Tag Archives: Relationship

Historical Context, and the Growth of Understanding

For surely it is not angels [Jesus] helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.
Hebrews 2:16-17 (NIV)

One of the most important things to remember when journeying through a 2,000 year-old letter is historical context. The author of Hebrews is writing to fellow Hebrews around the years 67-70 A.D. The temple in Jerusalem where Jesus taught and threw out the money changers is still in existence and the sacrificial system is operating full steam. Jews of that day would be well acquainted with the sacrificial practices, the importance of priesthood, and the political and religious power of the High Priest. Most Jews would have made pilgrimage to the temple at least once in their lives.

The author of Hebrews began their letter by saying they were going to address the question of “Who is Jesus?” Now they begin to fill in the answer. Jesus was Creator made fully human in order to become High Priest and make atonement for the people. The readers of the original letter were well aware that in the sacrificial system established in the Law of Moses. There was one High Priest, the only one permitted to enter the intimate “Holy of Holies” in the temple once a year to stand before God and make atonement for the sins of the nation. The high priest was the representative, the conduit who made sacrifice for the people, one for all.

The language of God is metaphor, and for first century Hebrews the word picture the author of the letter is making is powerful and clear. The system defined by the Law of Moses was a precursor, a waypoint, and a word picture pointing to what would be fulfilled in the sacrificial death of Jesus and His resurrection. This was a huge paradigm shift in thought for the Hebrews of that day (Jesus’ followers included). The popular opinion was that Messiah would be a triumphant geo-political powerhead that lifted the Hebrew people to the top of the temporal, earthly food-chain. The author of Hebrews is beginning to unpack Messiah as cosmic high priest and sacrificial lamb who would lift any who believed to a right-relationship with God in God’s eternal Kingdom.

By the way, within a generation the writing of the Book of Hebrews the word pictures the author is making would forever lose some of the power they had with the original readers. Shortly after the writing of the letter the Roman Empire, in 70 A.D., destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and burned the genealogical  records essential to establishing who among them were Levites qualified to care for the temple and who among them were sons of Aaron qualified to be priests and make sacrifices. Despite a few abandoned attempts to reestablish the sacrificial system in other locations, the fullness of the sacrificial system established by Moses was essentially dead, and has remained so for 2000 years.

Old things pass away, new things come.”

This morning I’m thinking about perceptions and paradigms of thought about God. The Hebrews who read today’s words for the first time had their own experiences, beliefs, and preconceived notions. The truth is that I have my own. God’s Message describes the followers of Jesus ever growing and maturing in their relationship with Jesus and their understanding of God. I’ve found the same to be true on my own life journey following Jesus. Who I perceived Jesus to be when I began this journey as a young teenager is different than perception today. My own understanding of, and my relationship with, Christ continues ever to grow, expand, and deepen.

That’s what living things do.

 

The Power of Expressing “Willingness”

not because you must, but because you are willing
1 Peter 5:2 (NIV)

My company measures service quality (e.g. “Your call may be monitored for quality assurance and training purposes“) and then we train and coach agents how to provide a better customer experience when talking on the phone or other mediums of communication.

I’ve always taught my clients that Rule #1 of Customer Service is “do the best you can with what you have” because every team member at every level of the organization is limited in some way. The problem is that we tend to get mired in the excuses and frustrations of what we can’t do instead of what we can. Front line agents may not be empowered to functionally do everything for the customer they would like to do, but they often underestimate the power they have to positively impact the customer experience simply by what they say and how they say it.

One of the most under utilized skills in customer service is expressing a willingness to help, to listen, to take responsibility, and to serve. In the business world we call it an “ownership statement.”

Here’s what I hear on about 95 percent of the calls I assess:

Customer: I have a question about my account.
Agent: Account number?

That’s an agent doing what they are obligated to do. But when you simply and consistently communicate a positive, willing attitude you improve the customer experience:

Customer: I have a question about my account.
Agent: Sure, Mr. Vander Well. I’ll be happy to help. May I have your account number, please?”

