he sums it all up with: “everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.”

This morning I am thankful for the wide range of experiences I’ve had with followers of Jesus in all sorts of cultures, sub-cultures, social strata, and faith traditions. I’ve appreciated every one of those worship experiences in one way or another. I may have disagreed (in some cases, quite strongly) with some non-essential doctrines of the faith, but I still loved hanging out to share laughter, conversation, and stories over a meal with them. And, I respect our differences. Diversity can teach all parties in relationship an increased clarity of self, a greater perspective of others, and an expansion of love.