Tag Archives: Flow

Structure and Flow

In every province and in every city to which the edict of the king came, there was joy and gladness among the Jews, with feasting and celebrating.
Esther 8:17 (NIV)

Over the past few years, I have served as a mentor to a group of teachers. I will typically review outlines and provide encouragement and advice prior to their message, and then give feedback after the delivery of their messages. It’s been rewarding to watch individuals improve their preparation and presentation skills, and it’s challenged me in a number of unexpected ways. I honestly think I’ve been a better learner than I have a  teacher in the process.

One of the biggest observations I’ve made over my tenure in this role is the importance of structure. If you have a well-ordered structure then your words and ideas have flow. The hearer, almost sub-consciously, follows the flow and ends up right where you want them at the end. Without structure, there is no flow. Transitions are clunky and the hearer gets lost not being able to follow how what you’re saying now related to what you just said before. When an audience is lost they check out. Casual observers rarely appreciate how a great story, song, play, painting, building, sculpture, movie, or presentation is almost always well-structured.

Which brings us to today’s chapter of Esther in which the villain, Haman, has been dispatched. Mordecai, his nemesis, is elevated to Haman’s position and given his possessions. It’s such a good story, but the casual reader does not realize that the story-teller has carefully structured the narrative in what’s known as a “chiastic” style. The author uses the same phrasing in both introducing Haman and then describing Mordecai’s redemption to highlight the reversal of fortune. Commentators Karen Jobes and Janet Nygren help us see the structure:

In the quiet of my office this morning I find myself thinking about structure and flow. The further I get in my life journey the more aware I’ve become that everything is connected. It’s the design of creation. Even a seemingly random sight of trees in a forest has what scientists call a fractal structure. Whether it’s my work, a message I’m giving, a story I’m telling, our weekly schedule, the vacation plan, our meal plan for the week, or how our living room is arranged there is both structure and flow. If I structure things well then things flow better and the results are generally good. If things are disjointed, disconnected, and there’s no real flow, then everything feels unstable and out of whack.

And with that, I enter the structure of my day.

Flow well, my friend.

Seasonal Companions

My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.)
Colossians 4:10 (NIV)

“There are friends who are friends for a season, and there are friends who are friends for life.” Thus said a  wise woman to me while I was a Freshman in college. It was the first time I remember really thinking about the purpose and tenure of friendship in life’s journey.

Everyone knows that Jesus had twelve disciples, but Luke records that there was a wider circle of seventy-two disciples that Jesus sent out (Luke 10:1). Among the twelve it was only Peter, James, and John that Jesus called out to join Him when He was transfigured, when He raised Jairus’ daughter, and when He was in His deepest despair in Gethsemane. Like most of us, Jesus had concentric circles of relationship from the intimacy of His inner circle of three to the wider and less intimate relationships He had with the twelve, the seventy-two, and an even larger group of 500 followers to whom He appeared after His resurrection.

Along my life journey, I’ve had a number of friends, mentors, and protégés who became part of my “inner circle” during a particular stretch. Looking back, I observe a certain ebb and flow of pattern and purpose in relationships. As the wise woman stated, some paths converge for a season and then organically lead in opposite directions. Conflict, sadly, severed some relationships. In a few cases, I’ve realized it’s best to leave be what was. In others, reconciliation brought differing degrees of restoration. There is longing to experience reconciliation in yet others when the season is right. Then there are a few in which time ran out, and only memories both bitter and sweet will remain with me for the rest of my earthly journey.

Most readers of Paul’s letters skip through the personal greetings with which he typically tagged his correspondence at the beginning and/or end. This morning, it was one of these oft-ignored greetings at the end of the chapter that jumped off the page at me. Mark, the cousin of Barnabas, sends his greetings to the believers at Colossae. There is a back story there.

Mark, otherwise known as John Mark, had been a boy who was part of Jesus’ wider circle of followers. Mark’s mother was a prominent woman who also followed Jesus and likely supported His ministry financially. When Peter escaped from prison it was to the house of Mark’s mother that Peter fled. It was Mark’s cousin, Barnabas, who brought the enemy turned believer, Saul (aka Paul) into the fold of Jesus’ followers. Barnabas and Mark were part of Paul’s inner circle on his first missionary journey.

Then, it all fell apart.

In the middle of the journey, Mark left Paul and Barnabas and went back home. Paul felt abandoned and betrayed. Years later when it came time to make a return journey, Barnabas wanted to take Mark along. Paul, still angry that Mark wimped out and abandoned them, would have none of it. There was a big fight. There was a bitter separation. Paul went one way with Silas. Barnabas went the other way with Mark. The season of Paul, Barnabas, and Mark was over.

