Tag Archives: Introspection

The Pursuit

Whoever pursues righteousness and love
    finds life, prosperity and honor.

Proverbs 21:21 (NIV)

A recently released study showed that the number of church-going Christians in the United States has dropped significantly in the past twenty years. As usual, I have heard a number of media outlets fanning the flames of fear, anxiety, and panic at the news. I’m not getting my undies in a bunch over it. There are some fascinating questions to be asked, contemplated, and discussed regarding the details in the data. Fear leads to all sorts of silly, reactive behavior.

When I was young and starting out on my faith journey, many institutional churches had a keen interest in morality and political power. There was, I know, a genuine motivation in being followers of Jesus. I experienced it first hand in my own life and in the sincere mentors I wrote about yesterday who taught me spiritual disciplines. There was also, however, a drive for size, numbers, and political influence within media-driven pastors and leaders. I myself witnessed and was often a part of a push to get people to pray the sinner’s prayer and walk an aisle to accept Jesus. While that launched many faith journeys, my own included, there were many who simply believed that they had received the heavenly stamp of approval. They had their spiritual “fire insurance” policy that would keep them out of hell, and their ticket was punched for heaven. This was often not the start of a faith journey towards becoming more like Jesus, but a transactional religious rite.

Jesus addressed this in His parable of the sower. The seed falls on all sorts of soil. Some show signs of life and growth, but never grows to maturity or produces a healthy, abundant crop.

My own observation is that there have been many who were part of institutional denominations and churches for reasons that were far different than a personal spiritual journey to follow Jesus. It could have been familial, cultural, and/or social expectation in a time when the institutional church was part of the fabric of our society. There has been a huge shift in the past twenty years. Denominations are imploding. The institutions are falling apart. In addition, being a follower of Jesus involves regular fellowship with other believers and worship. Membership and participation in an institutional church provide the opportunity for those things. At the same time, I have known many regular church members and attenders who neither worship nor participate in any real spiritual relationship with others. In addition, an institutional church is not the only place that the disciplines of worship and fellowship can be found.

This brings me back to the proverb from today’s chapter that I pasted above. It cuts right to the heart of the matter and makes me ask: “What am I pursuing?” If it’s simply a religious rite or a transactional moment that gives me some sense of eternal security, then it’s a very different thing than me being a follower of Jesus. What I have discovered is that being a follower of Jesus is a faith journey because it is a never-ending pursuit and a seeking after becoming the person Jesus calls me to be. As the proverb states, it’s not a pursuit of religion and heaven, but of righteousness and love.

Jesus said:

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things [life’s basic necessities] will be given to you as well.

Matthew 6:33 (NIV)

So, in the quiet this morning I find myself asking the very simple question: “What am I pursuing?” Then there is a follow-up question that is difficult, but necessary: “What do I want to say I am pursuing, and what do my daily words, actions, relationships, purchases, time spent, and energy expended reveal to be my life’s pursuits?

Righteousness and love.

Sometimes, I have to recalibrate and remember what the goal is. Otherwise, I get distracted pursuing so many other things.

<— Click on Solomon for an indexed list of previous chapter-a-day posts from this series from Proverbs!

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

Moving Upstream

The simple believe anything,
    but the prudent give thought to their steps.
Proverbs 14:15 (NIV)

My friend, Matthew, likes to say that “everyone is having a conversation with life.” He describes it as an “inner conversation with your center as external circumstances beg for a response.”

Along my journey, I’ve come to believe that the quality and depth of that inner conversation is critical to my progress in Life, health, growth, and relationships. I’ve also observed along the way those who appear to choose not to engage in that conversation. Maybe they don’t know how to have that conversation. Maybe they really don’t want to have that conversation. The result, from my perspective, are lives that seem to run on uninterrupted cycles of appetite, impulse, reaction, and habit. Tragedy and/or life becoming unmanageable become the only way a conversation with Life might possibly get jump-started.

This morning I find my heart and mind still mulling over yesterday’s post and thoughts of introspection. I’ve always been a bit introspective, but I know many who aren’t and who don’t even know where to begin. Many years ago, when I worked with young people, I always tried to teach them both to be introspective and how to have conversations about those inner conversations. The lessons I learned I now apply in my relationships with clients, team members, friends, neighbors, and even strangers.

