Tag Archives: Love

Differences in Interpretation

But Abijah grew in strength.
2 Chronicles 13:21 (NIV)

Yesterday at work I was helping a client with their company’s internal Quality Assessment criteria. One of the common mistakes made when it comes to assessing quality of a service interaction is the avoidance of defining simple, observable behaviors. Instead companies often create criteria in ways that leave the assessment wide-open to the analyst’s interpretation. An analyst who has a bent towards strict, “they could have done better” thinking will mark it one way while an analyst with a bent towards a more gracious “they did the best they could” thinking will mark it another way. The result is worthless data.

Along my journey I’ve observed these kinds of differences in all manners of life. We have diverse personality types with bents toward interpreting and reacting to the same set of circumstances in equally diverse ways. We have differences in life experiences, differences in world-view, and differences in life situations that all lend themselves to me seeing and interpreting things a particular way, while you may see it a bit differently.

I don’ know if you’ve caught it in these chapter-a-day posts the past couple of weeks, but one of the interesting things about the historic accounts we’re reading in 2 Chronicles is that the same historical events are also covered in the book of 1 Kings. One of the things I’m discovering is that some of the most fascinating lessons I’m learning come from comparing the two different accounts. They were written by different scribes living in different time periods and circumstances.

Take today’s chapter for example. The Chronicler tells a great story about Abijah’s (King of the southern kingdom of Judah) battle with the rebel Jereboam (King of the northern kingdom of Israel). Abijah’s battle speech is quoted at length in which Abijah blasts Jereboam for abandoning the God of Israel while Abijah and his tribe of Judah are still worshiping and trusting the God of their ancestors. The Chronicler then leaves his account of Abijah’s reign on a positive note. Abijah defeated Jereboam, grew strong, and had a bunch of wives and children.

The scribe of 1 Kings, however looked at the same reign of Abijah and described it differently. The account of Abijah’s reign is much shorter and the battle speech wasn’t mentioned at all. The writer of the 1 Kings account gives a more negative conclusion of Abijah’s reign:

He committed all the sins his father had done before him; his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his forefather had been.

As I’ve progressed in my Life journey I’ve come to recognize that human groups and systems (religious denominations, political parties, families, communities, and etc.) are naturally driven to building a sense of unity and safety by seeing and interpreting things the same way. These same systems, and the members of that system, often become resistant to respecting, considering, and working with systems that see and interpret things a different way. I become afraid. I feel threatened. I entrench myself in my thinking. I attack and discredit the person or system that thinks differently.

The types of rote and repetitive sales and service interactions I assess on a regular basis for my work are relatively easy to break down, define, and interpret once you know how to do it. Driving a consistent and repetitive user experience is one thing. Reducing an individual’s lifetime of stories, experiences, events, choices, words, and relationships into bullet point is a completely different ball game.

Of late I’ve been feeling the pain and frustration of watching societal groups and their members entrench themselves out of fear and suspicion of anyone who thinks differently. I find myself personally rebelling against that mentality. As a follower of Jesus I find it antithetical to the inclusive, boundary-breaking love that Jesus exemplified and commanded of those of us who follow Him. I always tell the Customer Service Representatives I coach and train that Rule #1 is “do the best you can with what you have.” I’m trying to do the same thing with my faith. I can’t change the entire culture of a nation, but I can daily control my own words, actions, interactions, and relationships. I can change the culture around me, the one I immediately impact.

Today, I once again endeavor to be a little more respectful, a little more considerate, a little more open, and a little more loving to the people I run into and those with whom I interact. People who may be members of a group who interpret the world much differently than myself.

“What Would LOVE Do?”

Do everything in love.
1 Corinthians 16:14 (NIV)

A number of years ago there was a fad that caught on among Christians. The acronym WWJD was printed and hocked by every manner of trinket maker from bracelets to t-shirts to wallets and . I imagine most people still remember that the initials stood for the question “What Would Jesus Do?” It became a pervasive for a time in our culture to the point that it has also been parodied and mocked.

What many people don’t know is that the popularity of the question is rooted in an ancient concept, “imitatio dei,” which among Protestants gained wide-spread popularity after a book called In His Steps (by Charles M. Sheldon) was published in 1898. The book tells the story of a man who decides that he is not going to do anything without first asking “What would Jesus do?” and then acting on the answer. The book chronicles his struggles and the ways the simple act changes his life and relationships.

Along my spiritual journey I’ve occasionally mulled over the WWJD question when facing a particular decision or relational dilemma. Quite honestly, the challenge I always run into is trying to connect the limited number of stories about Jesus told by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and extrapolating what Jesus would do in my specific situation were he to be standing in my twenty-first century loafers. Sometimes it’s an easy reach, but sometimes it’s not.

