This week it’s Part 2 of “Companions on the Journey.” My conversation with Kevin Roose about friendship, accountability, the Enneagram, and what our chapter-a-day journey has practically meant in our life journeys.
Then Moses turned again to the Lord and said, “O Lord, why have you mistreated this people? Why did you ever send me? Since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people, and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people.”
Exodus 5:22-23 (NRSVCE)
Wendy and I have, of late, participated in multiple conversations with others who are grieving. The grief being experienced is not the result of the death of a loved one, but rather the unexpected demise of seemingly safe assumptions.
Along this life journey, I have observed that I am constantly making seemingly safe assumptions about what the road up ahead is going to look like. When I was first married, I assumed my marital life would be “happily ever after,” until I found myself in the middle of a divorce. I raised our daughters never realizing that I assumed all sorts of things about what their education, careers, lives, and world-views would look like until they ended up looking much different in almost every way. I assumed I would go to college and get a college degree and successfully pursue my chosen career, but then I ended up in a job I never wanted nor expected. I have saved for retirement and look forward to many golden years traveling with Wendy and doting on our grandchildren, but I’ve witnessed, first-hand, the harsh realities of lives cut far short of that seemingly safe assumption.
In today’s chapter, our reluctant hero, Moses, obediently follows God’s call to return to Egypt. Moses and Aaron make their appeal asking Pharaoh to let the people go into the wilderness to make sacrifices to God. Instead, Pharaoh both refuses and places a heavier burden on his Hebrew slave labor. This leaves Moses stuck between a rock and a hard place. There is no sign of Pharaoh capitulating and Moses’ people are ticked off as they are forced to work harder to meet impossible quotas for which they will likely be beaten and punished.
As I read Moses’ complaint to God about the situation, I found myself remembering exactly what God said to Moses in the burning bush conversation:
“I know, however, that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand. So I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all my wonders that I will perform in it; after that he will let you go.“
In the painful realities of the moment, Moses was quick to remember God’s promise to deliver his people and plunder the Egyptians. However, Moses conveniently forgot the part about Pharaoh’s obstinance and that it would take a process of wonders before Pharaoh would relent. Based on the power and wonders God had shown Moses back at the burning bush, Moses made a seemingly safe assumption that this whole deliverer gig had a quick turnaround.
I find myself this morning thinking about the many seemingly safe assumptions I made earlier in life. Never did I expect to find myself wading through my own moral failure, navigating divorce, life in a small town, remarriage, blended family, infertility, unexpected pregnancy, and spending my life in a career I’d never wanted but to which I was called and found myself perfectly suited to accomplish.
I can’t help but remember Jesus’ words:
“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.”
Matthew 6:34 (MSG)
I have come to believe that any “seemingly safe assumption” about what my life, or the lives of my loved ones, will look like down the road is part of what Jesus is urging me to avoid. I don’t know what tomorrow holds. I only know that “God promised to help me deal with whatever hard things come when the time comes.”
God, allow me the wisdom to give my entire attention to what you are doing in and through me this day, and the grace to entrust you with any and every tomorrow.
Keep to a path far from her,
do not go near the door of her house…
Proverbs 5:8 (NIV)
One of the challenges in the reading of ancient wisdom is embracing the historical, cultural, and social differences I find rather than letting them get in the way. In our current culture of reactivity and the quick dismissal of anything that doesn’t fit neatly in the personal box of my world view, I’m afraid many miss out on the larger wisdom that is still there for anyone willing to see it.
The role and status of women in ancient cultures is a fascinating study. Just a few chapters ago I wrote about the fact that when the ancients personified wisdom she was a woman. Contrasting that honoring celebration of the feminine, today’s chapter is a head-scratching corollary. Solomon warns his son to beware of a caricatured predator: the adulterous woman.
It seems hypocritical for King Solomon to preach such monogamous virtue to his son, given the fact that the “wise” King was recorded to have had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Of course, it could also be argued that he was writing out of the pain of his own folly, as it is also recorded that he was “led astray” by having 1000 women at his disposal (though I doubt he was an unwilling victim).
