But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. James 3: 14 (NIV)
I have discovered along my spiritual journey that spiritual growth is a lot like peeling an onion. Every time I work to peel off a layer of pride and selfishness in my life, there’s always a deeper layer waiting underneath. Motives, thoughts, behaviors, and/or actions that I never even perceived or considered before. As the prophet, Jeremiah, stated, there is no end to our sinful human natures.
In my pursuit of spiritual progress, I’ve learned that self-awareness is an essential ingredient. I am consciously and consistently attempting to monitor my feelings, thoughts, desires, and appetites. As I do so, I begin to see patterns emerge, which typically lead me to important discoveries about myself.
Wendy is an audiobook and podcast junkie. Whenever she’s doing something by herself, her ear bud is in and she’s listening to something. We typically have conversations about things we’ve been reading, listening to, and thinking about. I began to notice an intense negative reaction in my spirit whenever Wendy would speak about certain authors and podcasters. It was like fingernails on a chalkboard style reaction. As I became aware of these feelings, it begged the question:
What is that about?
Time to start peeling back another layer of the onion.
I contemplated my intense negative feelings and I made two important connections. First, this person Wendy mentioned she was listening to was currently an “It” person in popular culture. It wasn’t just Wendy mentioning the name. It was a name I was hearing mentioned from multiple people in my circles of influence. Second, this was a person I’d never even heard of until recently and suddenly this person had what seemed a proportionately huge mindshare of people around me.
So, what? Why did this seem to irritate me so much? Next, I began to contemplate what I know about myself.
I’m an Enneagram Type Four, which means that my core motivation is to find purpose and/or significance.
Could it be that my reaction was nothing more than envy that this person has successfully achieved a level of significant influence that I never have and never will?
Is it possible that my self-awareness has observed a very human reaction rooted in jealousy?
Am I witnessing selfish-ambition at work in me, desiring the purpose and significance another person has found at the expense of contentment in the purpose and significance to which I am called?
Yes. Yes. Yes.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
In today’s chapter, James urges Jesus’ followers not to “harbor” bitter envy and selfish ambition. (Note: the Greek word translated “harbor” is echo. There’s more to unpack there.) This is where self-awareness leads to growth. Ever since making this discovery about myself, I’ve begun to not just feel these emotions when they occur, but to actually process them. First, I confess to the emotion and it’s root cause in me. Second, I remind myself of the path and purpose to which I’ve been called and led in my own journey. Finally, I typically say a silent prayer of blessing and gratitude for this person and the good purposes God has for them, and then express gratitude for the person I am, and purposes God has for me. I then confirm my desire and commitment to fulfill those purposes, no matter what they may be, for God’s glory.
This process has helped me to stop harboring envy and selfish ambition, and to send them sailing off into the sea of forgetfulness.
Another layer peeled.
On to the next.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. James 1:4 (NIV)
Just yesterday I returned home from a seven day road trip. Part work, part personal, and part sabbatical, I logged more that fifty hours behind the wheel and just shy of 3,000 miles. It felt good to arrive home yesterday, like I’d reached a kind of finish line, a journey’s end.
Journey has always been the core metaphor of this blog. A wayfarer is one who is on a journey, and in these posts I write about my life journey, my spiritual journey, and this chapter-a-day journey.
On a journey, one moves and progresses towards a destination.
On both my life journey and my spiritual journey, my progress is measured, not by distance, but by maturity, wisdom, and the yield of love produced in my spirit, intentions, thoughts, words, and actions along with love’s by-products of joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control.
On Wednesday of this past week, I was in Richmond, Virginia. I took the opportunity to visit the U.S. Civil War Museum located there. As is a ritual for Wendy and me, I picked up a couple of magnets to mark and memorialize the visit on the fridge back home. One of the magnets is a quote:
“Without struggle, there is no progress.”
When reading James’ letter, I’ve found it beneficial to consider the context in which he wrote it. It was a time of intense struggle. James was not written by James, the disciple of Jesus, but by James the half-brother of Jesus who became leader of the Jesus Movement in Jerusalem. The followers of Jesus are facing persecution and many have fled the persecution and are living in other places. James chooses to remain and continue the work of Jesus.
James leadership position as a follower of Jesus in Jerusalem puts him in direct conflict with the same religious aristocracy that put Jesus to death, put Stephen to death, and sent Saul hunting down Jesus’ followers. Not long after penning this letter, James will be killed by them, as well. He writes this letter to encourage Jesus’ followers scattered to the four winds and fleeing persecution. He is writing to encourage followers of Jesus to persevere amidst the difficult struggles they faced as wayfarers on journeys of exile.
