Tag Archives: Progress

Old Habits Die Hard

Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses,you cannot be saved.”
Acts 15:1 (NIV)

Yesterday I was with a young manager my client has asked me to mentor. The manager described a particular conversation they’d had with a peer in another department. The conversation was about some procedural changes that would affect both of their respective teams. The manager described their opposing views and the conflict that arose as the procedural change was not going to be universally popular.

The manager described the conversation and the slow descent they felt themselves falling into as they dug their heels in and felt stubbornness consume them. In that moment there was no possibility of compromise. The manager recognized what had happened, even felt it happening in the moment, but had been unable to stop it. The manager then confessed that this was a deep-seeded, long-recognized pattern of behavior. And, it was not a positive one. They even recognized the source: “That’s my mother!” the manager said.

Along life’s journey it’s become clear to me that old habits die hard for every one of us. If we are to make progress on our journeys, whether personally, emotionally, relationally, and/or spiritually, it will require old habits to pass away and new patterns of thought and behavior to come.

I found today’s chapter in the book of Acts to be an inflection point. Through the first fourteen chapters the explosive and expansive growth of the Jesus Movement had everyone frantically trying to keep up. When systems experience that kind of explosive growth, the system quickly goes into survival mode, setting aside minor and/or complex matters just to address the giant issues that are staring everyone in the face. As equilibrium is found, the long suppressed issues begin to surface. That’s what I see happening in today’s chapter.

The Jesus Movement sprung from the Jewish tribe with its centuries old set of religious and behavioral customs. It was, perhaps, inevitable that some of the Jewish believers were going to want to retain and cling to their Jewish customs. Old habits die hard. In today’s chapter a few of these habitual believers from the Jewish tribe tell a bunch of believers who weren’t from the Jewish tribe that they would have to adopt all of their old habits and customs in order to be a true believer in Jesus. Primary among these old Jewish habits was the rule that all men would have to be circumcised. Yeah, I’m sure that went over like a lead balloon.

So we have conflict brewing between believers from the Jewish tribe and those from non-Jewish (described as “Gentile”) tribes. While Dr. Luke describes a fairly well-mannered meeting of the minds and peaceful solution, Paul’s description of events is different. Paul describes conflict between he and Peter. He describes conflict in the relationship between Peter, believers from the Jewish tribe, and believers from Gentile backgrounds (Read Galatians 2). In Paul’s description, Peter said that he was all for Gentiles not having to adhere to Jewish customs, but then he hypocritically acted with favoritism towards the Jewish believers. Old habits die hard.

Then at the end of the chapter we find Paul and Barnabas in a sharp dispute about whether to take John Mark on their next missionary journey. The argument ends in the two friends and colleagues splitting up. What I observe is that Paul’s behavior and words in these conflicts with Peter and Barnabas don’t reflect the new code of love that Paul himself describes in his letter to the Corinthian believers, but reflects more of the old proud, arrogant, temperamental and fiery Pharisee who persecuted the church. Yep, old habits die hard.

As I wrapped up the mentoring session with my young business protege yesterday we discussed that recognizing negative behaviors and feeling the negative results from them is the first step toward positive change. The manager described the subsequent meeting between managers, their heart-felt apology, and the constructive progress towards compromise that followed. Well done. Old things begin to pass away as new behaviors and habits are formed.

This is a journey and old habits die hard, but I’ve perpetually found that they will eventually change when I surrender myself to Holy Spirit, when I diligently pursue the person I was created to be, and when I make my mission to be a person marked and controlled by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, perseverance, and self-control.

Have a great day, my friend.

Carrying Out the Filth

[King Hezekiah] said to them, “Listen to me, Levites! Sanctify yourselves, and sanctify the house of the Lord, the God of your ancestors, and carry out the filth from the holy place.
2 Chronicles 29: 5 (NRSVCE)

One of my projects this summer has been to get my garage organized. I’ve only gotten so far, however, because there’s some stuff in the garage that has been cluttering up the space and until I get rid of that I can’t move forward. I can’t get things moved around and bring in some organizational pieces that will make the garage a more workable space. So, I’m really excited today that I’ve successfully sold some things and they’re going to be gone today.

