Tag Archives: Faith

New Discoveries in Familiar Places

And Isaiah boldly says,
“I was found by those who did not seek me;
    I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.”
But concerning Israel he says,
“All day long I have held out my hands
   to a disobedient and obstinate people.”
Romans 10:20-21 (NIV)

Among the early believers and followers of Jesus there were two main populations. There were believers who were part of Judaism, and there were those believers who were not. Those of us reading Paul’s letters in the 21st century are largely ignorant and of the tremendous conflict that existed between these two factions. The believers who came out of Judaism wanted those who were followers of Jesus to essentially be a Jewish sect within the larger religion of Judaism. This meant that anyone who wanted to be a follower of Jesus would have to 1) become a proselyte of Judaism 2) become circumcised [if you’re a male] and 3) follow all of the Jewish laws and customs.

This was no small debate of crossing theological “t”s and dotting theological “i”s. This was a major difference that went to the very heart of who Jesus was and what it meant to be a follower. Those on both sides of the issue were impassioned. There were even some from the pro-Judaism faction who followed behind Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journey telling new believers that they’d been sent by James and the Apostles in Jerusalem to tell them not to believe everything Paul told them (“He’s not a real Apostle, anyway,” they explained) and to straighten them out on this “Jewish” question. They then proceeded to tell the non-Jewish (aka Gentile) believers of Jesus: 1. You must become Jews, 2. You must be circumcised, 3. You must follow all Jewish laws and customs.

Paul was furious.

This disagreement became so acute within the growing and rapidly expanding population of believers that a major meeting was called in Jerusalem. “The Jerusalem Council” as it became known, was to decide, once-and-for-all, the “circumcision” question. It was decided that non-Jews who became believers were not required to become Jews and to be circumcised in order to be a follower of Jesus. The Jesus movement was going its own way.

The debate, of course, did not end. In his letter to the Romans, Paul is still explaining, debating, and attempting to heal this rift. While the  believers in Rome were both Jews and Gentiles, Paul’s letter is addressed primarily to those who were Jewish, and he’s arguing from the Law of Moses and the Jewish Prophets that the coming of Jesus and the inclusion of Gentiles into “faith” was part of the plan all along.

Some people have asked me why I keep up my wayfarer’s journey through God’s Message over and over and over again. The answer is very simple. Every time I go back through a passage I’ve traversed before I’m doing so at a different place in my own spiritual journey. Each time I return to one of Paul’s letters I’m a little older, hopefully a little wiser, and I have a deeper experience of Life and Spirit. Sometimes things aren’t terrible different, but other times I peel back another spiritual layer and gain a whole new understanding I never had before.

That’s exactly what Paul was going in today’s chapter. When he quotes Isaiah he is holding up poetic prophecies that Jewish believers would have known and heard repeatedly in their own spiritual journeys. Paul, however was shedding new light on the same verses from the other side of Jesus’ ministry, His cross, and His empty tomb. “It’s been staring you right in the face the whole time,” Paul is saying, “but you’ve never seen it.”

Which, again, is why I keep pressing on and staying the course. I’ve discovered along the way that being a follower of Jesus is not for simple consumers, despite the many who treat it so. I’ve not found it to be a one-and-done transaction for fire and eternal life insurance. It’s so much more. It’s a progression in which old things pass away and new things come. It’s a never ending path of discovery. It’s never gotten old and is always challenging in new and unexpected ways. But, it’s something everyone has to lace up their own spiritual hiking boots to discover.

Forever Young Maturity

What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness,have not attained their goal. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works.
Romans 9:30-32 (NIV)

A few years ago our daughter, Taylor, was living in a Catholic Worker commune. Her fellow residents and the people “The Worker” served each day came from some very different realities than those in which Taylor grew up. One weekend when she was visiting with Wendy and me she shared about a moment of realization listening to all these people who were living on the razor’s edge with no safety net and no back up. There was no “Plan B” if the shit hit the fan.

I realized,” Taylor said, “that I will never know this reality. I have a huge safety net, people who love me, and I will always have a safe place to go.”

When Taylor and Madison were in the toddler phase of life, they were suddenly introduced to all sorts of rules:

“Don’t touch.”
“That’s a no-no.”
“No! You never hit your sister.”
“I said, ‘Put the toys away. Now!'”
“Wash your hands before supper.”