Typically, I would start with a simple ice-breaker type of question:

  • Good/Bad: Name one good thing and one bad thing from your week?
  • Where have you been? Where are you now? Where are you going?
  • What’s your biggest pet peeve?
  • If you had five other lives to live, what would you do/be?

Then, I would listen to the young person’s answer and begin what I call “moving upstream.” Moving upstream is really the process of introspection, but I find that one typically learns how to do it first by being led by a parent, friend, counselor, teacher, therapist, pastor, or mentor.

You know how the mouth of a river pouring into the ocean is usually really wide (and usually not very picturesque)? That is what a general answer to a general question is. That’s where introspection begins. Conversations with Life, for those who’ve never really had one, begin with a simple ice-breaker with yourself. But the really good stuff, the scenic views, the waterfalls, the natural springs, the crystal-clear mountain stream can only be reached by paddling upriver, then up a tributary, through a few locks and dams, then up another tributary, and another, and another. There will be a portage around a rapid or three, maybe some smaller dams, and then up yet another small stream. You keep moving upstream towards the Source.

Here’s how it sounded with one of the kids in my youth group as I tried to guide them upstream:

Me: “Name one bad thing from your week.”

Them: “Um, (young people always begin with “Um”) My bad thing this week was getting grounded by my parents.

Grounded? Okay, there’s a story there. Let’s move a little further upstream and find out what it is.

Me: “Ouch! How long are you grounded?”

Them: “Two weeks.”

I keep paddling. With each answer, I move a little farther upstream by taking what’s given to me and exploring further.

Me: “Two weeks!? That sucks! What on earth earned you two weeks?”

Them: (Head is down. Eyes stare at the floor. Shoulders shrug.)

We’ve reached our first dam. Sometimes the lock to a conversational dam is humor.

Me: “What did you do? MURDER SOMEBODY?

Them: (laughs) “No.”

Me: “ROB A BANK?!

Them: “No.”

Me: “Well, being late for curfew isn’t a two week offense. So it’s got to be somewhere between getting in late and murder.”

Silence. Silence is okay, even when it’s painful. Silence is a necessary part of introspection. As my friend Matthew says, “Let silence to the heavy lifting.”

More silence. Finally…

Them: (Mumbling after a sigh) “I got caught smoking weed.”

Hey! There’s a new tributary! Let’s move up that stream and see where it leads.

Hopefully, you get where I’m going. Keep asking questions. Look at the answer to those questions and let them lead you to the next question. The strings of questions and answers are the conversation with Life. The better I’ve become at having those inner conversations about my external circumstances, the further I get towards the Source and the more rewarding the journey has become.

In the quiet this morning, I’m whispering a prayer of thanks for the many friends, family members, teachers, professors, mentors, pastors, and therapists who helped guide me upstream at different stages of my journey. They taught me how to be introspective. Over the course of 50 plus years, my conversations with them taught me how to have a conversation with myself, with Life. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.

Hope your own conversations with Life are leading you to good places, even when the portages, paddling, and dams are a pain.

Have a great day, my friend. Thank you for reading along with me on this journey.

<— Click on Solomon for an indexed list of previous chapter-a-day posts from this series from Proverbs!

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

A Generous Confession

A generous person will prosper;
    whoever refreshes others will be refreshed
.
Proverbs 11:25 (NIV)

Earlier this week I was with friends in our family room, and we were discussing the spiritual season of Lent that we entered into this past Wednesday. For those not familiar with the practice, Lent (from the Anglo-Saxon word for “length” which is also associated with “Spring”) is a period of roughly 40 days (there are multiple traditions who figure the days differently) leading up to the celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection at Easter.

The 40 days traditionally relate back to the 40 days Jesus spent alone in the desert (Matthew 4) before he was tempted by the enemy. That 40 days of solitude, introspection, prayer, fasting, and temptation effectively launched Jesus’ three years of ministry. It was the spiritual boot camp that prepared Him for the determined purpose of fulfilling His earthly mission on the cross, through death, and out of the tomb. In the same way, Lent is intended to be a period of personal introspection, confession, denial, repentance, and preparation leading up to Good Friday (observance of Jesus’ death) and Easter (celebration of Jesus’ resurrection).

