Tag Archives: Messy

Organism and Organization

“While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul….”
Acts 13:2 (NIV)

For anyone who is interested in how organizations and human systems grow and function, the book of Acts provides some fascinating insights. The Jewish tribe from which the Jesus movement sprung was a rigidly structured religious system based on  tribes, families, and descent (thus all the endless lists of genealogies). Only descendants of Aaron could be priests and offer sacrifices. Only members of the Levite clan could work in the Temple. If you were a woman or you weren’t genetically connected to the Jewish tribe, then you were always held a lower class position. This was the centuries old system that the first believers were raised in. It’s all they knew.

Within weeks of Jesus’ ascension the “new” system turned everything these believers had once known on its head. Thousands upon thousands of people became believers. And it wasn’t just people from the Jewish tribe, but people from every walk of life. Holy Spirit power poured out on everybody regardless of gender, tribe, class, age, nationality, socio-economic position, or education. Not only was the movement organically growing exponentially, but everyone had a role to play. Everyone had a spiritual gift with which to contribute to the good of the whole. Read between the lines of Acts and you can feel the heady mess that Jesus’ followers had on their hands.

In today’s chapter there’s a little hint of this reality. Barnabas had been among the first believers, but certainly wasn’t one of Jesus’ original twelve. We find Barnabas in the town of Antioch where he seems to have some position of leadership along with guys named Simeon (Wait a minute. Who!?) and Lucius (What?!) and a dude named Manaen (Who is that?!) whose claim to local fame was having been the foster brother of Herod Antipas when he was a kid. Notice that Saul (Yes, that Saul, the one we know as the Apostle Paul) is named last on the list.

Welcome to the Jesus movement, the early church, where groups of believers sprung up everywhere out of nowhere and people you never heard of are suddenly leading local groups of Jesus’ followers.

This group in Antioch is worshipping and a person with the gift of prophecy gives Holy Spirit direction that Barnabas and Saul need to go on a journey to take the good news about Jesus to other towns. Notice that this sending didn’t come from the central authority, The Twelve, in Jerusalem. There was no committee formed, no delegation sent from Antioch to petition approval from the leadership in Jerusalem. Holy Spirit spoke direct to some dudes we’ve never heard of telling Barnabas and Saul to go. The dudes we’ve never heard of laid hands on Barnabas and Saul because they had the authority of Holy Spirit. It is an organic, living, breathing, growing, multiplying system.

And, it was messy.

It fascinates me to look at this organism of the early Jesus movement and then look at the denominations that make up most of the Christian churches in the world. When I look at denominations from Roman Catholic to Greek Orthodox, Lutheran, Methodist, Reformed, and Assemblies of God with their hierarchical org charts, their strict rules about who can do what, their educational systems, and their religious hoops it reminds me more of the old Jewish system from which Jesus freed the early believers.

In the book of Acts we witness the early church struggling to create systems to keep up with all that Holy Spirit was doing. An organization evolved and structures were clearly put into place. We as humans need structure and organization in order for things to work well. At the same time, what differentiated the early Jesus movement was that Holy Spirit was given free reign to work in and through everyone just as God designed the body of Christ to work. Along my journey I’ve observed that we always seem to put Holy Spirit back into the well ordered boxes of our human systems and organizational structures. When the Body of Christ is no longer allowed to be the organism it was designed to me and it is forced into rigid human organizational structures, it’s like putting a leash on Holy Spirit. Explosive, dunamis (the Greek word from which we get “dynamite”) power Jesus unleashed at Pentecost is reduced to a safe, child-proof sparkler.

There is a need for structure and organization, but I believe that we need to unleash Holy Spirit and rediscover the organic, living, breathing, growing, multiplying organism the Body of Christ was created to be.