Here’s the simple, but profound truth I’ve learn along this Life journey: There are times when you can’t move forward and get where you’re going until you get rid of the stuff that’s in the way.

In today’s chapter we’re introduced to King Hezekiah who takes over the throne from the tragically flawed King Ahaz who we met in yesterday’s post. I have to remember that these stories don’t exist as independent silos or time capsules. They are connected. Hezekiah is inheriting the kingdom of Judah from Ahaz in a state of chaos, defeat, upheaval, and disunity. The place is a shambles.

I also have to remember that Ahaz didn’t follow God and instead basically followed every god available to him. He had no regard for Solomon’s Temple or the God of his ancestors. He not only took the utensils used in worship of God and had them cut up and given to the King of Assyria, but Ahaz also allowed Solomon’s Temple to become a worship center for other gods. It had become a pantheistic free-for-all with regional gods who practiced things like child sacrifice, temple prostitution, and a whole host of nasty stuff.

That is the state of things that King Hezekiah inherits. So the Chronicler is quick to tell us that Hezekiah’s first move is to tell the Levites (the Levite tribe was specifically tasked by God to be the caretakers of the temple) to go into the Temple and “carry out the filth from the holy place.”

Hezekiah gets the principle. Before they could move forward spiritually as a nation, they had to get rid of the crud cluttering up the place that was supposed to be holy and dedicated to God.

For followers of Jesus, this story has another layer of meaning entirely. Jesus was a game changer, and He taught His followers that the Temple, the holy place, was no longer a building in Jerusalem but it was his followers themselves. The night before He was crucified He told His followers that He would send Holy Spirit to “be in you.”

Game changer.

The “holy place” where God’s Holy Spirit descended and hung out would no longer be a small room in one temple in Jerusalem. The “holy place” would become human beings. God’s Message repeatedly tells me that my body is a “temple of the Holy Spirit” who is in me and that I am “God’s temple.”

There are times when I, Tom Vander Well, temple of God, cannot move forward spiritually until I clean out the filth from the “holy place” of my very own body and soul.

Ugh.

Today, I declutter my garage so I can move forward with making it a better space.

What “filth” needs to be carried out of my soul so I can move forward spiritually?

Initiative and Patience

“Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.”
Jeremiah 33:3 (NIV)

Along my spiritual journey I’ve come to understand that progression in the journey requires a heady mixture of what, on the surface of things, seems contradictory ingredients. God asks me to develop both initiative and patience.

Jesus made it clear to any who would follow Him:  Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”

Asking, seeking, and knocking are verbs. They are actions initiated by the one who is doing the asking, seeking, and knocking. I also find it fascinating that Jesus did not mention one, but three distinct verbs with slightly different metaphorical meanings. I have learned along my journey that I have to be proactive if I wish to make spiritual headway. God doesn’t give passing grades for simply showing up at class and warming a seat. If I want to move to the next spiritual grade level I have to fully participate in each lesson, assignment, experiment, exercise, and practicum. Initiative is required.

In today’s chapter, God speaks through the ancient prophet Jeremiah and foreshadows Jesus’ spiritual lesson. “Call out to me,” God says. Take the initiative. Pick up the phone. Give a shout. If I do, then an answer is promised. “Great and unsearchable things” of which I am ignorant.

In the rest of Jeremiah’s message God takes responsibility for the judgement on the nation of Judah, but then spends the rest of the chapter giving a vision of healing, restoration, redemption, and blessing. “Yes,” God says, “I am letting my children experience this hardship, but if they take the initiative to seek me out and have patience they will ultimately find that this has all been part of a much larger plan.”

This is where I find patience required. I started my spiritual journey following Jesus almost 40 years ago, and there are things I’m only beginning to learn and fathom as I approach the 40 year milestone (which is full of all sorts of spiritual significance in the Great Story). If I had bailed out early, there is so much I would have missed.

This morning I find myself thinking of the times as a parent that I earned my children’s wrath for doing what they could not, would not understand in the moment. They only saw the surface of things through the immature lens of their immediate desires. Meanwhile, as a father I was more interested in their long-term character and spiritual development than in making my child momentarily happy. Even as a parent trying to raise spiritually mature children I had to take the initiative to do what may have been unpopular in the moment and have the patience that my children would someday thank me for seeking what was best for them.