As my friends and I discussed our diverse religious backgrounds and personal experiences with Lent, we discussed the practice of self-denial and fasting that commonly occurs during the season. One member of our group alluded to a conversation he and his wife had about self-denial within generosity: You know a person who needs a special outfit for an event and they can’t afford it. It’s easy to say, “Here is an outfit from my spare closet that I haven’t worn for years. Take it. It’s yours.” It’s harder to say, “Here is my favorite outfit. It’s the best thing I own, and it cost me a pretty penny. Take it. It’s yours.” Which is true generosity and self-denial?

I thought of that discussion as I read today’s chapter and came across a verse that I, long ago, memorized. It’s today’s verse, pasted at the top of this post.

In the introspection spirit of Lent, I have a confession to make. Generosity has been a life-long struggle of mine. The struggle is two-sided. The obvious side is simply learning to be generous. Things were economically tight in my family growing up. As the youngest of four, I enjoyed a lot of hand-me-downs. The idea of being generous and giving things away was an honest struggle for me because when I had something new that was “just mine” I wanted to cling to it for dear life. It took me a long time to develop a heart of generosity, and even as I write these words I have specific, shameful memories of not being generous and being called out for it.

The other side of my generosity struggle comes from my core pain, which I long ago identified and labeled: not enough. So, even though I have come to embrace, en-joy, and practice generosity in greater measure than any time in my entire life, my Censor (that ugly whisperer inside my head and heart) ceaselessly tells me that it’s not enough.

Welcome to my Lenten introspection.

In the quiet this morning I find myself meditating on, and thinking about, my generosity. Jesus was constantly urging His followers towards the virtues of love, kindness, forgiveness, gentleness, humility, and generosity. Is it even possible to reach a point in my earthly life where I can say that I have arrived at having “enough” of these virtues in my life?

No.

Does that mean I’m an irredeemable failure?

No.

It means that I am on a spiritual journey and a Life journey. I am not where I once was (thank you God) and I can be encouraged by that fact. At the same time, I have not arrived (Lord, have mercy) and I can be humbled by that fact.

So where, does that leave me?

Time to lace ’em up for another day. I’m pressing on. Hope you are, too.

Oh, and if you wear men’s size 9 and you need a pair of shoes for the trek, I have a brand new pair. I think I’ve worn them only once. If you need them, they’re yours.

<— Click on Solomon for an indexed list of previous chapter-a-day posts from this series from Proverbs!

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

The Miser and the Psalm 112 Man

Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.
2 Corinthians 9:6

Many years ago I was traveling with a colleague who, inadvertently made a comment that stung. Being a right-brained creative, I’m always searching for new and better ways to organize myself. Also, being a right-brained creative I tend to get bored quickly and move on to try new things. So it was that I had been experimenting with making a custom, daily to-do list on a 3×5 card that I kept on a leather blotter in my pocket. I like things small and compact.

I realized why you write so small and put everything on a tiny card,” my colleague said.

I took the bait. “Oh yeah? Why is that?” I answered.

Because you’re such a miser. You’re miserly about everything.”

Wow. Granted, I come from a Dutch heritage famous for thrift, but I’d never in my life been told that I was a “miser.” The conversation ended and the subject never came up again, but the comment stuck with me like a soul wound. Am I a miser?

Sometime later I read Psalm 112, and as I read it I realized that it described the kind of man I wanted to be. So I memorized it. I still whisper it to myself all the time. I even had the reference tattooed on my right bicep. Interestingly, the lyrics of the psalm twice mentions generosity:

Good will come to those who are generous and lend freely,
    who conduct their affairs with justice.

They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor,
    their righteousness endures forever;
    their horn will be lifted high in honor.

Looking back in 20-20 hindsight, I believe my colleague’s comment was a misguided perception based on other factors that need not be mentioned here. I’ve long since forgiven and let it go. It did, however, create a beneficial period of honest introspection, and it motivated me to increasingly live out Psalm 112 in my daily life. I know I have further to go in that journey, but Wendy and I desire to be consciously and tangibly generous with all of the blessings God has given us.

In today’s chapter, Paul is appealing to the generosity of Jesus’ followers in Corinth as he takes up an offering for the believers starving amidst the famine in Judea and Samaria. Interestingly, he quotes Psalm 112, and of course it leapt off the page at me.

In the quiet this morning I am thankful for my old colleague who caused me to pause and take a hard, introspective look inward. I am once again whispering through Psalm 112. As along week of work begins that will take me to the west coast and back, I’m thinking about the opportunities I will have to be a generous person in different ways with many different people I don’t even know. We can use more generosity in this world, don’t you think?