Along my life journey, I’ve experienced that it takes two to do the tango of adultery. The peddling of forbidden sexual fruit is not discriminatory by gender, nor is the temptation to taste its pleasures. It is also my observation that gender is inconsequential when it comes to matters of seduction, sexual temptation, sexual surrender, promiscuous relationships and the bitter consequences typically experienced at the dead-end of those paths. It would be foolish of me not to look past the cultural differences between the ancient Hebrews and my own time to see the larger wisdom that Sophia has to share for anyone willing to listen to what she has to say about the foolishness of sexual promiscuity.
In the quiet this morning I find folly and wisdom in multiple layers. There is the obvious folly of promiscuity and the wisdom of relational fidelity presented in the text. I also find the folly of what I see on both sides of our current cultural discourse, in which I can easily be dismissive of others who don’t comfortably fit inside the box of my comfortable world-view. I find there is typically larger wisdom present if I’m willing to seek her out.
The next section was repaired by the men of Tekoa, but their nobles would not put their shoulders to the work under their supervisors.
Nehemiah 3:5 (NIV)
Over the years I’ve come to learn that there are three issues that create more marital issues than any other: money, sex, and the division of labor. Each of these marital land mines contains a potentially explosive form of relational power and/or control that can be exhibited in both passivity and aggression. I have found that most couples somewhat expect the conflicts around money and sex, but the division of labor often catches them by surprise.
How we go about dividing roles and responsibilities for the everyday tasks of life together can be as unique as the individuals involved. I’ve found that there are all sorts of elements that factor into both the conflicts and the resolutions including history (how it was modeled in our homes growing up), personalities (and the respective concern with order and detail), giftedness (the ability or lack of ability to do certain things well), interest (one person’s desire/need to have things done a certain way), character (the willingness of an individual to work for the good of the whole), and spirit (the willingness to submit my needs/desires for the sake of my partner).
In today’s chapter, Nehemiah describes all of those who pitched in to help repair the walls of Jerusalem. Different individuals and groups took responsibility for certain sections of the wall that surrounded the city. What stood out in his list is the one group of “nobles” (the Hebrew word used here means “magnificent” or “mighty”) who refused and were unwilling to throw their back into the manual labor. Nehemiah’s calling them out points to an issue of character. The nobles of Tekoa appear to have been unwilling to work.
In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking about the work required for the success of a marriage, a home, a team, a business, and/or a community. I’ve observed on many levels that when an individual and/or group refuse (or are not required) to get their hands dirty in the grunt work required for the well-being and success of the whole, then a chain reaction of issues are likely to be set of which will strain the system and may even threaten to destroy it.
I am reminded of the words of King David to his son, Solomon, whom his father tasked with the construction of the temple that the exiles we’re reading about rebuilt. It’s become a life verse for me:
“Be strong, and courageous, and do the work.”King David (1 Chronicles 28:20)
Which reminds me. I have work to do. And, I imagine you do too. All the best to you in your labor this day, my friend.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
2 Corinthians 5:17 (NIV)
I got my first tattoo in the fall of 2005. It was an incredibly tumultuous time in my journey. It was the most tumultuous stretch of the journey I’ve yet experienced, in fact. I was recently divorced, a reality I’d never imagined for myself, with two teenage daughters trying to make sense of their own shattered realities. Wendy had also entered my life. This was another unexpected and unlooked for reality that I knew in my heart was of God’s doing, but it made the whole picture a hot mess.
So, why not get a tattoo?
The tat is a celtic cross on my back. In the circle at the crux of the cross is a reference to Revelation 21:5:
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
Wendy also got a tat that day. A butterfly with the same reference. It was a permanent reminder amidst temporary circumstances of the hope we had in Jesus. Wendy and I both knew by the faith that Paul writes about in today’s chapter that Jesus, the Creator, was in the process of picking up the shattered pieces of life and the mess that had been wrought by our respective human flaws and failings, and together was making something new out of it.
It was months later that I went to a weekend retreat for teens that our daughter Taylor was attending. She was going to speak to her peers and I had been invited to listen. It was hard. She spoke about her own pain amidst the divorce and remarriage and the tumultuous changes in her own experience and realities. “One of my dad’s favorite verses is Revelation 21:5,” she said before adding, “I don’t like that verse.” Ugh.