The Mess of Relationships

Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches.
1 Corinthians 7:17 (NIV)

My friend Matthew is a marriage and family therapist here in our small Iowa town. This is a great little community founded in 1847 by a Dutch pastor and his devout group of Jesus’ followers. After 170 years our community retains a strong culture of Christian values, and I would daresay that a majority of our town’s citizens would claim to be believers. Nevertheless, I’ve noticed over the years that my friend Matthew never ceases to be booked solid with clients. My quiet observation is that even among those who sincerely seek to follow Jesus, relationships are a never-ending challenge.

Today’s chapter reads like a modified bullet list from Dear Abby as Paul advises those who are married, those who are single wishing to be married, those who are widowed, those who are separated from their spouses, and those who are married to unbelievers. He weaves in and out of stating what he knows from Jewish laws and tradition, and what he believes in his own opinion as the first century believers struggle to determine what it means to live as a follower of Jesus in a rapidly developing faith tradition. Based on what he has already established earlier in his letter, Paul is addressing a fledgling group of Jesus’ followers from diverse cultural traditions living in what is primarily a pagan Greek town in the first century Roman Empire. Most of what the Corinthian believers knew of Jesus’ words and teaching was transmitted orally by the Apostles. It is likely that none of the Gospels had even been written when Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians.

I’m an amateur student of history, I’ve come to accept that every generation of believers in every culture have struggled with all of these relational and marital issues. Courtship, sex before marriage, marriage, sex within marriage, infidelity, separation, divorce, widowhood, sex outside of marriage and remarriage have always been challenging issues. They have always spurred intense debate and emotional turmoil for individuals, families, churches, communities, and nations. I believe they always will this side of eternity.

As I read through today’s chapter and couldn’t help thinking of real people I know in very real and very unique life situations. It spurs questions of “Yeah, but what about….” God’s Message through Paul provides a general  guide for believers, but it certainly isn’t  exhaustive and it doesn’t come close to addressing countless specific situations. Being a divorced and remarried follower of Jesus, I have grappled with my very own relational struggles and failures. I have received (both solicited and unsolicited) diverse opinions from other sincere believers ranging from grace and forgiveness to judgment and condemnation. [sigh] Life gets messy on this earthly journey.

This morning I find myself grappling with my own past. I have continuously journeyed through and studied the Bible for almost 40 years. I have sought to increasingly live as a sincere believer of Jesus, though I regularly fall short. The failure of my first marriage and all the personal shortcomings that led to it are right up there at the top of my failure list.  Yet, there are a few things Holy Spirit continually whispers to my soul when my shame rolls in like the tide:

  • First, nowhere in God’s Message does the failure of a marriage exclude a person from God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness.
  • Second, God has a long track record of redeeming and using broken people with personal failings for His good purposes.

The good news for my friend Matthew and his colleagues is that they will have job security as long as imperfect human beings date, get married, and seek to successfully live together in this fallen world.

From Spiritual Mountain Top to Relational Valley

Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness.
1 John 2:9 (NIV)

A topic of much conversation in our home and circles of friends of late has been that of community. It’s a topic our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been pushing into. In short, we’re talking about how we all do life together and related to one another. It doesn’t take long for the conversation to bring out three common observations:

  • “It is messy.”
  • “It is hard.”
  • “It is complicated.”

Yes. It always has been, and it always will be living East of Eden.

Along this life journey I often encounter those who love the description of believers in the heady first days of the Jesus’ movement as described by Dr. Luke in his book The Acts of the Apostles:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts,praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

This is often held as an ideal to which all of us should strive and aspire. Striving for unity, sharing, and love in life with others is a worthy goal. I have actually had experiences that feel a lot like what Luke describes.

This idyllic experience usually happens at a camp or some kind of retreat environment. It’s that long weekend or week with other like-minded individuals in beautiful natural surroundings. I often hear it described as a “mountain-top experience.” You want to stay there. You want to bottle it up so you can can continue to consume the experience over and over and over again. When you’re at camp having a mountain-top experience you don’t want to leave and go back to “real life.” You’d love to “stay here forever.”

But, that doesn’t happen.