Have a good week, my friend.

Progress

We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing.
2 Thessalonians 1:3 (NIV)

When I began working out regularly this past June, one of my instructors asked me if I had any specific goals in  mind. Without hesitation I answered, “To keep showing up!”

I’ve continued to show up for five months now, and in the past few weeks I’ve received a handful of unsolicited comments from people saying they’ve noticed a difference in me. It’s always nice to hear an unexpected “attaboy,” and it gives a little extra psychological push to keep going.

Today we’re starting Paul’s second letter to the followers of Jesus in the Greek city of Thessalonica. Just a couple of days ago as we made our way through his first letter to the Thessalonians believers, I called out verses in which Paul “urged” them to “more and more” live in a way pleasing to God and to love each other. I couldn’t help but notice that he starts his second letter with an “attaboy.” He calls out and recognizes the very things he urged them to do, saying their faith and their love for each other was “increasing” and “growing more and more.”

Visible, tangible progress.

Some mornings I spend time in the quiet meditating and pondering for some time what the Spirit has to say to me through the morning’s chapter. This morning the Spirit confronted me directly with this question: “Is my spiritual progress as evident as my physical progress?”

Certainly there is an ebb and flow to progress in this journey. Progress is always more evident in the early stages of a journey. The further I progress, the big, self-evident improvements give way to small tweaks in maturity. The small tweaks make a huge difference though they are not as evident to others as the early gains. And, along this journey I’ve discovered that progress does not happen at the same rate. I hit “set points” along the way in which I don’t feel as if I’m making any progress at all. I have to press on and persevere in order to experience the next breakthrough and realize further growth.

Nevertheless, the Spirit’s question is a worthwhile one. Late in his own life journey, Paul writes to his protegé, Timothy: “Exercise daily in God—no spiritual flabbiness, please! Workouts in the gymnasium are useful, but a disciplined life in God is far more so, making you fit both today and forever.” (1 Tim 4:8 MSG)

And so, this morning I’m taking a little inventory. Where am I physically? Where am I spiritually? Where am I mentally, emotionally, and relationally? Am I making progress? Am I slogging through a set-point? Am I resting in anticipation for the next push? Am I regressing?

All good questions for me to mull over as I head to work out this morning.

Thanks for “showing up” this morning, my friend. Have a great day.

==============
Note to my regular readers:
Our local gathering of Jesus’ followers is  spending most of an entire year (Sep ’18 through Jul ’19) studying the book of Acts. In conjunction with this study, I’ve decided to blog our way through all of Paul’s letters in chronological order. The exact chronology is a matter of scholarly debate. We began with Paul’s letter to the believers in the Asia Minor region of Galatia, then proceeded to his first letter to the believers in the Greek city of Thessalonica. Today we’re moving on to his second letter to the followers of Jesus there. Many scholars think these two letters preceded his letter to the Galatians.
==============

 

Managing Misinterpreted Motives

For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you.
1 Thessalonians 2:3 (NIV)

Some time ago I was invited into a meeting with the executive leader of an organization which I served. What quickly became clear in the meeting was that my motives had been called into question by certain individuals. My colleague simply desired to clarify my desires and wants as it related to my service and position within the organization. I quickly answered the questions posed to me and clearly stated my motives for serving and leading. The meeting quickly ended.

In yesterday’s post I discussed my need to continually and personally define my own motivations for the things I do and say. Along my life journey I’ve found this to be a critical step in understanding myself and making healthy decisions about my time, task list, resources, and relationships. But there’s a corollary importance to understanding my motivations, and that’s the reality that others are watching my actions, listening to my words, observing my relationships, and weighing my decisions. Others will question and make their own conclusions about my motives.

Paul spent the introduction of his letter to the believers in Thessalonica complimenting the pure motives of their accomplishments, toil, and perseverance in the faith. In today’s chapter Paul shifts focus to shine the spotlight on his own motivations in relationship to the believers with whom he’d had little time to spend.

One of the constant threats to the small communities of early believers was outside voices who could distract and even destroy their faith. There were angry Jewish zealots branding Paul as a crazy heretic, and demanding that followers of Jesus must obey all Jewish customs. There were traveling charlatans claiming to be preachers of the faith, but who quickly demanded that the local believers pay them for their service and provide for all their personal needs. Then there were local tradesman and trade unions whose livelihoods were centered in casting likenesses of all the pagan idols and deities. They saw Paul and his anti-pagan message as a threat to their pocketbooks and attempted to protect their livelihoods by accusing Paul and his companions of being a threat to Rome itself.