Our human failings create so much pain for the ones we love most.
Along my spiritual journey I’ve learned that God expresses themselves over and over and over again through the theme of creation and re-creation. It’s an integral theme in the divine dance. Old things pass, new things come. On the macro level consider the first chapter, Genesis 1, in which God creates the heavens and the earth. In the final two chapters of Revelation God creates a new heaven and a new Earth (Rev 21:1). On the cosmic level it happens at the cross and the empty tomb. Jesus refers to this creation and re-creation theme over and over again. “Unless a kernel dies and is buried in the ground,” He said, “It can’t spring to new life.”
I’ve also observed that many of my fellow followers of Jesus like to gloss over this theme with broad religious brush strokes of propriety. They like “old things pass away and new things come” to look pretty and proper with an emotionally moving musical score underneath. It’s so much easier to swallow when it’s neat and easy.
Maybe it is that way for some. I haven’t found it to be that way. Resurrection is proceeded by crucifixion. Crucifixion is a raw, naked, shameful, bloody mess. Just like my life back in 2005 when I got my first tat.
In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that when Jesus called followers, He made it clear that things would change. Old things would pass away. New things would come. And, not necessarily in comfortable ways.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.
2 Corinthians 1:3 (NIV)
During the 2008 presidential election, both John McCain and Barack Obama were interviewed at a leadership conference. Both men, in turn, were asked a fascinating question. The candidates were asked to speak about their greatest failure. True to his masterful ability, I recall that Obama spoke for a few minutes in response. His answer articulately wove a beautiful tapestry of words in that graceful, assuring baritone voice. And, I have no recollection whatsoever of his answer.
Asked the same question, John McCain’s answer was immediate and simple: “The failure of my first marriage.”
I will never forget a conversation I had with a wise counselor as I was navigating the failure of my first marriage. My life was strewn in shattered pieces around me. It was the lowest point of my life, and I had been scheduled to speak with this spiritual sage. To be honest, I expected to hear more of the condemnation I felt like I was receiving on all sides. I expected a message of judgment. I expected a righteous tongue lashing and words of dire warning. What I didn’t expect was a prophecy.
“Someday,” the counselor said, “you are going to be called upon to walk along side someone who is going through exactly what you are experiencing in this moment, to guide them, and comfort them, and see them through their pain.” That is all that I remember from my hour with him.
It was an Easter Sunday morning several years later that I was walking out of the annual celebration service and spied a man who I had desired to befriend for some time. Seizing the moment, I pulled the acquaintance aside from the crowd and expressed that I would enjoy getting together with him and get to know him better. I’ll never forget the puzzled way he looked at me for a long, uncomfortable moment. Then he leaned in and whispered in my ear a direct answer with the succinct clarity of John McCain: “Tom, my wife left me. Nobody knows it.”
I had the privilege of becoming a friend of that acquaintance, and walking alongside him as he traversed the same agonizing path of marital failure. I got to guide him, comfort him, and see him through that valley. I was privileged to witness, over time, God’s redemption in his story.
Along life’s journey I’ve experienced that suffering produces a common, repetitive question: “Why?”
Sometimes there is no answer to that question, and I won’t pretend that there always is. Yet, I’ve also experienced in my own suffering that there is often purpose in my pain, just as I’ve read time-and-time again in my chapter-a-day journey. Consider these three similar messages from three different authors writing to three different audiences:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.
1 Peter 1:6-7
In the midst of my greatest failure, and in the deepest valley I have thus far traversed in my journey, I unexpectedly learned a valuable lesson through the words of a prophet. Sometimes my suffering, and the spiritual comfort I come to find, in Christ, amidst the agony, prepares me to someday comfort another who is making their way through the same dark valley.
Do everything in love.