In the toddler phase life is pretty black and white for a child. There is a seemingly endless list of do’s and don’ts, and parents add to the list incessantly. If you follow the rules life hums along relatively swimmingly, and if you don’t follow the rules you learn about parental wrath and punishment. For children, life feels a bit like a legalistic system of merit. Parents and authorities reward me when I’m good and punish me when I’m bad. From a parent’s perspective you certainly love your child no matter what, but I wonder how much a young child comprehends this when the merit system rules his or her existence.

As the girls moved into adulthood our relationship changed as they became mature in their understanding of themselves, their parents, and the world around them. They began to make their own decisions and had to experience the natural consequences of their words, actions, and decisions on their own day-to-day realities. As a father, I still desire for them to make wise decisions. I’m happy to provide advice if asked. Ultimately, however, they have to choose for themselves because it is the right choice, not because of their father’s approval or wrath.

At this stage of life, like Taylor’s observation at The Worker, I’ve watched the girls come to an understanding, now more than ever, that our love and support for them is ever-present, unwavering, and unconditional. They’ve learned the lessons of their childhood. They’ve matured.

I’ve always pondered the notion that God’s relationship with humanity across the Great Story is a bit like the natural human life-cycle. When God gave Moses “The Law” it was essentially the toddler stage of humanity. Things were simple, brutal, and messy. A simple black-and-white system of rules is what humanity in the toddler stage needed, what it could comprehend and understand.

The period immediately following Jesus’ resurrection and ascension is essentially a major life change. If feels a bit like a rite-of-passage shift into a new relational reality between God and humanity made possible by Jesus’ sacrificial atonement. Paul’s letter to the Jewish followers of Jesus in Rome reads like a sage telling the young adult that it’s time to wake-up, and grow-up, into a mature understanding of their relationship with God. Gone are the toddler days of rule keeping, now it’s time to step out and start walking in the maturity of faith in God’s love, grace, forgiveness, and righteousness made possible – not because you kept the rules – but because God showed love for us in this: while we were yet knuckle-headed, foolish children who sometimes go our own way, Christ died for us.

This morning in the quiet I’m looking at a canvas I discovered under the guest room bed this weekend while Wendy and I were cleaning-up. It’s a little something Taylor made for Milo while she was pregnant. It’s now sitting next to my desk, and I think I’m going to hang it in my office while the kids sojourn in Scotland. It’s the words of a song I sang to her repeatedly at bedtime when she was a child. It’s the words of a parent’s faith, hope, and blessing to a child, anticipating that the child will mature into a person of wisdom, Godliness, and yet retain the one thing that Jesus said was, ironically, a prerequisite to a mature person’s entrance to God’s Kingdom:

Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Toddlers, rules, grace, love, maturity, wisdom, parenting, Taylor, Clayton, Milo, Maddy Kate, Garrett, Jesus, Bob Dylan, child-like faith. That’s what’s tumbling around in my heart and head on this Monday morning.

May you stay Forever Young.

Have a great week my friends.

Fear: The Great Motivator

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…for I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of Godthat is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:1, 38-39 (NIV)

Just a few days ago there was a major Winter Storm Warning for our region. The local weather hyped it like no one’s business. Stock-up on provisions! (Never mind that Wendy and I could survive for years on what is in our pantry!) Cancel your plans! Stay home! Don’t travel! Schools cancelled and businesses told their people not to come to work.

Then, it didn’t happen.

Oops.

Here’s what I’ve observed along my life journey: Fear is everywhere. Fear gets our attention. Fear sucks us in. Fear motivates us to act. That’s why media, politicians, and religion all love to lead with fear. Fear works.

The left tells us to fear billionaires, Wall Street and capitalism.
The right tells us to fear socialists, unions, & academia.
Religion tells us to fear worldliness, sin, the devil, heresy, and damnation.
Media tells us to fear earthquakes, fires, tornadoes, floods, tsunamis, lightning, blizzards, asteroids, flu, greenhouse gases, melting glaciers, rising temperatures, lowering temperatures, inflation, deflation, economic stagnation, dirty water, dirty restaurant kitchens, opioids, meth, gateway drugs, terrorism, bacteria, genetic engineering, GMOs, getting vaccinated, not getting vaccinated, scams, shams, abduction, murder, pedophile rings, product recalls, anything that causes cancer (which appears to be everything), nuclear war, nuclear anything, spies, conspiracy, gangs, criminal immigrants, rogue law enforcement, and on, and on, and on.
Parents tell children to fear every conceivable bad thing that’s happened to a child ever.

A long time ago I began paying attention to any entity that wants something from me. In ways both subtle and overt I find that I am being ceaselessly told to “be afraid.” I contrast this with Jesus who said “Don’t be afraid” over and over and over again. He asked His disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Don’t you have any faith?” Great question to ask myself daily.