I thought that today’s chapter read like a resume as Paul attempts to make his personal motivations perfectly clear to his friends. He’s preemptively providing the believers with reminders they will need as others will most certainly try to cast doubts into their minds regarding Paul and his motives:

  • We proclaimed the Message despite persecutions and threats to our own lives. (vs. 2)
  • We weren’t trying to trick you, our motives were pure. (vs. 3)
  • We weren’t flattering you like salesmen or covering up some secret motivation of greed to get money or resources from you. (vs. 5). In fact, I used my tent making skills to provide for myself so that you wouldn’t have to provide for me. (vs. 9)
  • We treated you like a loving father (vs. 11) caring for you, and as a nursing mother cares for her baby. (vs. 7)
  • We didn’t abandon you and move on for any other reason than we were forced to do so. We desperately want to come back and see you but have been prevented from doing so. (vss. 17-18)

This morning I’m reminded that I can’t control what other people think or say. I do, however, control what I do and say. Sometimes it’s important to be mindful of how my motives might be misinterpreted. It’s wise, at times, to anticipate how misconceptions regarding my own motives might thwart the good I am trying to do. Paul’s example has me thinking about the fact that it is sometimes judicious to make motives clear and head off the misconceptions that experience teaches me may arise.

Have a great day and a wonderful weekend, my friend. The first snowflakes of winter fell on us yesterday. Stay warm.

“What’s My Motivation?”

We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Thessalonians 1:3 (NIV)

In the art of acting there’s a lot of talk about motivation. It’s sometimes called “the want.” Let me give you an example.

An unlearned actor named John goes up on stage. He walks from point A to point B and says the line highlighted in his script. You ask John why he just did that and he tells you: “The Director told me to. It was at our last rehearsal. I have it written right here in pencil in my script. It says walk right then say the line.” As an audience member you’ll probably see John mechanically waiting for his cue, dutifully walking to a prescribed position on stage, and then saying his line out to the audience.

Now an accomplished actor named Tony takes over the role. Tony has internalized that he’s embodying a character named Ricky who is head-over-heels in love with a girl named Jill. In the previous scene Jill has sent a message to Ricky revealing that she mistakenly believes he’s cheated on her. Now, Ricky sees her for the first time since receiving the note. Actor Tony internalizes what Ricky is thinking and feeling at that moment. He is Ricky, seeing the woman he loves. He makes a b-line to her, looks her right in the eye and says his line with a sense of emotional desperation. You ask Tony why he just did that, and he tells you without hesitation: “I want to convince Jill that it’s not true I cheated on her! I want her to know I love her! I want to spend the rest of my life with her!

As an audience member I can tell you, without a doubt, that you’ll have a much different experience, and a much better one, watching Tony play the role than you will with John.

Motivation is at the heart of great acting because motivation is at the heart of who we are as human beings. There’s a reason we do the things we do and say the things we say. There’s always something motivating and driving our behavior, though many people live their entire lives without ever thinking about it. When we begin to examine our motivations, we begin to understand ourselves on a whole new level. And while most Christians I know think that God only cares about the purity of their words and the morality of their actions, Jesus made it quite clear that He was most concerned about our motives. He knew that if the latter in order, the former will naturally fall into place.

Paul begins his letter to the believers in Thessalonica by complimenting their accomplishments, their ongoing toil, and their perseverance in the face of adversity. What’s fascinating is that Paul examines and calls out their motivations for each:

Faith has motivated the works they’ve accomplished.

Love has motivated their ongoing, laborious toil.

Hope has motivated their endurance amidst persecution.

Along my spiritual journey I’ve come to learn that motivation is just as crucial to things of the Spirit as it is to the actor on a stage. Religious people often do and say religious things because they are motivated by any number of things:

  • to keep up appearances in a community that values being religious
  • to earn admittance to heaven
  • to have an insurance policy keeping me out of hell
  • to build my business network with all those potential customers who go to that church

Motivation matters. Jesus called out the crowds following Him one day. He said, “You’re following me because I fed you fish sandwiches. You want to follow me? Eat my flesh and drink my blood.” Jesus didn’t care about the number followers He had, He cared about what motivated their following Him. The resurrected Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” and then followed Peter’s affirmative answer with a command to “Feed my sheep.” What was important to Jesus was not Peter’s accomplishment of the task, but the love that motivated it.