At this, the beginning of another work week, I find myself once again taking the initiative to ask, seek, and knock what God would have for me in the days ahead. And, I patiently press forward one step at a time.

…and a Time to Return

Set up road markers for yourself,
    make yourself signposts;
consider well the highway,
    the road by which you went.
Jeremiah 31:21 (NRSVCE)

A few years ago I had the privilege of watching as a play I wrote was produced a couple of different times on stage. Having spent most of my life journey in the state of Iowa, I’ve observed a repetitive theme of those who leave our rather quiet, fly-over homeland for more exciting places. Yet, eventually, most every one returns home. The reasons for return are as varied as the individuals who leave, but for most every one who leaves there comes a time to return.

There is a good story there,” I thought to myself. And so, I sat down to write a play and tell the story of a small town Iowa boy who is forced to come home. In his returning he must confront his past and the reasons he left in the first place.

Over the past few chapters in the anthology of Jeremiah’s messages, I’ve mulled over the way the themes of wilderness and exile play into life’s journey. There’s a corollary theme in the return from wilderness and exile. Just as the hero of every epic spends time in the wilderness, so that same hero must return to carry out the purposes for which he/she has been prepared.

In today’s chapter, the theme of Jeremiah’s prophetic letter to the exiles living in Babylon is all about their homecoming. “Drop breadcrumbs along the road to Babylon,” he tells them. “Mark the way because the time will come for your return home.”

Sometimes on this life journey I’ve observed that the return home is long awaited and desired, just as Jeremiah describes in today’s chapter. Other times, like the prodigal son, one’s homecoming is filled with remorse and repentance. Then there are those times when the return home is part of a larger story about the necessary confrontation required in order to progress yet further on life’s road. And, I suppose, there are times when coming home is a cocktail of all these.

As this morning dawns, the little town where Wendy and I live is preparing for our annual Tulip Time festival. As happens each year there will be hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of individuals who will return home to participate in the festivities (we’ll have some of them staying in our house!). I’m thinking about their respective life journeys, the varied stories they represent, and all of the emotions (and perhaps confrontations) that these homecomings will entail. There is a time to leave home, and a time for those living in exile to return.

I’m whispering a prayer in the quiet this morning for each of them, and for God’s goodness and mercy in each of their respective stories.

Balak’s an Idiot (and so am I)

Then Balak’s anger burned against Balaam. He struck his hands together and said to him, “I summoned you to curse my enemies, but you have blessed themthese three times.”
Numbers 24:10 (NIV)

Yesterday morning, after writing my post and finishing my quiet time, I settled in at the breakfast table. Wendy was just finishing reading our previous chapter as she waited for me.

Balak is an idiot,” she said with a chuckle and shake of her head.

I laughed, and agreed with her. The narrative clearly portrays the Moabite king as not being the sharpest tool in the shed. Balaam the seer clearly spoke the terms up front to Balak. He would say only what the Lord told him to say, no matter how much treasure Balak offered Balaam to say what he wanted to hear.

Nevertheless, Balak makes Balaam view the Hebrew encampment from three different vantage points, expecting Balaam’s prophetic message to change with the view. When the prophecy doesn’t change to his favor, Balak tells Balaam that he’s not going to pay. Duh. Balaam reminds Balak that he knew that up front.

It is out of Alcoholics Anonymous that we got the popular notion that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. It appears Balak could have benefitted from the Twelve Steps.

In the quiet this morning, however, I’m reminded that I can often find my own reflection in the individuals I criticize. There are stretches of my own journey in which I was looped in endless cycles of brokenness. Truth be told, I have found that significant spiritual progress usually requires breaking systemic negative patterns of thought or behavior. The further you progress the deeper, more intimate, and less obvious those negative patterns are to the casual observer. Recovering Alcoholics will tell you that they once thought drinking was their problem. Journeying through the Twelve Steps you discover that your addiction is just the tip of the iceberg.

This morning as I laugh at King Balak’s idiocy, I have to humbly confess that I am also laughing at myself.

Have a good weekend, my friend.