1 Corinthians 16:14 (NIV)
In her book, Liturgy of the Ordinary, Tish Harrison Warren reminded me of what I fear is a largely forgotten and much needed truth. In a culture that worships bucket list experiences and adrenaline rushes, it is easy to allow the experience-seeker mentality to skew my spiritual life. I allow the mundane, everyday routines to become disconnected from spirit. In my mind they become the Life-less tasks I must necessarily trudge through to get to the next mountaintop spiritual experience. Warren brought back into focus for me that in Jesus, everything is connected. Everything is sacred.
Wendy’s and my household is, I assume, like most married households. There are tasks that are my responsibility. The lawn care and snow removal, for example. It’s not that Wendy can’t do these things or assist with them. She grew up on a farm and can chore with the best of them. I just take them on as my responsibility. There are tasks Wendy takes on for herself. The laundry and the kitchen/pantry administration, for example. It’s not that I couldn’t capably do either, but Wendy likes these done a certain way so she just takes them on as her own. And then, there are household tasks that we share.
In Paul’s letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, he ends his letter by admonishing them to “do everything in love.” As I mulled over this simple command, I realized that it’s easy for me to apply that “experience seeking” mentality to this simple relational command. It’s also easy to assume that Paul is talking about being loving in all my relationships, to be a Good Samaritan, and to be loving toward outcasts and my enemies. But, then I looked again. I realized that’s not what he wrote. He didn’t write “Be loving towards everyone” he wrote “Do everything (i.e. Laundry? Lawn care? Making the bed? Fixing supper? Washing the dishes?) in love. All of a sudden, this simple command takes on a whole new layer of meaning.
In my job I assess and train people in the art of giving good customer service. Quite regularly I am working with individuals who are tasked with serving co-workers (a corporate help-desk, for example). Other teams are tasked with serving the same key customers on a daily basis, and they often have very close, very personal relationships with these customers. I commonly have these team members argue that the customer service techniques I teach them “don’t apply” to them.
“They’re not customers. They’re co-workers,” the help-desk agent will say to me.
“He’s not like a customer. I talk to him on the phone every day. Sometimes it’s multiple times a day. He’s a friend. I don’t need to do all this customer service stuff with him. It would sound silly,” the key account manager will say to me.
What are these service skills I’m asking of them?
- Take ownership of a situation, say what you’ll do.
- If something doesn’t go right, express empathy. Apologize.
- Make sure you’ve met the need. Ask if they need anything else.
- Express gratitude.
What these agents are arguing is that the closer you are to another person, you are excused from giving him or her exceptional service. The more intimate you become, the more you are free to just slide and “get by.” These mundane, everyday relationships don’t require good communication of active commitment, empathy, willingness, or gratitude. Wow. No wonder so many relationships are in trouble.
At that point I will usually tell a joke. Imagine if I told Wendy on the day we married, “I told you I love you today in front of everybody. So, now you know. If it ever changes I’ll let you know.” My challenger wife would have a few words of challenge for me.
I argue that the closer the relationship, the more everyday, mundane daily relationship that is shared between two individuals, the more I should want my communication to be a steady stream of commitment, empathy, willingness, gratitude, and love. Of course the words are going to be different and more familiar. Of course it’s going to look and sound more subtle, more intimate, and familiar than with a new acquaintance. Nevertheless, a healthy relationship requires it.
Last week I went out to blow 10 inches of heavy snow off our sidewalks and drive way in the dark while I was sick with a cold. When I walked in the house Wendy thanked me for doing it. She didn’t just thank me because it was hard, or I happened to be sick. She always thanks me. I can’t remember the last time I did the lawn or the driveway and Wendy didn’t immediately thank me when I walked in the house. In the same way, whenever Wendy finishes a day of multiple laundry loads I express my appreciation for it.
When Wendy asks me to do something for her, I always try to respond with what I teach my clients is called an ownership statement. It’s a statement of what you”can” or “will” do for a person that also expresses a positive attitude in doing so. “Sure, babe,” I say, “I’ll be happy to.” There is no one else who does as much for me everyday as Wendy. There is no one who deserves an ownership statement from me as much as she does.
“Do everything” Paul wrote, “in love.” In the quiet of my hotel room this morning I’m really mulling that over. It’s not just the big public actions that every one can see, but the ordinary, repetitive daily actions that hardly anyone sees. What does it mean for me to make coffee in the morning in love? To do my daily chores in love? To mow the lawn in love? To answer my emails in love?