In the quiet this morning I once again find myself examining my own motivations. Why do I do the things I do? What is driving me? What do the things I do and the conversations I have reveal about what it is that I really want in life? Spiritually speaking, if I don’t have the motivation right, all the saying and doing won’t matter.

==============
Note to my regular readers:
Our local gathering of Jesus’ followers is  spending most of an entire year (Sep ’18 through Jul ’19) studying the book of Acts. In conjunction with this study, I’ve decided to blog our way through all of Paul’s letters in chronological order. The exact chronology is a matter of scholarly debate. We began with Paul’s letter to the believers in the Asia Minor region of Galatia. Today we’re moving on to his letters to Jesus’ followers in the Greek city of Thessalonica. Many scholars think these two letters preceded his letter to the Galatians.

At this writing it has been roughly 20 years since Jesus’ resurrection and 16 years since Paul’s conversion. Paul had spent just a few months in the provincial capital of Thessalonica. He was forced to leave town quickly because his life was threatened. He didn’t get to spend as much time with the believers there as he had wished. It’s now a year or so down the road and he writes to encourage his friends whom he’d quickly left behind.
==============

Conflict, and What Needs to Change in Me

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
2 Peter 3:9 (NIV)

In the past few weeks I’ve experienced an inordinate amount of conflict in several different arenas of life. Not necessarily the in-your-face argument type of conflict, thought there’s been a few of those. For the most part it is the annoying, simmering, festering “I’m sick of this sh!t” kind of conflict. I’m not sure what that’s all about. As I sit and ponder in the quiet this morning I’ve concluded that it may simply be the random peaks and valleys of this life journey. Of course, since I’m the common denominator, I must also consider that  it may be more about me and less about others.

As I think through the various conflicts I realize that in many cases I’ve lost my patience. Unmet expectations, unkept promises, inability to see certain things, and what appears to be a general unwillingness to change brings out in me frustration and then anger. Since I am by temperament a conflict avoider, things tend to get stuffed, then build up.

In today’s chapter, Peter reminds the early followers of Jesus of God’s patience. We believers and our institutions have often been guilty of painting God as condemning and quick to judgement. Peter’s description is the opposite. He describes God as patient to the point that people accuse Him of being uncaring or absent. The motivation of God’s patience, Peter declares, is His desire for every single person to wake up, smell the coffee, and make a positive change in life direction.

This leads me to look back and revisit my own long periods of wayward wandering. Times when I didn’t live up to expectation, didn’t keep my promises, was blind to see my own issues, and held a fairly steady unwillingness to change. God was patient. Eventually, I found my way (though I’m still in process).

I know the golden rule is “do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” This morning I’m reminded of what must be the platinum rule: “Do unto others as God has done unto me.” Jesus said, “As I have loved you, so you should love one another.” That includes patience and an oft forgotten concept: long-suffering.

This morning I’m thinking about conflict, and what it says about the things that need to change in me.

When the Opening Hints of Doom

Now Jehoshaphat had great wealth and honor, and he allied himself with Ahab by marriage.
2 Chronicles 18:1 (NIV)

When you study the art of film, one of the things you learn is that the opening scene of a movie is very important, and a good writer and/or director is going to put a lot of thought into it. A good opening shot sets the stage and tone for the entire film and establishes the movie’s theme. Writers will use an opening line much the same way, and playwrights will do the same with their opening scene or Chorus.

In today’s chapter, the ancient Chronicler uses his opening sentence to set up the reader for the story to follow. I think most modern readers miss it the same way many film-goers miss the importance of the opening scene as they settle into their seat with the popcorn.

First, he references King Jehoshaphat’s “wealth and honor” which ties this part of the story back to the previous chapter which detailed Jehoshaphat’s wealth and honor. The Chronicler also made it clear that the said wealth and honor was linked to Jehoshaphat’s commitment and obedience to God. The next thing he tells us in the opening sentence is that Jehoshaphat made a marriage alliance with a man named Ahab.