No disrespect to Charles Sheldon or the WWJD minions, but I have found that the question “What Would Love Do?” (based on Paul’s description in his letter to the believers in Corinth) is sometimes an easier connection though just as difficult to actually act upon. Paul ends his letter to the Corinthians telling them to “do everything in love” and John wrote that God is love. So if I’m doing what love would do, I am by extension doing what Jesus would do. The thing about the question “What Would Love Do?” (WWLD) is that it comes with a complete subset of questions with which to think through my motives and potential actions:

  • Love is patient. What is the patient thing to do or say?
  • Love is kind. What would be the kind thing to do or say?
  • Love does not envy. Am I acting or speaking out of personal discontent and/or envy of another persons being or blessings?
  • Love does not boast. Am I acting or speaking from a position of porosity or pride? Am I trying to look good for others? Am I trying to prove something for my own benefit or self-gratification? 
  • Love does not dishonor others. How can I act and speak in such a way that I am “attaching worth” to the person(s) I’m dealing with?
  • Love is not self-seeking. What action would be in others interests or to others benefit rather than my own?
  • Love is not easily angered. Am I reacting instinctually, mindlessly and/or emotionally? What do I need to do to avoid a mindless emotional reaction in order to respond in a deliberate, loving way?
  • Love keeps no record of wrongsHave I truly chosen to forgive others in this situation? Will I let go of my right to be right, or relinquish my right to what I think would be a just outcome?
  • Love does not delight in evil. Would my words or actions instigate or perpetuate a “disruption of shalom” in this situation?  
  • Love rejoices in the truth. Would my words or actions bring clarity and sow life, peace and love in the situation?
  • Love always protectsWhat words or actions would best protect both myself and others from further injury and any further disruption of shalom?
  • Love always trusts. What words or actions would relinquish my selfish desire to control and activate the faith necessary to allow God to truly have Lordship over myself and others?
  • Love always hopes. What words or actions would allow for the sowing, cultivation and harvest of Spirit-fruit in the situation and in relationships (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control)?
  • Love always perseveres. What words or actions would allow for life, love, and reconciliation further along in the journey, even if it does not seem possible in this moment?

Have a good day, my friends. Shalom.

What’s More Important than Love?

But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?
1 Corinthians 15:12 (NIV)

Every author and storyteller knows that you leave the best for last. The “climax” of a story is where you carefully lead your readers. Paul’s letter to the believers of Corinth was not a story or a novel, but there was definitely structure to the message he crafted. After highlighting all of the fighting, disagreements, and behavioral issues within the fledgling group of Jesus’ followers Paul leads his reader to a climactic chapter about love; Arguably the most beautiful treatise on the word that has ever been penned.

But, I still count a few chapters left in the letter. What is so important that it comes after Paul’s climactic and beautiful admonishment to love?

If love is Paul’s behavioral climactic admonishment, then the resurrection is his  climactic admonishment of belief. His point is clear: if I don’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus, then all of my faith, religion, and altruistic behavior (including love) is in vain.

Resurrection was a hot topic in the days of Jesus and Paul. Even Jesus encountered it. Within the Jewish community there were different schools of thought on the subject of resurrection and life after death. One of the more powerful scholarly groups, the Sadducees, did not believe that there was a resurrection and even confronted Jesus on the subject (Mark 12:18). The Greeks and their philosophy had no concept of life after death. They were focused on meaning in this life.

It’s also important to remember that at the time of Paul’s letter it is likely that none of the four Gospels (the biographical accounts of Jesus ministry, death, and resurrection in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) had even been written. It’s likely that many of Jesus’ followers in Corinth had been attracted by the radically different world-view out of which the early believers acted as they broke down walls of social separation between gender, race, and socio-economic status. Believing that someone could die and come back to life, well that was a different story. Like many throughout the centuries, some Corinthian believers were taking the “I like the teachings of Jesus and I’ll try to follow them, but I’m not sure I can swallow the whole ‘risen from the dead’ bit.”

Paul leaves the final climactic ending of his letter to address that which he believed was most important: Jesus died and then came back to life. Paul claims that the resurrection is real and it is the critical cornerstone belief of our faith. He started his discourse on love by saying “If you do all these religious things but don’t have love then your religious deeds are hollow and bankrupt.” Now he’s using the same approach, saying “If you do all these things to follow Jesus but deny the resurrection, then all you’ve done is in vain.”

To that end, Paul offers into evidence the eyewitness testimony of Cephas (whom the Corinthians knew), the twelve, up to five hundred  others who saw the resurrected Jesus. Finally, Paul offers his own eyewitness testimony, having encountered the resurrected Jesus on a trip to Damascus. Paul also applies logic (death and resurrection are the natural order of creation) and reasoning (why would I torture myself and perpetually submit myself to death and persecution if I wasn’t convinced there was more than this earthly journey?).