As Paul writes his letter to the Colossians it has been many years since the conflict with Barnabas and Mark. Paul is in prison and is nearing the end of his life. Mark is with him. We don’t know how the reconciliation happened or what brought them back together again, but Mark is there sending warm greetings through Paul. It’s nice to know that sometimes in this life we get over our conflicts. We let go of the past and embrace the present. Seasons of friendship can come back around.

In the quiet this morning I’m looking back and thinking of all the companions I’ve had along my journey. I’m whispering a prayer of gratitude for each one brought to my life and journey, despite where the ebb and flow of relationship may have led. And, in a few cases, I’m praying for the season when the journey might lead divergent paths back together, like Paul and Mark.

Getting Direction and Flow Right

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility….
Ephesians 2:14 (NIV)

It’s quiet in my home office this morning. A steady rain is falling and resonating off the roof and window as I sip my coffee. Today marks the end of my 53rd year on this life journey which has me in a particularly introspective mood as I mull over today’s chapter.

For the past year our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been studying the book of Acts. In this chapter-a-day journey I’ve been making my way through the letters of Paul in, more-or-less, chronological order. As a twenty-first century westerner, I’ve come to accept that it is virtually impossible for me to understand the racial, social, and religious division that existed among the first century believers. There was a giant, black-and-white dividing line between those of Jewish heritage and non-Jewish heritage. For centuries they had lived highly segregated lives. Now they were suddenly trying to live together as followers of Jesus.

The conflict within those early groups of Jesus’ followers was very real, and often intense. It was the reason for the first major “Council” of leaders of the Jesus Movement (Acts 15). Most local gatherings struggled with the division. I believe the political divide in our current era provides a hint of the divisive emotions percolating within the two groups, but I believe even that parallel falls short of the divide that Paul is addressing.

In today’s chapter Paul continues to focus his readers on the eternal, cosmic, Level Four spiritual realities in which both Jewish believer and non-Jewish believer stand on common and equal footing. All knew and experienced lack of control with our human appetites (lust, greed, pride, sloth, anger, and etc.). All had been saved by grace (unearned merit) through faith, not in who they were or what they had done to earn God’s favor, but in what Jesus had done on the cross and through His resurrection.

Having established that Level 4 reality, Paul then moves on to  address the conflict that was being felt in individuals (Level 1), between believers (Level 2), and in society (Level 3) between these sharply divided two ethnic groups. He repeatedly speaks of the “two” being “one” through what Christ had done on Level 4. Hostility is transformed into peace, division gives way to unity, and that which is separate becomes whole.

I can’t help but notice the direction and flow of thought. Paul’s focus on, and acceptance of, Level 4 reality flows down and transforms the very human conflict and struggles of Levels 1 through 3. As I look back across my 53 year journey I realize how often I have done the exact opposite. I allow my Levels 1-3 realities to flow upward and dictate my Level 4 perspective. I essentially transform my perception and belief system on Level 4 to justify and defend my entrenched prejudices on Levels 1 through 3.

This morning I contemplate 19,359 days on this Earth, and quietly wonder about however many I have left. I can’t change any of those nearly 20,000 yesterdays, but I want to make sure today, and moving forward, that I get the direction and the flow right. I want the eternal Spirit realities to transform my daily life and relationships here on this terrestrial ball. Not the other way around.

“Wait for it…”

Ten days later the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah.
Jeremiah 42:7 (NIV)

Just yesterday I was reading a fascinating article about Peter Wohlleben the scientist and forester who wrote The Hidden Life of Trees. How fascinating to find that Tolkien’s characterization of trees as living characters is more true than I ever thought possible. Science is discovering that trees connect to one another through a vast underground network. Trees act communally, share resources, communicate danger to one another, and care for their young. The more I learn about creation, the more amazed I am by it and our Creator.

Take time and space, for example. I, like most people, have spent most of my life journey stuck in the paradigm of time being flat and linear. Physicists (thank you, Einstein), have come to understand that both time and space bend. There is far more dimension to it than a linear plane. Depending on the school of thought to which one prescribes there are at least 10, perhaps 11 or even 26 dimensions of space and time. This does not shake my faith any more than Galileo’s discovery that Earth wasn’t the center of the universe. Rather, it only expands my faith to consider and discover new facets of Life, Spirit, and eternity.

In today’s chapter of Jeremiah, the armed contingent who rescued the captives of the governor’s house in yesterday’s chapter have decided to head to Egypt. They are afraid that when the King of Babylon finds out about his Governor’s assassination that head’s will literally roll. Before leaving, they decide to ask Jeremiah to inquire of the Lord what Word He has for them. Jeremiah agrees to do so, and the Word comes to Jeremiah ten days later.