Marriage alliances were common practice of royals throughout history. If you were King of one nation, Kings from neighboring nations would give you their daughters in marriage (or arrange a marriage between your respective children) as a way of assuring peace between nations as you’re not likely to attack your wife’s own father and destroy your wife’s family and tribe. This is why all the royal families of Europe are, to this day, a dizzying mash-up of intertwining family connections:

The fact that Jehoshaphat made a marriage alliance is not surprising, but the Chronicler is telling his readers that Jehoshaphat made the alliance with Ahab. All of the Chroniclers contemporary leaders would know Ahab. It’s like a contemporary writer referencing a name like Gates, Buffet, Clinton, or Trump. Everyone knows who you’re talking about.

Ahab was king of Israel (the 10 tribes who split from Solomon’s son and created their own nation). Israel and Judah had been more or less in a state of on-and-off civil war for years. Israel’s monarchy and tribes had abandoned the worship of God. Ahab’s wife was the infamous Queen Jezebel. Together Ahab and Jezebel were one of the most detestable royal couples in the history of Israel. Jehoshaphat made a marriage alliance with them.

Since I’m on the theme of movies, let me reference the Godfather’s famous leadership principle: “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” It might be hopeful to think that Jehoshaphat was that cunning, but that would be wishful thinking. What the Chronicler is doing with his establishing sentence is setting his readers up for the fact that this is not going to end well. Especially given the fact that the Chronicler has already established a theme of immediate retribution throughout his stories: Do good by God and good things immediately happen. Do wrong by God and bad things immediately happen. We as readers should know by now that Jehoshaphat getting involved with the idolatrous and murderous Ahab and Jezebel is a foreshadowing of bad things to come.

This morning I’m thinking about the very simple life lesson of being careful who I align myself with. Jesus specifically prayed to God the Father that He would not take his followers “out of the world.” He wanted us in the world so as to influence it and bring His Kingdom’s love, grace, and power to all, especially those who need it most. So, I don’t think being careful with my “alignment” is about staying in my holy huddle and avoiding “those people” all together. There are certain individuals, however, for whom it would be unwise of me to align myself in a close relationship, a business partnership, a marriage, a contract, an obligation or a similar intertwining of life or business.

Even if it looks good on paper, the establishing shot hints at problems to come.

Becoming the Evil from Which I’ve Been Delivered

So all the officials and people who entered into this covenant agreed that they would free their male and female slaves and no longer hold them in bondage. They agreed, and set them free. But afterward they changed their minds and took back the slaves they had freed and enslaved them again.
Jeremiah 34:10-11 (NIV)

I found today’s chapter in the anthology of the ancient prophet Jeremiah’s messages particularly fascinating. It is a series of messages given during the very time that Jerusalem, the capital city of the ancient nation of Judah, was besieged by the armies of Babylon. Judah’s King Zedekiah had issued a proclamation that all Hebrew slaves (in other words, the people of Judah had enslaved their own people) should be emancipated. After initially abiding by King Z’s emancipation proclamation, the slave owners reversed course, rounded up their former slaves, and returned the slaves to their chains.

In his book exploring the nature of evil, M. Scott Peck describes evil people as “pathologically attached to the status quo of their personalities” while “unceasingly engaged in the effort to maintain the appearance of moral purity.” I thought of those descriptors this morning as I read about the Hebrew slave owners who initially choose to appear obedient and upright in following the King’s edict, but then quickly put their own slaves back in shackles and maintained the status quo of the evil of slavery. The Hebrew people, whose ancestors had been freed from slavery in Egypt, had in effect become their Egyptian masters. While maintaining the appearance of being “God’s people” they were unable to see that they had become the very evil from which their own people had been delivered.

This morning in the quiet I’ve been doing a bit of my own gut-check. Somehow I’m sensing that it’s too easy to wag my self-righteous, 21st century fingers at the ancient Hebrew slave owners. Where in my own life do I make effort to keep up appearances of goodness while simultaneously maintaining a destructive status quo in my behaviors and relationships? Ugh.

I may be able to look back and see that have made spiritual progress on this life journey, but I can still look inside, then look ahead, and see how far I have to go. And with that, my spirit whispers an ancient prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Note to my readers:  As much I’d like to think that slavery has been outlawed and eradicated by our enlightened society, reading a few stories from groups such as International Justice Mission (an organization Wendy and I support) are a reminder that the evil of slavery addressed in Jeremiah’s ancient message is very much alive in the world we live in today. One practical way to make a tangible difference for good is to make a donation to IJM’s efforts or any one of many similar organizations. Peace.