In the first chapter, James reminds these struggling wayfarers of the goal.
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.
The goal is maturity and wholeness which are produced through persevering in the struggle of many kinds of trials and tests of faith.
Without struggle, there is no progress towards maturity and completeness.
It feels good to be sitting in the quiet of my office this morning. I find myself thinking about “trials of many kinds” through which I have persevered. My mind flashes back to people I met and spent time with on my journey last week. Each one is facing their own struggles and trials on their respective journeys. Each one is making progress. I was blessed by my time with each of them.
I’m reminded this morning as I begin a new work week. This is a journey. Today I progress toward my destination, but not without struggle.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
The highest heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth he has given to mankind. Psalm 115:16 (NIV)
“Always keep a litter bag in your car. When it fills up you can toss it out the window.” – Steve Martin
Along my life journey, I’ve seen tremendous change. Here are some things I remember as a child:
Smoking was acceptable anywhere. Every car came with an ashtray, and there was an ashtray on the armrest of every airline seat. I remember always knowing which door led to the teacher’s lounge because the smell of smoke permeated it. When it came time to get grandpa and grandma (both smokers) a birthday or Christmas gift, we ponied up for a new cigarette case, a pipe lighter, or a box of cigars. One year we got grandma a little case that looked like a treasure chest. When you pushed the button a door would open and a skull and crossbones would bring up a cigarette from the chest as it played the deadman’s dirge.
There were no “adopt-a-highway” programs cleaning up the roads. Trash tossed-out car windows was prevalent and everywhere. Tossing trash out your car window was commonly acceptable.
There was no recycling. There was no composting. There was no “waste management.”
Every autumn, everyone raked their leaves in to a giant pile and burned them. Weekends in the neighborhood were one giant, cloudy haze as pillars of smoke rose from every back yard. The smell of burnt leaves permeated everywhere.
I could go on but will stop there. Our culture has come a long way in the last 50 years. There has been so much progress toward health, safety, and conservation. As technology has increased exponentially, so has the opportunities and expectations for taking care of ourselves and the world around us.
In today’s chapter, Psalm 115, the songwriter reminded me of something that is spelled out very clearly in the Great Story. It is not, however, taught or discussed very often.
At the very beginning, in the Creation story, God creates the universe and then creates Adam and Eve and gives humanity “dominion” over all the earth to be caretakers of it. So when the songwriter of Psalm 115 says, “The earth He has given to mankind” it is a reminder that humanity has both power and responsibility in caring for God’s creation.
In the quiet this morning, I find myself meditating on a couple of things.
First, I am reminded that the paradigm Jesus modeled in His teaching and ministry was one of radiating influence. Jesus didn’t do the thing that everyone expected Him to do which was to use His power to destroy Rome, ascend to the throne of earthly power, and force His will and justice on the world. Jesus, the individual, influenced and changed the lives of other individuals and then called them to follow His example. The individual radiated influence over those in his/her circles of influence, and it continued to expand to more and more and more.
I observe that we, as humans, often prefer the top-down paradigm in which I gain earthly power through wealth, politics, fame, or media so as to have the worldly dominion that allows me to force or impress my will on others.
As a follower of Jesus, that was never the paradigm He exemplified or asked of me. The only dominion that I know I have for sure is over my own life and actions. I find myself asking how I can play my role in being a caretaker of creation in my own world, and model it for others.
The second thought this morning is an observation. I increasingly see a generation rising up for whom human progress is “not enough.” It’s even condemned as if in the world of my childhood, I could and should have looked into the future, perceived 21st century ideals and somehow hit a cosmic “fast forward” button. The tremendous advancements made in my lifetime fall short of a perfection that is expected, even demanded, immediately.
Which brings me back to dominion. I can’t control others. I can only control the tiny circle of dominion that I have been given. So, I’ll ask myself to keep being a better caretaker of God’s creation in the ways that I personally control and interact with. I will continue to get better at being a positive influence on my circles of influence in my example, conversation, and encouragement. (Like the neighbor I saw throwing trash out their car window as they drove by my house. It still happens far too often. I went out to the street and picked it up.)
I find it ironic as I mull over these things that I have often heard people shun institutional religion for all of the “rules” it places on a person, while increasingly there are those who would dictate rapid change to reach the ideals of their world-view through institutional commands and control.
That was never Jesus’ paradigm. He was about changing hearts and souls so that individuals would positively change the world through love and responsibility that was motivated by love and sacrifice. I’ve been walking that path for forty years. I think I’ll press on.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Psalm 32:5 (NRSVCE)
It’s good to be back!