In order to answer that question, I have to be open to embracing the Liturgy of the Ordinary.
I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord.
1 Corinthians 7:32 (NIV)
Wendy and I just returned from a trip to Minnesota. I was scheduled to make a client visit early this week, so we left early and enjoyed an evening in the Twin Cities along with a Minnesota Vikings’ game (more about that on a subsequent post). Since Wendy and I work together, we have the privilege of Wendy begin able to travel with me if and when she wants to do so. That being said, she doesn’t always choose do so.
Wendy and I enjoy one another’s company. If we didn’t, our lives would be a mess. Not only do we live together and work together, we home office together. We serve together. We are pretty much around one another 24/7/365. We’re actually pretty darn happy about the arrangement, though we totally understand that not all married couples could do it the way we do it.
I will also admit that when Wendy accompanies me on a business trip, it changes things for me. Instead of being able to manage my own schedule and focus on the client, I also have to think about Wendy. She’s been alone in the hotel all day. She’s probably getting hungry and we need to figure out what we’re going to eat together. What is Wendy likely to want to do with our time together this evening?
These aren’t bad things, it simply adds a layer of things I have to manage. The trip is more simple if Wendy’s not with me. Likewise, Wendy has come to embrace the fact that being alone at home for a couple of days affords her the opportunity to get a lot of tasks on her list accomplished. She’s freed up from worrying about me. The evenings that would be normally spent hanging out together is suddenly open to all sorts of individual possibilities.
In this morning’s chapter, Paul is writing to the believers of Jesus in Corinth with some relationship advice. Along my journey I’ve quite regularly encountered individuals who like to use pieces of this chapter to make all sorts of sweeping legalistic rules about relationships. Personally, I’ve come to believe that it’s important to keep two things in mind; Make that three, no four:
- The believers in Corinth were struggling with an acute circumstance in which an incestuous relationship between two believers was wreaking havoc inside their community (5:1). Sexual immorality (especially the socially acceptable practice in Greek and Roman society of having sex with local shrine prostitutes, both heterosexual and homosexual) was quite common.
- The tremendous number of adults, from diverse walks of life, becoming believers had created a situation in which many felt that becoming a follower of Jesus meant that they had to immediately change all manner of things in their personal lives, including their marital status (7:24).
- Paul believed that the return of Jesus and the end of all things as they knew it was imminent (v. 29).
- The persecution that had broken out against Christians meant that lives, and therefore relationships, could change at a moment’s notice which had far-reaching social implications for individuals and the entire community in that day.
I believe that it’s critical to keep the context in mind when reading Paul’s advice to the believers in Corinth. There are also an entire host of real life circumstances, both personal and cultural, that lie outside the specific situations faced by the Corinthians believers. I don’t believe that Paul’s advice to the Corinthian believers is a “one size fits all” text for every person in every relational circumstance.
Please don’t read what I am not writing. There is tremendous, scriptural wisdom that Paul is providing that is applicable to all. For example, Paul recognizes the very thing that Wendy and I have discovered in our own relationship. When we’re alone and on our own for a few days we’re free from having to worry about the other and can be all sorts of productive. Paul recognizes his singleness was crucial to his ability to accomplish all that God called him to do, and he thinks others would benefit from being single (especially because he knew that the Corinthians believers could be rounded up and killed, and he believed that Jesus could return at any moment). Does this mean that Wendy and I should not be married? Not at all. Wendy and I are ultimately more productive, more balanced, and better together at accomplishing what God has called us to than we would be as individuals. Context is critical to the proper interpretation of what Paul is writing to Jesus’ followers in ancient Corinth.
In the quiet this morning I’m thankful for Wendy, my partner in life, work, leisure, and ministry. She makes me a better man, and her complimentary gifts and personality actually support, equip, and empower me. I’m also thankful for short periods of time that our work affords us to be alone and focus on what we individually need to accomplish. It works well for us, but I also recognize that not every single person or married couple are like us. Nor should they be. We’re each in our own unique circumstances, and God meets each of us in the context of our individual situations.
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.