It didn’t happen long-term for the believers in Jerusalem, either. Jesus’ twelve disciples were scattered across the known world sharing the Message. Most of them endured violent ends. Despite the mountain-top experience of that early period of time, history tells us that the believers in Jerusalem eventually faced persecution, conflict, disagreements, strained relationships, and struggle.

Most of the books of what we call the New Testament were originally letters. The letters were by-and-large addressed to individuals or small “communities” of Jesus’ followers. What motivated the authors of the letters was typically problems that were being experienced in community. There were disagreements, relational struggles, theological controversies, moral controversies, personal controversies, persecutions, attacks from outside the community, and attacks from within the community. Leaders such as John, Peter, Paul and Timothy took up their stylus and papyrus to address these problems.

The letter of 1 John is exactly that. A philosophical movement known as gnosticism had sprung up both outside and inside the community of believers teaching things contrary to what John, the other disciples, and the leaders of the community had originally taught about Jesus and his teachings. John was writing to directly address some of these issues. Breaking down today’s chapter, I find John addressing several of them in and between the lines of almost every sentence.

What struck me this morning, however, was John’s bold claim that anyone who claimed to be in “the light” but hated someone in the community, that person was clearly not in the light, but in darkness. In other words, if you are part of Jesus, the “Light of the World” then your life will be marked by love. Jesus taught that we were to love both our friends and our enemies. John is reminding us of the utter foundation of all Jesus’ teaching. Love God. Love others. Everything else is built on these two commands. We have to get that right before anything else.

This morning I’m thinking about some of the disagreements, controversies, relational strife, strains, and struggles I know in my own life, relationships, and community. I experience the “mountain-top” for a moment or a period of time, but eventually I find myself back in the valley of relationship. Community is messy. Community is hard. Community is complicated. John’s reminder is apt.

As a follower of Jesus, I have to accept that there is no exemption from the command to love. If I’m not ceaselessly, actively working to get that right every day with every relationship, I’m not sure anything else really matters.

 

“Labor” of Love

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)

Just this week our daughter Taylor publicly announced that she is pregnant with Wendy’s and my first grandchild. Her former husband, Clayton, is the father. We’ve known for several weeks, and have been eagerly engaged with her in processing this unlooked for curve in her life journey. When she showed up to tell us it came as a bit of a shock…well, a giant shock, to be honest. We had no idea that she and Clayton had seen each other while he was home from Africa. Taylor’s well-worded Facebook post nailed it: “Well, life is full of the hard, messy and unexpected. And yet experiencing all of that can also be full of goodness, beauty and purpose.”

I thought of this momentous new change in life this morning as I read the opening of Paul’s letter to Jesus’ followers in the bustling Greek seaport of Thessalonica. Paul begins his letter by expressing a trinity of goodness he and his companions observed in the Thessalonian believers:

  • work produced by faith
  • labor prompted by love
  • endurance inspired by hope

If the three motivators sound familiar, it’s because they anchor Paul’s famous discourse on love in his first letter to the believers in Corinth when he wrote, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

What really struck me however, was the fact that two synonyms were used in the triad. “Work” and “labor” can be defined in English as the same thing. So, I did a little digging into the original Greek words Paul used in this sentence. The Greek word translated as “work” (ergou) refers to more of a routine job. Think of it as daily chore on your task list that simply has to be done. The Greek word translated as “labor” (kopou) is more specifically defined as “laborious toil.”

Thus I find myself contemplating both work and labor this morning. I will “work” today analyzing a client’s phone calls, filling out an expense report, and attending a corporate Board meeting. I am doing the routine “work” of writing this blog post. I will “work” to carry out the tasks Wendy has for me on my trip to Des Moines. All of these are part of my journey of faith, doing what I need to do on the path I believe God has called me to tread on a day-by-day basis.

Both our adult daughters are out of the house and have been on their own for some time. The “work” of providing for them, making sure they’re up, making meals, doing laundry, driving them to activities, and et cetera are long over. These routine daily tasks were simple acts of faith, believing that we were raising capable young people who would be mature adults who would successfully follow the respective paths God would lead each of them. Mission accomplished.