While I was on hiatus the past few weeks, Wendy and I were able to enjoy some time with friends. Over dinner one night, I was asked to share some of my life story. Parts that my friends didn’t know much about. I shared. They asked questions. I found myself recounting things I hadn’t thought too much about in a long time.
I generally like to let “old things pass away” as Paul wrote to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, and dwell in the “new things” and new places God has led in my journey. There is, however, no escaping the fact that, like all good stories, my life has its chapters of shortcomings, moral failure, bad choices, and the tragic consequences that result. My story includes tragic flaws, secrets, addiction, adultery, and divorce. These things are not secret, and I’ve been publicly honest in owning my own personal failures and their tragic consequences.
But, that’s not the end of my story. And, that’s the point.
Today’s psalm contains the lyrics of another song penned by King David. It’s a before-and-after song. It is a tale with two halves. It’s the song of David’s own personal journey.
Like most of David’s songs, it begins with a one verse introduction letting us know that he is looking back in time and writing the song from a place of redemption further down the road. He then confesses to have at one time kept secrets and sins locked up inside. The consequences were guilt, shame, weakness, struggle, heaviness, and waste.
Then, David came clean. He confessed. He owned up to his mistakes, weaknesses, and shortcomings. David’s own personal story, by the way, includes top-line shortcomings including, but not limited to, adultery, deceit, murder, and gross parental failure. He, however, confessed this, owned it, stopped hiding it, came clean, and sought God’s forgiveness.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
That’s the pivot point of David’s song, just as it is the pivot point of David’s spiritual journey. What comes after, in the second half of the song? Forgiveness, protection, safety, security, deliverance, instruction, guidance, wisdom, steadfast love, and out of these things comes David’s song of joy that we now call Psalm 32.
In the quiet this morning I am reminded that the Great Story is quite clear about the individual spiritual journey having a pivot point. For Paul, it was on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). For Peter, it was along the shore of Galilee (John 21). For David, it was being confronted by God’s prophet in his throne room (2 Samuel 12). For me, it was a series of events over a five-year period.
Without coming clean and owning my failings I don’t truly experience the pivot-point that opens the floodgates of grace and forgiveness. Without experiencing the powerful current of grace and forgiveness I don’t truly experience flow of spiritual transformation truly moving me forward toward maturity. Without that flow of spiritual transformation moving me forward, the spiritual journey remains mired in stagnant and shallow religion which Jesus described as being like a gorgeous, marble tomb sitting in a pristine, manicured cemetery. It may look wonderful on the outside, but the reality is that once you get past the manufactured exterior appearances, all you find is death, rot, and decay.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
Back in the days before iPods, iPhones, and digital streaming, the only way one got music in a car was the radio. Since I spent a lot of time in rental cars for my job, I got used to spending the first part of any journey scanning “the dial” for the available stations and programming the stations I wanted to keep into the car’s radio.
One of the things I noticed as a young man scanning the airwaves was that it generally took me less than a second to identify the kind of music any station typically played as I quickly made my way across the dial:
There is a certain sound, pattern, cadence, and frequency to different types and styles of music.
As I read the psalm this morning, the thing that struck me was how similar it is to the previous few psalms. That’s because it is. David had patterns that he repeatedly used as he penned his songs. We do the same thing. Symphonies typically follow a pattern of four movements. Your basic popular song is typically structured verse, chorus, verse chorus, bridge, verse, chorus.
Those who compiled the anthology of song lyrics we call Psalms put the section we are reading through together with similarly structured songs. It is a simple, repeated pattern: They all start with a praise and plea for God to listen followed by a complaint and/or petition, and end with a proclamation of faith and assurance that God has or will hear and answer.
In the quiet this morning, this got me thinking about patterns. Almost everything in life falls into certain patterns. Almost everything in life has patterns. Good patterns can provide a sense of health, security, and surety to life. Bad patterns of thought and behavior result in destructive and unhealthy consequences in my life and relationships. That’s rather obvious. What’s not so obvious is that some patterns that were good and necessary for a time can actually become unhealthy for me without me really recognizing or realizing it.
Along my life journey, I’ve come to observe that spiritual progress always involves the breaking of old patterns and establishing new ones. A faith journey always requires that I leave behind something that is tangibly known and comfortable in order to pursue something that is not clearly evident and is only hoped for.
“You have heard it said,” Jesus would say to his followers before adding, “but I say…” In other words, there was an established pattern that Jesus was calling His followers to change. He called for old, established patterns to pass away so that new patterns could emerge. The word repentance is rooted in the word picture of changing direction. Whenever Jesus told someone “Follow me” it was always a call to leave things behind to pursue things to which He was leading.