This morning in the quiet I’m thinking about our current season of Lent. The annual celebration of Easter is coming up in a few weeks. The resurrection of Jesus is the climax of the traditional church calendar year just as it is the climax of Paul’s letter. The resurrection of Jesus remains an audacious claim that requires faith. It remains the transformative cornerstone belief of those who would claim to be followers of Jesus.

I’m also reminded this morning of John’s eyewitness account of the resurrected Jesus’ words to his follower named Thomas. Doubtful of the truth of the resurrection, the resurrected Jesus invited Tom to examine the nail holes in His wrists and place his fingers in the spear wound in Jesus’ side. Tom was convinced and exclaimed, “My Lord and my God.”

You believe because of what you’ve seen,” Jesus said, then added, “Blessed are those who have not seen and believed.”

To the latter group you can add this doubting Thomas.

Spiritual Bankruptcy

If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.

If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing.

If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.
1 Corinthians 13:1-7 (MSG)

It is possible to be religious, but not loving.
It is possible to be righteous, but not loving.
It is possible to be generous, but not loving.
It is possible to be doctrinally sound, but not loving.
It is possible to be right, but not loving.
It is possible to be politically correct, but not loving.
It is possible to be a defender of truth, but not love your enemy.
It is possible to know all scripture, but not love those who mock you.
It is possible to have spotless church attendance, but not love.
It is possible to have spiritual discipline, but not love.
It is possible to have success, but not love.
It is possible to have a million followers, but not love.
It is possible to have good intentions, but not love.

Jesus said there were two basic laws:
1) Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
2) Love your neighbor as you love yourself.

When pressed to define who He meant by “neighbor,” Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan. In the story, the person who had love was a foreigner and an immigrant. The person who had love carried scars from being the victim of racial prejudice, injustice and systemic social, political, and economic ostracization. The person who had love held heretical doctrinal beliefs. The person who had love stood condemned by the prevailing  institutional religion of which Jesus was a part. But, the hated, heretical, outcast foreigner had love, and Jesus’ story made clear that love was the one thing that mattered to God.

On this life journey I’ve taken a good  hard look at myself, and the prevailing institutional religion of which I am a part.

We still haven’t learned the simple and most basic lesson Jesus ever taught. All of my spirituality, righteousness, and religion is bankrupt without love.

Lord, help me love.

featured image is a detail from the St. John’s Bible

The Special People Among Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quarrels Among Us

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God….
1 Corinthians 1:1 (NIV)

All of us have certain characteristics about the way we communicate. When we’re communicating face-to-face we have particular gestures we repeatedly make. In casual conversation Wendy likes to slap her hand on something. Usually it’s her thigh or the counter and sometimes she just claps her hands. It’s her physical punctuation mark to the message she’s conveying with her words.

I will often tell people I’m mentoring in the craft of public speaking to watch a video of themselves but push the fast forward button so that it’s playing at about four times normal speed. As you watch yourself in fast forward mode your repetitive gestures, pacing, and unconscious movements are revealed. I tend to swing my arms like a flapping fish out of water and will often make this weird movement bending my knees and tilting to one side. It’s pretty comical.

Even when we write we phrase things in certain ways or repeat certain phrases. We have signatures we prefer such as “kind regards,” “stay cool,” “be good,” or “shalom” which is a particular favorite of a few friends of mine.

In case you hadn’t noticed, Paul began most of his letters with “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.” To twenty-first century readers this is a stock greeting that we tend to gloss over. It’s just the way Paul begins his letters. Big deal. But this wasn’t an unconscious phrase. He used it for a very specific reason, and for the early followers of Christ reading the letter it had much greater significance and likely stirred up a simmering quarrel.

Apostle,” which is a Greek word meaning “one who is sent” was an unofficially official term for the twelve disciples of Jesus. Jesus Himself called them his “apostles.” A “disciple” was a follower, but an “apostle” was one who was sent out. Jesus message was clear. He was sending them on a mission. For the early church, then, the original “apostles” were held in high esteem and the designation “apostle” came to refer to those who had seen Jesus risen from the dead and had literally been designated by Jesus as an “apostle.”

Paul did not literally fit this unofficially official designation that had arisen among the early believers. He had been late to the party. He’d been a persecutor of Christians and was chief executioner of the first believer, Stephen, when he was killed for heresy. Yet Paul, the prosecutor and executioner of Christians, claimed to be confronted on the road to Damascus by the risen Christ. He was radically converted into a follower of Jesus, said he was sent by Jesus to preach to the non-Jewish believers in Greece.