Ten days. Why ten days? Why not immediately? Was there something wrong with Jeremiah’s antenna or spiritual satellite dish? Were solar flares creating signal interference? What’s up with having to wait ten days?

As I meditate on this question there are two major thoughts that come to mind.

First, the number ten is not without significance in the Great Story. It is a number of completion. Ten commandments, ten plagues, ten generations, ten as percentage of tithe, ten lepers, ten virgins, ten talents, and etc. So, the contingent having to wait ten days has spiritual weight. Would the fearful contingent display the completeness of faith to wait for God’s word from Jeremiah, despite the pressure of knowing Nebuchadnezzar’s wrath could arrive before then? The ten days was, perhaps, less about God being out on a coffee break, and more about the revealing of the contingent’s heart and motives.

Second, I have found along my own spiritual journey that the concept of time and season described by the author of Ecclesiastes (see Ecclesiastes chapter 3) is far deeper than mere poetry. In the complex fabric of time and space (which is far beyond my comprehension) there seems to be a spiritual weaving of circumstances, events, and places into the tapestry of the Great Story. Things happen at a particular time and place in our journeys. We call them happenstance, coincidence, and fortune. As a believer, I have faith that these things aren’t random. God exists outside of time, and I’m beginning to understand that our Creator has layered and bent time and space in ways my finite mind cannot imagine.

At the end of this morning’s chapter Jeremiah’s words suggest that by the time the Word from the Lord came to him, the contingent who asked for it were already packed for their escape to Egypt. How often has that been true in my own life? I say I want to ask for God’s guidance and direction, but my will was decided before I asked. I really don’t have the patience to wait for God’s time and season. The sand is slipping through the hourglass, baby. I can’t wait anymore. Gotta head on down the line. Gonna make something happen!

This morning I’m feeling the need to admit the impatience that has dotted my own journey’s story line. As I take the final sip from my first cup of morning coffee, I’m reminded that at times I will wait ten days, ten months, or ten years for God to reveal, speak, move, or act in the space-time continuum He’s created for the telling of the Great Story (and my place in it).

Rest…breathe…chill…relax…flow….

Wait for it….

“God makes all things beautiful in their time.” (Ecc 3:11)

Broken Down and Built Up Again

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.
Jeremiah 18:1-4 (NIV)

Life is a series of screw ups. Let’s face it. I like to project an image of having it all together. I’ve spent most of my life thinking that there’s some acceptable level of life perfection out there (that everyone else seemingly has) while I quietly haplessly flail my appendages behind a series  of nicely painted stage flats. I’ve come to the conclusion along the journey that the real illusion is thinking that any one is any different than me. God’s Message is perfectly clear (in several different places) on this count:

  • No temptation has seized you except what is common to all
  • There’s no one righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins.”
  • All have sinned and fall short.”
  • Whoever keeps the whole law and stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.”

I’ve always loved the word picture God gave Jeremiah in today’s chapter. He tells Jeremiah to throw on his sandals because he was going on field trip. They end up at the house of the local potter who was working at his wheel. If you’ve ever tried your hand at a potter’s wheel you know how tricky it is. It looks so deceptively easy, but one slight miscue and the whole pot falls apart in your hands and you’re starting again from scratch.

I had a friend one time who was walking with me through a terribly difficult stretch of my life journey. I went through a litany of all the things that had gone wrong in my life, the mistakes I’d made, the consequences I was facing, and the stresses that felt as if they were tearing me apart. My friend smiled at me warmly and quietly observed that my life was breaking down, being “deconstructed” so that God could remake it like a Potter reworking the marred mess of clay in His hands.

It’s a good thing to have wise companions walking alongside you on your journey.

I find myself so drawn to this notion of the “one-and-done” transformation, the miraculous touch leading to a perfect ending, or God suddenly drawing my number in the Life lottery and suddenly everything is as it should be.

I’ve come to observe that the truth is a lot earthier, more substantive and repetitive. The word picture of the Potter and the clay is not a “once in a lifetime” deal. Rather, I find that life is a constant process of being broken down and rebuilt. My job is to allow Living Water to make me more pliable in the Potter’s hand, to release myself to the steady flow of the wheel spinning, to allow myself to be molded at the Potter’s touch; To stop resisting, even when life breaks me down again and the process starts all over.

Have a good week, friends. Here’s to being pliable.

Transitions, Trees, and Promises

“But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
    whose confidence is in him.
They will be like a tree planted by the water
    that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
    its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
    and never fails to bear fruit.”
Jeremiah 17:7-8 (NIV)

It seems as if Wendy and I have been in a season of perpetual transition for years now. Transitions in life as teenagers come and go, make their own way (and sometimes return for a time). Transitions in family. Transitions in life stages.  Transitions of houses. Transitions in roles and work. Perhaps I am slow to accept that stability is simply an illusion when Life is a constant flow and we are each steadily progressing on our respective life journeys. Yet, the desire for life to slow down and find some equilibrium doesn’t seem to fade within me.