What started out as good, even healthy, patterns can lead to stagnation. Stagnation leads to settling. Settling leads to spiritual atrophy. Spiritual atrophy leads to decay. Decay leads to death. That’s what Jesus was getting at when he told the religious people of His day:
“You’re hopeless… Frauds! You’re like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds.“
-Jesus, Matt 23:27-28 (MSG)
In the quiet this morning, I find myself meditating on my own patterns of thought, behavior, relationship, and spirit. The truth is that almost every pain-point I experience on life’s journey can be traced back to unhealthy patterns. Growth, progress, and maturity necessitate the breaking of unhealthy patterns and the establishment of healthier ones, even those patterns that were once good for me but have actually become unhealthy.
David’s song this morning felt familiar to the point of me being kind of bored with it after reading psalms with the same pattern every morning this week. C’est la vie. It happens. Having journeyed through the Psalms many times, I am mindful that when we get to Psalm 40 David writes that he is singing “a new song.” God called David “a man after my own heart.” Even he could get stuck in certain patterns that he had to break in order to move on where God wanted to lead him.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
Before "Old Things Pass Away," They Often Lure Me Back (CaD Ex 32) –
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Exodus 32:1 (NRSVCE)
Along my life’s journey, I have gone through multiple stretches of time in which my life experienced major change. In each one, it was a period of upheaval, deep introspection, conscious breaking with old patterns of thought and behavior, seeking to reach for new things that were further up and further in than anything I’d experienced before. Each time I have gone through one of these shifts has been a period of discomfort. Comfort, on the other hand, is both simple and easy. All I had to do was stay in the same patterns of thought, relationship, and behavior.
When I was in my mid-to-late twenties I began to seriously address some hard-wired, addictive behaviors, and unhealthy patterns of thought and relationships in my life. I began working with a counselor and going to support-groups with others who were dealing with their own unhealthy patterns. One of the things that quickly came into focus for me was that many of the patterns of thought and behavior I was struggling with were present in me as a child and in my adolescence.
In a moment of God’s synchronicity, I just happened to be traveling on business to the city where my older brother lived. My brother is seven years older than me and we rarely saw one another in those days. We got together for dinner and I discovered that he was walking his own version of trying to figure out his own unhealthy patterns. As dinner turned into several hours of late-night conversation, we found ourselves attempting to unravel and understand a mystery to us both. Why, when we return home as adults, do we seem to fall back into what feels like this defined role we had always played in the system with which our family operated, complete with scripted lines, well-rehearsed relational blocking? My brother and I walked that stretch of the journey together. In fact, we’re still on it! But, together we’ve made significant progress and some really worthwhile personal discoveries that have informed our respective lives and relationships.
For anyone who grew up annually watching The Ten Commandments with their family every Easter/Passover weekend, today’s chapter should be eerily familiar. Several chapters ago, Moses when up the mountain to talk with God. It’s been over a month now, and he still hasn’t come down from the mountain. So, the Hebrews basically give-up on their relatively new leader and his unfamiliar God with His really strange belief system. They approach Aaron and ask him to make for them a god just like one of the 1500 gods they were familiar with back in Egypt. Aaron relents, makes a golden calf god, and Moses finds the camp in religious revelry.
I confess this morning that every time I watched the movie and every time I’ve read this story before, I have been led to the prescribed audience reaction. I shake my head and whisper a “tsk, tsk” in self-righteous judgment for the weak-minded Hebrews.
This morning, however, I’m seeing it in a whole new way. The Hebrews were only doing what I so often do. I try to push forward into being more like Jesus in how I think, act, and related to others only to find myself slipping back into comfortable old’ patterns that are comfortable, simple, and easy. I spiritually go home and just mindlessly play the old role I’ve always played. It’s just easier. The Hebrews are simply doing the same. God is pushing them out of Egypt, out of victim-mentality, out of the chains of slave-mindedness, into the spiritual boot camp of the wilderness, into a new way of understanding and a new level of maturing relationship. It feels hard, uncomfortable, strange, and unfamiliar. So, they default to back to what is familiar, comfortable, and easy.
In the quiet this morning, I’m recognizing a pattern that has emerged in this chapter-a-day journey through the Moses-story. I keep seeing how the Moses story relates to the Jesus story. Jesus, like Moses, led His followers into major shifts in understanding God, how we have a relationship with God, and how that should lead us to relate to one another and our world. However, when the Jesus movement became the institution of the Holy Roman Empire it was the golden calf moment for Jesus’ followers. In short order, the Jesus movement went back to old, entrenched patterns of social hierarchy, patriarchy, and religious institutionalism.