The Motivation Behind Life’s Blocking

Nevertheless, in their presumption they went up toward the highest point in the hill country, though neither Moses nor the ark of the Lord’s covenant moved from the camp.
Numbers 14:44 (NIV)

Faith is an amazingly powerful, amazingly mysterious spiritual root force. Jesus said that faith as small as a speck could move mountains.   Repeatedly, Jesus told those whom He healed that their faith was the active ingredient in their healing. The author of Hebrews wrote that without faith it is impossible to please God.

Today’s chapter is an object lesson in faith (or lack thereof). Yesterday the Hebrew tribes spy out the promised land, but swayed by the exaggerated claims of ten of the twelve spies, the people doubt that their conquest will be successful. Swayed by their fears they speak of going back to slavery in Egypt and threaten to stone Moses to death.

When a mysterious plague afflicts the ten doubting spies, the people’s’ fear of God becomes instantly more powerful, in the moment, than the fear of death in conquest that had felt so powerful the previous day. Their fear prompts a hasty decision to move forward with the conquest despite Moses warning that their impromptu actions is doomed to fail. Why? They were acting out of fear, not faith.

What a word picture the tribes provide for fear-based thinking and reasoning. Their actions over the past few chapters have perpetually been motivated by what they feared most in the moment: starvation, discomfort, death, or plague. Fear is the constant and consistent motivator; It is the active ingredient in their words, decisions, and actions. Their fear leads them to false presumptions on which their decisions and actions were based.

This morning I’m reminded that it is that which motivates my actions that is critical to my spiritual progression in this life journey and the activator of spiritual power. If I am primarily motivated by fear or shame, by pride or personal desire my actions will certainly propel me down life’s path just like the Hebrew tribes climbing the hill. My movement, however, will be void of any real progress or direction of Spirit. As any well-trained actor knows, it is the motivation that drives the action of the character. Blocked movement disconnected from the characters underlying motivation becomes prescriptive, mindless action that empties the performance of any real power.

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking about the actions on my multiple test lists. If, as the Bard wrote, “all the world’s a stage” then my task lists are my prescribed blocking in life’s script. Go here, do this bit of business, then go there and do that bit of necessary action so that she can proceed with her bit. Family tasks, business tasks, personal tasks… What’s the active, motivating ingredient?

Is it faith?

Swimming, Speedos, and Spiritual Progress

…let us throw off everything that hinders…and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.
Hebrews 12:1-2 (NIV)

I was a competitive swimmer growing up. I started around the age of eight and swam nearly year-round until after my freshman year in high school. Life’s road led me in different directions at that point. I hung up my Speedo.

Like all competitive racing, the difference between winning a swimming race and not even making it to the medal stand can be hundredths of a second. When you’re young you can shave entire seconds off your time with small improvements of technique and strength training. As you get older and faster the smallest of details take on greater and greater importance. Swimmers learn to eliminate anything that might “drag” you in the water. That’s the reason for ultra-tight lycra suits, slippery skull caps, and shaved heads (the reason shaving my head bald to play Daddy Warbucks wasn’t a huge deal for me is that I’d done it before, shaving my head bald for conference and district meets). If the race is between two equally competitive simmers, one guy in a Speedo and the other guy wearing cut-off jean shorts, the guy in the Speedo has a huge advantage.

That’s the word picture the author of Hebrews is getting at in this morning’s chapter. No matter where I am on my spiritual journey, I have to recognize that there are any number of things which can create drag on my spiritual progress:

  • Relationships with crazy makers who keep me in chaos
  • Compulsive and addictive behaviors that distract me and weigh me down
  • Misguided priorities that take up my time, energy, and resources chasing empty things down dead-end paths
  • Filling my life with objects rather than relationships
  • Keeping myself so busy that I have no time for personal reflection and contemplation

This morning I’m reminded that no matter where I am in this spiritual journey, whether striking out on the dusty trail as a spiritual seeker or climbing the sheer cliffs of spiritual maturity, there are always things that weigh me down and hinder my progress. I just read yesterday of an experienced rock climber who dropped his cell phone from a thousand feet up a sheer cliff wall. Only then did he realize how much of a distraction it had been to him. and how it freed him to be the unhindered mentor and guide he needed to be for his fellow climbers.

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking about the things that might be hindering my spiritual progress. I’m once again committing myself to the never-ending process of identifying and throwing off those things that I identify as weighing me down.

Don’t worry. I promise you’ll never have to see me in a Speedo 😉