So was Paul an “apostle” or not?

Throughout his writings, Paul seems intent on claiming that he is. He starts every letter with it. In his second letter to the believers in Corinth he refers to the “super apostles” hinting that he is not part of the club with the original twelve. In his letter to the Galatians Paul begins by saying he is an “Apostle, not sent from men nor by man” the subtext of which is “Christ called me and sent me no matter what you may have heard from other people regarding whether I’m an ‘apostle’ or not.” He then tells the Galatians that he went to Jerusalem to meet with the “esteemed apostles” (subtext: “I’m not ‘esteemed’ like they are“) and confronted Peter, the leader of the twelve, for acting in a hypocritical manner.

Conflict, quarrels, power, control, authority, who’s in, who’s out, who measures up, who is worthy of the title, and who doesn’t quite cut the mustard. These were some of the things that the early believers fought about.

And, let’s be real. These are some of the things over which we still experience conflict. People are people. Get involved with any “church” and you’ll soon see some of the same arguments about titles and offices and leaders and loyalty and membership and requirements. I’ve got almost 40 years in this journey following Jesus and I’ve seen it again, and again, and again.

This morning I’m thinking about quarrels, controversies, and concerns. It’s the stuff we have to navigate if we’re going to live together in community. It’s inescapable. Having been through Paul’s letter to the Corinthians a few times, I know where Paul will eventually end-up. I’m reminded that while Paul begins his letter addressing the conflicts (even stirring them with his claim of being an apostle) he ends by reminding us all that followers of Jesus have one leader who gave us one law: love that is patient and kind, not envious, boastful, or proud; Not dishonoring, self-centered, or easily annoyed, nor clinging to negative feelings or attitudes towards others. Not easy, even for Paul and Peter. At least we’re in good company.

If together we focus on the law of love, we can make it through the conflicts and learn to live together, honor one another, and support one another. Despite their differences, even Paul and Peter did that. So can I.

 

Hats, Fasting, and a Couple of Important Questions

“Ask all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted?”
Zechariah 7: 5 (NIV)

Yesterday I had the privilege of leading our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. I was kicking off a series of messages on Paul’s letter to the believers in Corinth. And so, I’ve been mired in studying the letter and the situation in Corinth around 55 A.D.  One of the themes that bubbles to the surface over and over again are instructions that Paul gave which are rooted in contemporary Corinthian culture. Other instructions are universal to human culture in all times.

I find myself asking, “What instructions were for the Corinthian believers at that time (that don’t fit our current realities)? What instructions may speak to me in 2018 (that the Corinthians couldn’t fathom almost 2000 years ago)? What instruction are ours (they apply to anyone, at any time, in any culture)?”

For example, one set of instructions is about covering your head. In first century Corinth there were layers of meaning in the cultural and religious aspects of whether you covered your head and when. Some of it came from Jewish law and tradition (which the Greek believers probably thought silly) and some of it was the practical differentiation of woman broadcasting in publicly that she was not one of Aphrodite’s temple priestess-prostitutes.

The truth of the matter is that until a generation or so ago, the tradition of women covering their heads in church and men removing their caps/hats was still a big thing culturally. The local Costume Shop has hundreds and hundreds of gorgeous women’s hats with cute little veils that locals have donated over the years (see featured photo). There was a time just a few decades ago when a woman would not go to church without a hat on. Today, in our culture, if a woman does so it’s simply a fashionable novelty.

Likewise, my dad and I have a good-natured, on-going feud when we’re gathered for family meals and it’s time to pray and eat. My dad gives me grief if I have a cap on. I have never been able to discern a good reason for having to remove my hat when the family is  informally ordering a pizza and watching the game. I joke with my dad that it’s actually more sanitary if I keep my cap on. He always wins the argument on his authority and my respect, but I’ve still never heard a good reason.

The bottom-line question is: “Why (or why not) are we doing this?”

That was the exact question God had for the prophet Zechariah. Zechariah and company inquired of the Lord whether they should continue to observe traditional months of fasting. God replied, “Why are you fasting?” God then goes on to point out that what Zac and the boys are not doing are things like being just, showing compassion to people who are different, looking out for the needs of orphans, widows, and the oppressed. The implied question God is asking as I read between the lines is this: “Why would I care if you self-righteously starve yourself in some public display of your religiosity when you’re missing the heart of what I desire from you — to love others as you love yourself?”

Good question, and a good question for those of us who claim to follow Jesus and have wrapped ourselves in religious traditions of all kinds over the years.

“What does God care about? What, therefore, should I really care about? What in my religious practices, rituals, and cultural rules do I make a higher priority than the things God truly cares about?