How do I change? How to I grow? How do I allow old things to pass away and lay hold of the new things God has for me? I’m still learning that piece, but I have learned along the way that it takes both willful determination and the faith to jump and trust that the net will appear. It requires the patience and perseverance to endure discomfort and to keep running even when I hit the wall. It’s helpful, almost essential, to have good companions with me and good mentors out ahead of me. It demands that I learn to have grace with myself when I stumble, stall, and fall back; To receive the grace that God endlessly showers on me if I simply open my heart to it.
It requires that I press on.
And so, on this Monday morning I’m lacing ’em up once again. Another wayfaring stranger on his way home over Jordan.
Thanks for being my companion on the journey today, my friend.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. 1 John 3:17-18 (NIV)
Very early in my spiritual journey, I was given the task by my mentor of choosing a couple of verses that would be my “Life Verse.” In other words, they were verses from God’s Message that I wanted to shape and inform the rest of my life. I was a young teenager at the time.
One of the verses I chose in that exercise still hangs on the wall in my office, written in calligraphy by one my brothers. It was a gift to me many years ago. That verse is from today’s chapter, which I originally memorized from the Living Bible paraphrase:
Little children, let us stop just saying we love people; let us really love them, and show it by our actions.
That verse understandably leapt off the page at me this morning, but the thing I really noticed was the verse before my life verse:
If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?
I have to confess this morning that generosity was not something that came naturally for me. Growing up, I had everything that I needed, but definitely not all that I wanted. Being the youngest of four, I grew up used to receiving the things handed down to me. Somewhere early in life, I developed a gross measure of selfishness. Any money I was given or earned flowed quickly and freely through my fingers. I would quickly spend everything I had to get something, anything that was new and shiny, and all mine even if it was something I quickly consumed.
Along my spiritual journey, I eventually had to own up to the fact that I had a massive blind spot. I was deep in debt, had very little to show for it, and a look at my finances would reveal that my behavior pattern hadn’t changed since I was a young boy. I continued to quickly spend everything I had (even money I didn’t have) to get something, anything that was new and shiny, and all mine even if it was something I quickly consumed.
The harsh truth of the matter was that I had memorized words that said I wanted to love people and show it by my actions. Ask me and I could rattle it off by heart at the drop of a hat complete with the reference. If you asked me to recite the verse before it, I would have looked at you with a blank stare. I had completely ignored the description of what that love by action really meant. How can I say that the love of God is in me and that I am following Jesus when everything in my life revealed a total lack of generosity fueled by endless and out-of-control consumption?
I am glad that this life is a spiritual journey. It allows time and opportunity for old things to pass away, and new things to come. Just as John had to be transformed by love to address his anger, rage, and lust for prominence (which I wrote about in yesterday’s post), I needed to be transformed by love to address my selfish consumption, fiscal irresponsibility, and lack of generosity.
I confess that writing this post is a little uncomfortable for me this morning. However, that’s another lesson I’ve learned along my journey: If I’m not at least a little uncomfortable then I’m not making progress.
Those who are even occasional readers of my posts know that I often make reference to the Enneagram. We were first introduced the Nine Types by our daughter many years ago. As it’s grown in popularity, we have been asked to introduce it and discuss it with various groups. We are, by no means, experts. We have simply shared our personal experiences of understanding and how the Enneagram has helped our relationship as we have come to understand and appreciate one another in deeper ways.
Over the years we’ve had many, many conversations with individuals, couples, and groups about the Enneagram. Of course, one of the first questions that is asked is, “Do you know what type you are?” Wendy and I quickly began noticing a certain pattern among women who are card-carrying followers of Jesus living primarily in Christian community.
They almost all say they are Type Twos (a.k.a. “The Helper”). Here’s the summary description of Type Two from the Enneagram Institute:
Twos are empathetic, sincere, and warm-hearted. They are friendly, generous, and self-sacrificing, but can also be sentimental, flattering, and people-pleasing. They are well-meaning and driven to be close to others, but can slip into doing things for others in order to be needed. They typically have problems with possessiveness and with acknowledging their own needs. At their Best: unselfish and altruistic, they have unconditional love for others.