Today’s chapter in Paul’s letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome is among the most encouraging, uplifting, and faith-building reminders ever penned. I find it an antidote to the steady stream of fear to which I am exposed each day, and which eventually starts to poison my thoughts and my outlook on the world. It’s full of hope in the moment, hope admits our current circumstances, and hope for the future. Paul gives encouragement and assurance.

In the quiet this morning I once again confess my own penchant for pessimism. People are often surprised when I tell them that, but it’s true. When faced with the least bit of fear or opposition I can quickly go into shut-down mode. Wendy and I were just talking about it yesterday over breakfast. I have found along the journey that it’s important for me to consciously let my heart, soul, and mind drink regularly from a deep well of encouragement and affirmation like today’s chapter:

The One who died for us—who was raised to life for us!—is in the presence of God at this very moment sticking up for us. Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture…None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.

Don’t be afraid, my friend. Have a great day.

Art History; History Art; Art, History

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
Romans 1:20 (NIV)

Back in college I was required to take a visual art class as part of my major. Being a lover of history I chose to take Art History II. The fascinating thing about Professor Jeff Thompson’s class was that the text book was not an Art History textbook. It was simply a History textbook.

Professor Thompson began the class with a question: “Does art merely reflect history, or does it drive history?” If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you’ll recognize this is a binary, “either, or” question, and the answer to his question that we arrived at was “yes, and.”

What was fascinating in the course of study was the connection between all that was going on during a certain period of time of history (politics, religion, economics, and etc.) and what we were seeing in the important artworks of that period. Not only that, but also the connection between what we saw in visual art (paintings and sculptures) and the other art mediums (music, theatre, architechture, and literature). The art of each period both reflected what was happening and drove history forward.

That class planted in me a seed which has grown over time to bear much fruit of thought. Here is the root of it: In creating art, no matter the medium, artists express themselves through what they create. It cannot be otherwise. It is inherent in that act of creation itself that artists express who they really are, what they see, what they think, what they feel, and how they’ve experienced the world around them. In expressing these things, they influence the world around them and they drive the action of this Great Story.

This morning, in this chapter-a-day journey, we make our way to Paul’s letter to the followers of Jesus living in Rome, heart of the Roman Empire and epicenter of western civilization at the time. Today, art historians flock to Rome to see remnants of the ancient city with its architecture and artwork. The people Paul wrote to were surrounded by it as it was happening all around them, and to them he wrote this:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

The creator revealed themselves in what was created. The Genesis poem says that humans were created in the image of the Creator. Just as Van Gogh painted the unique way he saw light and color, just as Bach channeled his love and understanding of mathematic order and the woven details of the universe into his music, just as Shakespeare expressed the tragedy of everyday humanity in the gilded trappings of man-made royalty, so God the Creator expressed  the light, energy, life, beauty, and power of their person(s) in all creation.

In the quiet this morning I’m pondering how through much of my journey I’ve viewed faith and science as living entrenched in their “either, or” camps like the armies of World War I dug in for the long haul, reduced to hurtling grenades at one another across no man’s land. At least, that’s the perception I’ve had from what has been presented to me by media who like to simplify complex issues into simple binary groups in conflict (it sells more). As I’ve proceeded in my journey I’ve met many fellow sojourners who could be easily labeled as a members of either trench, but who have wandered out into no man’s land. They observe and study and appreciate this cosmic work of art still expanding outward, still creating, still reproducing life, and  they’ve come to a “yes, and” realization, just as we did in Professor Thompson’s Art History class.

That’s where Paul begins his letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome. He starts with the expansive canvas of the cosmos through which the Creator expresses self. From the mystery of the cosmos Paul will dive into the mystery of being human, and how he sees the Creator has interacted with creation in the Great Story.

Mentor, Protégé, and Attitude

the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down.
2 Corinthians 13:10b (NIV)

Both professionally, and personally, I have done quite a bit of coaching and mentoring of others along my life journey. It is a fascinating process and I have learned a lot about myself and others along the way.

In my professional coaching I am typically hired and tasked with mentoring or coaching a person as part of a corporate initiative. Most often, the person has no choice in the matter and so I must begin the coaching relationship gauging the attitude of my protégé. There’s a pretty wide spectrum of attitudes that I encounter from enthusiasm to outright defiance. The most common attitude I find is a mixture of both curiosity and anxiety. I am aware in our first meeting that my protégé is as actively gauging me and my attitude, as well.