But the labor never ends.

Last evening I happened to have conversations with both Taylor and Madison by phone. The work of parenting continues. It’s no longer the grunt work of daily provision. It’s different. It’s the loving labor of watching helplessly from a distance as they make their own decisions, choices, and occasional blunders. It’s the emotions that come from caring so deeply about lives you cannot (and should not) control. It’s the struggle of the protector in me wishing I could spare them the pains of “the hard, messy, and unexpected,” but knowing that it is that very hard, unexpected mess that teaches us the most important life lessons that lead to maturity. And so, I mostly labor from a distance as counselor, confidant, advocate, sage, comforter, cheerleader, and friend.

This morning in the quiet I’m thinking of the “work” ahead of me today and this weekend. I’m also contemplating the continued “labor” of love in the weeks and months ahead as father, and now as grandfather. I am so excited. I’ve learned along this life journey that the “hard, messy, and unexpected” usually produces life’s deepest, richest, most meaningful blessings.

Temptation’s Basic Appetites Playbook

Next Jesus was taken into the wild by the Spirit for the Test. The Devil was ready to give it. Jesus prepared for the Test by fasting forty days and forty nights. That left him, of course, in a state of extreme hunger, which the Devil took advantage of in the first test: “Since you are God’s Son, speak the word that will turn these stones into loaves of bread.”
Matthew 4:1-3 (MSG)

Wendy and I spent a few days at the lake this week opening the place up in preparation for summer fun with family and friends. I keep the basics I need at the lake so that I don’t have to pack clothes back and forth each time. So it was that I went to put on a pair of “summer” jeans for a trip into town and had to face an undeniable fact. Ugh. Once again my winter appetite has gotten the best of me.

Oh it’s the holidays. Just a little bit more.

Family potluck. Haven’t had that in ages. I’ll have another helping.

Man that’s tasty. I’ll take two. They’re small.”

One thing I’ve learned along my life journey is that our spiritual enemy has a very thin playbook for tripping us up, and it begins with turning our own basic appetites against us. It has been that way from the beginning:

When the woman  [Eve] saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food (appetite of indulging our flesh) and pleasing to the eye (appetite for acquiring shiny things that strike our fancy), and also desirable for gaining wisdom (appetite for feeling superior), she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.

In today’s chapter Jesus has arrived on the scene to address messy at its core, and the first thing He must do is face the same spiritual test as Adam and Eve, who started the mess in the first place.

You’re hungry. Turn these stones to bread and indulge the natural appetite of your flesh.”

Throw yourself off the pinnacle and let your angels catch you. Indulge your appetite to proudly prove yourself and your power to me.”

See the kingdoms of the world? I can give them to you, and indulge your appetite to acquire all the shiny new things you could possibly desire.”

Each time, Jesus responded to the temptations of appetite with God’s Words spoken, as we like to say, by heart. His appetite for the Word and for relationship with the Father and Holy Spirit had been fed and nurtured so that when the enemy opened his basic temptation playbook, Jesus’ appetites of flesh were checked by His willful obedience to the appetites of the Spirit.

This morning I have to confess that I have indulged my basic appetites for food (meaning I have regularly eaten too much) and sloth (meaning I haven’t exercised) more than I care to admit over the past several months. As Wendy and I discussed this on our drive home from the lake yesterday we acknowledged that this happens time and time again because I simply want to do what I want to do. I want to eat what I want eat, as much as I want to eat it, whenever I feel like it eating it. Add the appetite of willful pride to my appetite for food and drink. Welcome back to the Garden. As I said, the enemy’s playbook is pretty thin.

As a follower of Jesus, I’m also reminded this morning of my need to follow Jesus’ example in the most basic of things. Time for me to feed and nurture my appetite for communion with Christ, my appetite for consuming His Word and seeking after the things of the Spirit. When I do that, I know that I am better able to face the temptation of all the other appetites.