The problem, of course, is that it’s not possible for 80-90% of Christian women to be Twos. Either only females who are Twos follow Jesus, or those who do follow Jesus are miraculously transformed into Twos by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. As Wendy and I pondered and contemplated this phenomenon, we came to the realization that “Twos” sound eerily similar to the ideal wife and mother described in the epilogue of Proverbs; She is otherwise known as “The Proverbs 31 Woman.” Motherhood, in and of itself, requires the actions of self-sacrifice and unselfishness that come naturally to Twos. Yet, a person’s Enneagram Type is not rooted in actions, but motivations. I have come to believe that many individuals fall prey to this confusion. They may project themselves to be, or truly desire themselves to be, that idealized version of womanhood that both the church and Christian community have relentlessly told them they should be.
In today’s chapter, the book of ancient wisdom ends with a rather eloquent description of a “wife of noble character.” She’s the picture-perfect supportive spouse who is an asset to her husband’s public image and career. She’s the super-charged industrial homemaker and the perfect mix of Joanna Gaines and Martha Stewart. Her clothes, decor, and children are all Pinterest-worthy. She’s tireless and shrewd. She’s the undisputed CEO of the home which always runs with efficiency, organization, productivity, timeliness, and keeps the household budget always in the black. She is intelligent, spiritual, and practically wise; a combination of Beth Moore and Jen Hatmaker. Her children think she’s the coolest mom in the world, and they all dutifully reflect her Proverbs-Thirty-One-ness in dress, appearance, and behavior. Her husband would never look twice at any of the “wayward” and “adulterous” women that Proverbs has been incessantly mentioning for thirty chapters, and this is because…well…while charm may be deceptive and beauty fleeting, “The Proverbs 31 Woman” actually has those, too! She’s the whole package.
Except, no woman is all these things. In my almost 40 year journey of being an adolescent-to-adult male and a follower of Jesus, I’ve never met a Proverbs 31 Woman. I’ve met women who seem to look like her. They project her image, but it’s never real. She’s just an air-brushed model on a magazine cover painted and lit to look like the ideals of maternal, marital, and spiritual virtue.
I’m probably going to get into trouble writing this, but let me share with you the observation of an old dude who’s spent his entire life surrounded by and in relationships with amazing girls and women.
Unintentionally, the book of Proverbs can easily do a disservice to the women in my life. The ancient sages Solomon, Agur, and Lemuel lived in a brutal, patriarchal society that developed out of a need for a strict social order (as I explored yesterday) to ensure survival. Women are presented in Proverbs in a binary fashion: bad (wayward, adulterous, contentious, quarrelsome) or ideal (The Proverbs 31 Woman). So, lady, what’s it going to be? Do you want to be good or bad? And, if you want to be good, then you must be ideal.
I’ve observed along my journey that the women in my life often allow themselves to fall into these binary mental traps: fat or skinny, beautiful or ugly, sexy or lonely, smart or dumb, popular or not, trendy or so-not-with-it, and etc. So, what I’ve observed happening are perpetual cycles of pressure, hopelessness, despair, striving, depression, and never-ending comparison to others hoping (and/or judging) “If I’m not ideal then at least I’m better than….”
So, I’m going to wade into dangerous territory this morning and I beg your grace and forgiveness upfront. If this old husband, father, grandfather, son, brother, employer, mentor, colleague, neighbor, and friend were to re-define what Proverbs calls a “woman of noble character” for all the amazing women in my life it would go something like this:
A Becoming Woman
If you find a becoming woman, you are blessed.
She is learning to embrace the individual, in mind, body (all of it), and spirit just as her loving Creator intentionally and uniquely knit her DNA together.
She has made an honest inventory of both her personal strengths and her intimate struggles; She is persevering in her efforts to build on the former while diminishing the latter.
She seeks roles and positions that make the most of her unique gifts and abilities, though they may not fit the dreams she once had, the norms of her community, or the expectations that others have placed on her.
She is learning how to accept God’s grace and forgiveness for all of the mistakes, faults, imperfections, and sins that she knows so well, even when others have not forgiven her; She is learning how to be gracious with herself, letting go of her own desires for perfection. She embraces the knowledge that she’ll still be learning all of these things when she reaches the end of this earthly journey.
She loves her husband and children genuinely, sometimes passionately, though often deficiently. She embraces the journey of becoming that is being a friend, a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother, and a grandmother. She presses on, neither denying the many faults and mistakes of her past nor becoming complacent in the onward journey of becoming that is always leading her further up and further in.
She is doing her best for her family even though it feels like a thankless task most days. She is struggling constantly against the lie that she is a hopeless failure in her role and responsibilities. She is learning to let it go when all that she has already done is summarily ignored while the incessant demands for more keep building up, seemingly with every moment.