In today’s chapter God speaks to Jeremiah and riffs on a word picture that had previously been channeled through the lyrics of the Psalm writer (Psalm 1):

Blessed is the one
    who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
    or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
    whatever they do prospers.

In Jeremiah’s case, I can’t help but think about all of the prophetic messages he’s thus far delivered in his prophetic poetry:

  • pack your bags
  • life as you know it will end
  • all you have known will be destroyed
  • enslavement
  • exile in a foreign land.

Talk about life transitions. It’s rather encouraging to consider my own tame life transitions in light of what Jeremiah and his tribe were staring down.

It’s interesting to find in today’s chapter that amidst all of God’s prophetic rants of punishment and justice for His people, He also provides promise. Along life’s journey I’ve found that the times of greatest fear, despair and anxiety have been when I have forgotten God’s promises during a time of intense life transition.

Life flows like a mighty river. It doesn’t stop. It ebbs at times and rages with floodwaters at others. I can’t control the flow of Life any more than I can control the weather. I can, however, control where I place my faith and confidence. Come drought or flood God’s promise is that if I place my faith and confidence in Him then my roots will go deep; I will find stability in turbulent waters and refreshment when Life’s flow dries up in a season of drought.

This morning in the quiet I’m thinking about all of the places that people, myself included, seek to find stability and security in the intense transitions created by the flow of Life. For me, sleepless nights always accompany such times. I find my anxieties and fears lessened, however, when I follow the advice of the Psalmist:

My eyes stay open through the watches of the night,
    that I may meditate on your promises.

Amidst transition, don’t forget God’s promises. Meditate on them.

Decor and More

So he said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.
Zechariah 4:6 (NIV)

For the past few years Wendy and I have made a post-Christmas excursion to shop for Christmas decorations. So it was that I found myself wandering through a retail ocean of decor this past week. As I wandered up and down the aisles I noticed that a fair amount of the decor ocean included various phrases and verses from the Bible screen printed on anything and everything imaginable. More than once I noticed that verses were presented completely out of context. I found myself wondering if people hang verses on their walls like a modern-day talisman, not having a clue about their original meaning or place in the Great Story.

A verse from today’s chapter is a great case-in-point. The words “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit” is a well-worn phrase I’ve heard endlessly repeated in church services and have seen on many trinkets, but I imagine few know the context. The words in today’s chapter were directed by God to a man named Zerubbabel.

Zerubbabel was a Jewish civic leader who was part of the first group of Babylonian exiles to return to a destroyed Jerusalem to begin the work of rebuilding (the story is largely told by Nehemiah). Zerubbabel was appointed Governor of the area by the Persian King Darius. It was Zerubbabel, in partnership with the high priest Joshua, who undertook the task of rebuilding the Temple of Solomon which had been destroyed by the Babylonians.

The task of rebuilding Jerusalem, and especially the Temple, was fraught with political obstacles and physical danger. One could argue that the political situation surrounding Jerusalem was as heated then as it is now. Some historians argue that Zerubbabel’s Temple initiative was made possible only because Darius was distracted by revolts elsewhere. The project was a gutsy move that could have easily backfired in myriad of ways.

Zechariah’s vision and message to Zerubbabel was a divine affirmation. God had ordained the restoration of Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple. Zerubbabel did not have to carry the weight of the task himself nor depend only on his human efforts. This was God’s project and God’s spirit would be the power source by which it would be accomplished. Zerubbabel could depend on that, and I’m pretty sure he needed that affirmation.

This morning in the quiet I’m thinking back over projects, initiatives, and ministries I’ve been involved in over the years. Many failures come to mind. In retrospect there was more than a pinch of human hubris and ego at the core of them. I can also think of a handful of projects, initiatives, and ministries that I’ve experienced which were more spiritually successful than human design, effort, or ingenuity could have devised. I sense that God, through Zechariah’s vision, was reminding Zerubbabel that his project was definitely not the former, but the latter.

As I stride down the backstretch of my earthly journey I find myself more and more discerning about where I spend my time, energy, and resources. I’ve only got so much “might” and “strength.” I find myself more intent on trying to discern where God’s Spirit is moving and tap into that flow, where my meager investment can yield the most spiritual benefit.

“‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord.” I didn’t see any trinkets or wall hangings with that one at the Big Box home decor store last week. Maybe I’ll keep my eye open for that one. Just something small for my office. Knowing the context of the phrase from today’s chapter, I can safely say that it’s a good affirmation and reminder for me, as well.

featured photo courtesy of m01229 via Flickr