 

Messy

This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
Matthew 1:18-19 (NIV)

I had a great aunt, my grandmother’s sister, whom I adored as a child. There is no doubt, however, that Aunt Nita was an uppity-priss and a prude. I wasn’t around her often, and she was always kind to me, so I was always quick to find her eccentricities charming and silly. For my grandmother and her sister, their eldest sister could be downright intolerable. Aunt Nita presented an air of sophisticated aristocracy which belied the humble, very messy truth of her family’s story. Interestingly, she nevertheless researched and shared those messy family stories in writing, for which I am forever grateful.

I have come to appreciate that life is commonly messy. Even for those like Aunt Nita who enjoy projecting the image of spit-shine propriety, the truth behind the facade is rarely that clean or polished.

Joseph was a good man. He was a hard working carpenter. He was faithful, upstanding and lived life by the book. Then his betrothed comes to him with a wild story about an angel and a positive pregnancy test. Joseph had not signed up for this kind of mess. There would be the public scandal of his girlfriend pregnant before the wedding. And what about that pregnancy? Joseph was a rule follower. He knew he’d not slept with Mary. And, while Mary was not the kind of girl to make up fantasies to cover her mistakes, this story was a little hard to swallow.

And then the angel visits Joseph. “You’re a good man, Joseph. You’re faithful, and you live life by the book. That’s why you’ve been chosen, and blessed, to walk with Mary through messy. That child in Mary’s womb? He’s here to address messy at its core.”

Along life’s journey I’ve noticed that many who claim to follow Jesus are a lot like my great Aunt Nita. We love to present a spit-shine image of perfection and propriety. I confess that I lived much of my own life that way. I was a lot like Joseph. Then I found out life is really messy and the polished, projected image melted in very public ways. Jesus gets that. In fact, that’s why Jesus came in the first place. Jesus’ very conception created its own messiness. If I’m not willing to be honest about my mess, I don’t ever come to fully know and appreciate the fullness of Jesus’ love and grace.

Lessons from Pottery Class

 

Yet you, Lord, are our Father.
    We are the clay, you are the potter;
    we are all the work of your hand.
Isaiah 64:8 (NIV)

When our daughter was young she wanted to take a pottery class, so I signed us up for some father/daughter time learning to work clay. We journeyed one night a week to a pottery studio in an old warehouse space in Des Moines and proceeded to get our hands dirty. We didn’t produce anything and anyone would confuse with fine art. I made a cigar ash tray for a friend who, I believe, promptly threw it away. Taylor made clay replicas of a Taco John’s taco and an order of potato ole’s.

During our class we got to try our hand at the spinning wheel. Anyone who has tried it know that it is much more difficult than it looks. The clay is slippery and unpredictable. I often felt as if the clay itself had a mind of its own and was working against me. It collapses on you or falls apart in your hands. The slightest unintended movement reaps disastrous, unintended consequences. Watch even the best of potters at work and you’ll see them work the same lump of clay over and over and over again until they get the desired result.

In today’s chapter God speaks through the ancient prophet Isaiah and uses the metaphor of the potter and the clay. We are clay being fashioned by a Master at work. We each are being molded, moved, and squeezed by the Potter into our intended shape, form and purpose. We just might break, only to be reduced back to a lump so the process of becoming our intended work of functional art can begin anew.

This morning I am reminded of an old hymn. We used to sing it a lot on Sunday mornings when I was growing up. Its verses riff off Isaiah’s metaphor pretty well…

Have Thine own way, Lord! Have Thine own way!
      Thou art the Potter, I am the clay.
Mold me and make me after Thy will;
     While I am waiting, yielded and still.

Neither my daughter nor I actively pursued pottery after our class. Still, it was a fun experience together. The most important things I learned were less about art or craft and more about the things of the Spirit. Clay. That’s me. That’s my life. Dirty, messy, lumpy, and often quite wonky on the wheel. To be better clay — flexible, malleable, and yielding appropriately to the slightest of the Potter’s intentional touches. That’s my pursuit.

potters-wheel