One of the things that I typically try to establish from the beginning of a coaching or mentoring relationship is that my goal is to build-up, encourage, equip, and help the individual both develop and become more successful. The path may incorporate me challenging the individual, and I may need to be uncomfortably direct in certain circumstances. Nevertheless, I always want a protégé to know my positive desire and support for his or her well-being and success. I am always for him or her.

Along the way I’ve discovered that there is only so much that I can do to convince a person of my desire and support. There has to be a willingness to have faith in me and accept me at my word. The mentoring relationship doesn’t always work out. Sometimes my protégé can’t get past their own fear, anxiety, or shame. Sometimes I’ve come to recognize and accept that my protégé doesn’t respond well to me, I don’t respond well to him or her, and that there’s an underlying difference in personality or temperament which we may or may not be able to overcome. Other times, the person in my charge simply isn’t ready to change and/or do the work required to develop.

As Paul finishes his letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, he recognizes that his tone has been at times harsh and confrontational. Individuals have been speaking out against Paul, questioning his authority, and stirring up dissension among the believers. Paul loves these people. He has been their spiritual mentor for years. The Corinthian believers are his spiritual protégés. As he wraps up his direct and confrontational letter, Paul the mentor reminds his charges of the motivation behind his sometimes direct, challenging words: “for building you up, not tearing you down.”

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking about a conversation Wendy and I had before bed last night. Wendy is an Enneagram Type 8 (“The Challenger”). The truth is that Wendy is an amazing coach of others in her own right. She’s better than me. I’ve observed Wendy, time-and-time-again, helping others reach incredible new levels of development. As the Enneagram Institute puts it, healthy Eights “use their strength to improve others’ lives, becoming heroic, magnanimous, and inspiring.”  But, just like Paul with the Corinthian believers, the protégé has to be able to see the positive, “I’m for you!” desire behind the mentor’s challenge or it gets lost in anxious, fear-driven translation and gets misinterpreted as destructive criticism.

Today, I’m inspired to continue developing my skills and abilities as a coach. I’m reminded that I want to be a good protégé when I am challenged by others who are for me.

Not an Application, an Invitation

I do not think I am in the least inferior to those “super-apostles.” I may indeed be untrained as a speaker, but I do have knowledge.
2 Corinthians 11:5-6 (NIV)

In the pantheon of faith, I find that Paul is revered as much as any other person in the history of Christianity. As I’ve journeyed repeatedly through that Great Story I find it fascinating how people selectively diminish the humanity of the “pillars of the faith” and selectively choose to focus on perceived strengths that might even be overstated through the lens of history and religiosity.

Paul was not universally loved and respected in his own day. While I have no doubt that Paul’s personality and mind were a force to be reckoned with, evidence reveals that the physical package was not in the least bit impressive. Some historical evidence suggests a homely looking man who was bow-legged and had a large nose. After repeated scourging, beatings, and stoning attempts his body probably had been unalterably scarred and he likely moved and carried himself as one permanently injured from suffering those repeated traumas. He famously had poor eye-sight in a day before eyeglasses had been invented, so he was probably ceaselessly squinting. And Paul he freely admits that he wasn’t a great public speaker.

Paul had rivals. He was not universally loved. Other believers, teachers, and apostles belittled him, sought to marginalize him, and tried to lead other believers (like the believers in Corinth) to shy away and even dismiss him. Paul’s authority was questioned because he wasn’t around when Jesus was on earth, publicly doing his ministry. His claim of being an apostle was constantly disputed as people clearly questioned the validity and voracity of his Damascus Road experience while not letting him forget his record as a prosecutor of believers and the head of the conspiracy to execute the beloved Stephen. And, there were other teachers and leaders, like Apollos, who were clearly better looking, more likable, and much better preachers.

As I make my way through Paul’s second surviving letter to the believers in Corinth (there’s at least one other letter referenced and there are probably two or more that didn’t survive antiquity) it reads like a man desperately making a case for himself, for his reputation, and his authority as a teacher and leader of the Jesus Movement.

In my faith journey I’ve observed that this is the real story that modern believers don’t know, or choose not to see. The Great Story is full of very flawed, every day human beings who God used in amazing ways, but they have been dehumanized, canonized, and lionized by religion and history. The result, I’ve observed, is that we both exaggerate our own human flaws so as to believe God would never use us, and we place the “heroes of the faith” like Paul on a pedestal we believe we could never, ever reach.