She is realizing that the Creator has lovingly made each of her children as unique as she, herself, is unique. She desires that each of them becomes the individual God has made them to be. She desires that each child discover the unique purposes God has for them, even as she’s learning in fits and starts to let go of her own personal desires and expectations which can feel so instinctual and can be so strong at times.
She is learning to care more about the emotional and spiritual needs of her child than she cares about how her child’s appearance, actions, achievements, failures, words, and/or behaviors might influence how others, especially other women, in the community perceive her and her mothering skills.
She is purposefully mindful of her own needs and is learning that taking care of herself in mind, body, and spirit is necessary to manage every other role and relationship in her life.
She is purposefully mindful of her husband’s needs. She is learning to meet the unique needs that fill his love tank (though it may not fill hers), speak his unique love language (though she may not be fluent), and to be gracious with his unique shortcomings as she needs him to be gracious with hers. She is learning to encourage his own unique gifts, strengths, and purposes even when she realizes that they aren’t what she once thought they were or what she wants them to be.
She has surrounded herself with other good women who know her faults and love her anyway and who speak truth into her even when she doesn’t want to hear it. They are present even when time and/or miles create physical separation. They pick her up when she is down. They cheer her on in her endeavors and celebrate her in her accomplishments. They struggle through and survive relational strife with one another, learn to forgive one another, and graciously walk life’s journey together all the days of their lives.
She is learning, persevering, seeking, letting go, embracing, pressing on, realizing, desiring, purposeful, struggling, endeavoring, loving, giving, caring, forgiving, and she is surrounded.
A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!
A ruler who oppresses the poor is like a driving rain that leaves no crops. Proverbs 28:3 (NIV)
One of the great, untaught lessons in the entirety of the Great Story is a sad one. In fact, I don’t believe that I’ve heard it mentioned even once in any lecture or message in my entire lifetime. It is the story of wise King Solomon’s foolishness.
As a little boy growing up in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School I learned a lot about the Bible through simple stories taught in simple ways. I remember learning them with cheesy paper cut-out images of characters placed on a “flannelgraph.” In fact, if you look up “flannelgraph” on Wikipedia, the image they use is of a Bible Story. Today we do the same thing with colorful, bright cartoons that offer children’s versions of ancient stories.
As a young man, I became a genuine follower of Jesus and began reading the Bible for myself. I studied it in college and seminary classes. I’ve been perpetually reading and studying it for forty-years. Along my journey, I’ve worshiped, served, and taught in many different churches from diverse doctrinal backgrounds. I’ve made a couple of observations along the way.
First, I have observed individuals who never moved beyond the stories of the Bible being broad and simple morality tales for children taught in bright colors and cartoonish characters. Then, as young adults, they became easily dismissed along with the rest of the cartoon characters they grew up with. Second, I have known and observed sincerely faithful, adult believers who made a conscious, cognitive decision to accept the doctrinal beliefs of their childhood church or denomination. Still, they have little or no experiential knowledge of the faith they profess to follow, and their faith is based on a combination of Bible tales told to them as a child and a life-long habit of traditions and rituals.
So, now we come back to King Solomon, the son of King David who has been known for almost 3,000 years as the “wise” and extravagantly rich king. The simple Bible story goes like this: as a child, God offered Solomon either wisdom or great riches. Solomon chose wisdom and God blessed him with both wisdom and great riches. It’s a tale with a simple moral to teach our children. Solomon then went on to have three books of “wisdom literature” traditionally attributed to his authorship: Proverbs, Song of Songs, and the book of Ecclesiastes. And, I have observed that this is about all most people remember.
The extended, adult version of Solomon’s story is (much like my own story, btw) much messier and far more complicated than the simple, story-book version. Solomon was the offspring of David’s adulterous marriage to Bathsheba, the woman whose husband David had murdered. Being the last of David’s children, Solomon should have been last in the line of male children (from multiple women) to ascend the throne. Bathsheba maneuvered events to make sure David named Solomon king. Solomon conscripted labor to build all of his great visionary projects (Solomon’s Temple being chief among them), and even his fellow Hebrew tribes complained of being treated like slaves. Solomon also appears not to have passed his wisdom along to his own son, Rehoboam, who succeeded him. Rehoboam followed his father’s example, not his wise words, in ignoring the wisdom of the proverb pasted at the top of this post. Rather than easing the oppression Solomon had placed on his own people, Rehoboam promised more oppression and irreparably fractured the kingdom into bloody and contentious civil war.