One of the meta-themes I’ve found in the Great Story is God using very human, very flawed people. Moses disqualified himself as a poor public speaker (God told him to let Aaron do the talking) and had a bad temper. Jacob, later called Israel, was a terribly deceptive liar. David may have been called “a man after God’s own heart” but he was also an adulterer and guilty of conspiracy to commit murder. Solomon may be hallowed for his wisdom, but he also enslaved and conscripted the labor of tens of thousands of people (while annually celebrating Passover and God’s deliverance of his own people from slavery in Egypt) to the point that his son had to reap the political consequences of their violent rebellion.

And then there is Paul, the big nosed, bow-legged, scarred, unlikable and forceful little man who was such a boring, long-winded preacher that a boy once fell asleep during his sermon and fell out of a third-story window to his death.  And, I still don’t question his induction to the faith Hall of Fame while quickly and shamefully dismissing my own worthiness or hastily judging the worthiness of other human beings just as flawed as myself.

This morning in the quiet of my hotel room I’m reminded that in all my reading of the Great Story I have not once come across an application for being a follower of Jesus with an accompanying list of requisites for the job. Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and feel the weight of your flawed humanity drowning your soul. I’d like to give you some rest.” This brings to mind another thing I’ve observed, and have found easily forgotten. Being a follower of Jesus is not a position I apply for, it’s simply an invitation I accept (or don’t).

 

It’s Colder than the Arctic. Oh, the Joy!

I am greatly encouraged; in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds.
2 Corinthians 7:4b

Note to subscribers: I had a technical glitch publishing this post this morning with some nasty HTML coding issues. My apologies. I trashed the original post and am reposting, so you may have gotten two emails. Sorry. Maybe it’s the cold 😉

I write this post from the depths of winter in Iowa. It’s -13 as I tap out these words, which is a bit warmer than it was yesterday. This morning I woke up to find our hot water heater isn’t working. Lovely.

Just a week or so ago I was sitting in O’Hare airport in Chicago chatting with a wonderfully gregarious transplant from New Zealand. He was complaining about the weather extremes he’s learned to live with here in the midwest of North America. It reminded me of an observation Garrison Keillor once made: Living in the midwest is like spending your summers in Death Valley and your winters in the Arctic. Indeed. Here’s the headline from the Des Moines Register on Tuesday:

 

Article Headline from Des Moines Register, January 29, 2019.

Along the journey we face all kinds of different challenges. While it’s human to grumble and complain, I often find it personally necessary to make myself put things in context. This morning’s chapter provided it for me.

In writing to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, Paul references “all our troubles.” Later in the letter he provides specifics. Let me jump ahead for the sake of today’s thought. Paul writes:

“I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received the forty lashes minus one.(Note: 39 lashes with a scourge was the ancient prescription to bring the punished to the point of death without letting them actually slip into the comfort of death). Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones (Note: Paul’s would be executioners actually believed they had successfully stoned him to death. His body was carried and dumped outside the city of Lystra and left for dead.), three times I was shipwrecked (Note: He doesn’t mention the venomous snake bite that should have killed him.), I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move (Note: Scholars say that Paul logged some 10,000 miles during his journeys. That’s roughly 21,120,000 steps without a FitBit) . I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.

As I said: Context can be a good antidote for self-centered misery. It’s cold this morning and my water heater is broken. I am, however, in a warm house, with warm clothes, and a warm wife. The water heater guy will be by in a few hours to deal with the hot water problem. Boo-hoo for me.

What I found even more fascinating as I read Paul’s words today was that while he endured torture, stoning, shipwrecks, snakebites, imprisonment and the rest, he states that his “joy knows no bounds.”

Along this journey Wendy and I have learned a lot about joy (though I will freely confess that I know far less than Paul). Joy always jumps off the page at me, because it is one of those words that holds a lot of meaning for Wendy and me. We’ve learned from our journey together that joy is something deeper than a momentary feeling such as happiness which flits in and out with the ever shifting winds of circumstance. Joy comes from a deep spring. It’s not a surface, run-off emotion. You have to drill through bedrock of suffering to experience the flow of joy. It is a spiritual by-product of the three things that remain when all else is stripped away: faith, hope, and love.

In the quiet (and a blessedly warm home office) I am thankful this morning for the flow of joy that Wendy and I have come to experience, independent of whatever momentary personal circumstances we may be experiencing.

By the way, temperatures here in picturesque Pella, Iowa are forecast to be 57 degrees (above zero) on Sunday.

Context.

Stay warm, my friend. Have a great day.