In the quiet this morning I find myself reading Solomon’s wise words knowing that he, himself, foolishly failed to follow them. And, that is the lesson for me today. As I contemplate this fact, my thinking goes to two places. One, that it’s too easy for me to be critical of Solomon for his hypocrisy of famously saying one thing while doing another. The truth is that there are plenty of examples of the same types of hypocrisy in my own life and story. Second, I’m mindful of the fact that Solomon’s human failings don’t alter the wisdom of his proverbs in the same way my own human failings don’t alter Jesus’ message. Come to think of it, it only makes His message more relevant to me. After 40 years, I’m still just an imperfect human in need of both grace and mercy as I try to follow Jesus each day. I’ve left behind a lot of foolishness, but I have by no means attained all that Lady Wisdom is still trying to teach me.
My friend, Matthew, likes to say that “everyone is having a conversation with life.” He describes it as an “inner conversation with your center as external circumstances beg for a response.”
Along my journey, I’ve come to believe that the quality and depth of that inner conversation is critical to my progress in Life, health, growth, and relationships. I’ve also observed along the way those who appear to choose not to engage in that conversation. Maybe they don’t know how to have that conversation. Maybe they really don’t want to have that conversation. The result, from my perspective, are lives that seem to run on uninterrupted cycles of appetite, impulse, reaction, and habit. Tragedy and/or life becoming unmanageable become the only way a conversation with Life might possibly get jump-started.
This morning I find my heart and mind still mulling over yesterday’s post and thoughts of introspection. I’ve always been a bit introspective, but I know many who aren’t and who don’t even know where to begin. Many years ago, when I worked with young people, I always tried to teach them both to be introspective and how to have conversations about those inner conversations. The lessons I learned I now apply in my relationships with clients, team members, friends, neighbors, and even strangers.
Typically, I would start with a simple ice-breaker type of question:
Good/Bad: Name one good thing and one bad thing from your week?
Where have you been? Where are you now? Where are you going?
What’s your biggest pet peeve?
If you had five other lives to live, what would you do/be?
Then, I would listen to the young person’s answer and begin what I call “moving upstream.” Moving upstream is really the process of introspection, but I find that one typically learns how to do it first by being led by a parent, friend, counselor, teacher, therapist, pastor, or mentor.
You know how the mouth of a river pouring into the ocean is usually really wide (and usually not very picturesque)? That is what a general answer to a general question is. That’s where introspection begins. Conversations with Life, for those who’ve never really had one, begin with a simple ice-breaker with yourself. But the really good stuff, the scenic views, the waterfalls, the natural springs, the crystal-clear mountain stream can only be reached by paddling upriver, then up a tributary, through a few locks and dams, then up another tributary, and another, and another. There will be a portage around a rapid or three, maybe some smaller dams, and then up yet another small stream. You keep moving upstream towards the Source.
Here’s how it sounded with one of the kids in my youth group as I tried to guide them upstream:
Me: “Name one bad thing from your week.”
Them: “Um, (young people always begin with “Um”) My bad thing this week was getting grounded by my parents.“
Grounded? Okay, there’s a story there. Let’s move a little further upstream and find out what it is.
Me: “Ouch! How long are you grounded?”
Them: “Two weeks.”
I keep paddling. With each answer, I move a little farther upstream by taking what’s given to me and exploring further.
Me: “Two weeks!? That sucks! What on earth earned you two weeks?”
Them: (Head is down. Eyes stare at the floor. Shoulders shrug.)
We’ve reached our first dam. Sometimes the lock to a conversational dam is humor.
Me: “What did you do? MURDER SOMEBODY?“
Them: (laughs) “No.”
Me: “ROB A BANK?!“
Me: “Well, being late for curfew isn’t a two week offense. So it’s got to be somewhere between getting in late and murder.”
Silence. Silence is okay, even when it’s painful. Silence is a necessary part of introspection. As my friend Matthew says, “Let silence to the heavy lifting.”
More silence. Finally…
Them: (Mumbling after a sigh) “I got caught smoking weed.”
Hey! There’s a new tributary! Let’s move up that stream and see where it leads.
Hopefully, you get where I’m going. Keep asking questions. Look at the answer to those questions and let them lead you to the next question. The strings of questions and answers are the conversation with Life. The better I’ve become at having those inner conversations about my external circumstances, the further I get towards the Source and the more rewarding the journey has become.
In the quiet this morning, I’m whispering a prayer of thanks for the many friends, family members, teachers, professors, mentors, pastors, and therapists who helped guide me upstream at different stages of my journey. They taught me how to be introspective. Over the course of 50 plus years, my conversations with them taught me how to have a conversation with myself, with Life. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.
Hope your own conversations with Life are leading you to good places, even when the portages, paddling, and dams are a pain.
Have a great day, my friend. Thank you for reading along with me on this journey.