There is so much power in simply communicating a positive, willing spirit. And it goes so much further than customer service business transactions. This is what Peter was getting at in this morning’s chapter when he told the leaders among Jesus’ followers to carry out their responsibilities “not out of obligation but because you are willing.” I can improve how I relate with my friends, family, and loved ones simply by learning to consistently communicate willingness:

Friend: Hey Tom, are you available to help me move a piano?
Me: Happy to help. When do you need me to be there?

Wendy: Tom? Will you carry the laundry to the laundry room?
Me: You got it, my love. Laundry Man is on his way.

Madison: Dad? Can you get me a new insurance card?
Me: I’d love to, sweetie. Let me call our agent and arrange it.

I know it sounds simple because it is. We can positively impact every one of our interpersonal relationship experiences by simply and consistently communicating a little positive willingness. And, my experience is that “what goes around, comes around.” Give a little positive willingness and you just might find that “it will be given unto you.”

I’m going to focus on expressing willingness with every opportunity I’m given today. Will you join me?

Lover Lessons

…love one another deeply, from the heart.
1 Peter 1:22b (NIV)

As I press on in this life journey I have actively attempted to be a continually better lover. Jesus said that all of God’s law can be summed up in two commands:

  1. Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
  2. Love others as you love yourself.

And, so, I have endeavored to be a better lover. I realize, as I meditate on it this morning, that I’ve learned a few things along the way. I’m pondering some of the things I’ve observed about love…

  • If I am unwilling or unable to accept that I am lovable and receive deeply the love, grace, and forgiveness of God and others, then I will be handicapped in my capacity for love and my ability to give it away.
  • To be an increasingly better lover I must embrace that it is part of my journey in this life and in this life I will never arrive at an acceptable destination. The deeper I grow in love the more fully I appreciate how utterly shallow my love is and how strong is the call to grow still deeper.
  • I can’t wait for others to become lovable in my estimation before I love them. Not only is this judgmental and unloving, but others never arrive at an acceptable estimable level. I have to start with loving others without qualification and as I grow in my love-giving I receive the priceless experience of understanding how absolutely lovable they are.
  • Love is sometimes soft and warm. Other times love is hard and even cold. Love can even be painful at times in both the giving and receiving. Wisdom and discernment develop as I mature as a lover for they are increasingly required to grow still deeper in love.
  • I can be loving in all that I do with all whom I encounter, but mature depths of love are generally only reached through increasingly intimate depths of relationship over time. That level of mature, intimate love can only be reached with a small number of relationships, but those few mature relationships increase my capacity and ability to love far more people at a deeper levels.
  • In rare cases, the most loving thing I can do is walk away.

In this morning’s chapter, Peter urges not only that we love, but that we love deeply and from the heart.

I’m still working on it (and I always will be).

On-Again-Off-Again Spirituality

…yet you have not returned to me,”
declares the Lord.
Amos 4:11c

Along life’s journey I’ve noticed that we as humans think most about God when times are tough. When life is easy and things are humming along pretty well in our lives, we tend to shove spiritual matters to the back burner. There’s a certain spiritual sobriety that occurs when tragedy strikes and things suddenly get tough. It’s when we’re anxious and afraid that the spiritual becomes important to us.

In today’s chapter, the ancient prophet Amos recounts a whole string of tragedies and difficulties that God’s people had experienced in recent years. He names them one by one. It’s a top ten list of fear and anxiety producing events, yet with each recounting Amos ends with the same refrain:

…yet you have not returned to me,”  vs. 6

…yet you have not returned to me,” vs. 8

…yet you have not returned to me,” vs. 9

…yet you have not returned to me,” vs. 10

…yet you have not returned to me,” vs. 11

This morning I’m recalling a friend back in college whose friendship waxed and waned with the on-again-off-again relationship with his girlfriend. If they broke up and he was feeling lonely then he was my best friend in the world and wanted to hang out all the time. If he and his girlfriend got back together again I wouldn’t hear from him or see him until the next break-up. It only took a few cycles of this before I got really tired of the hot-cold treatment I received as a friend.

I wonder sometimes if that’s the way God feels with us. This morning I’m pondering the spiritual ebb and flow that often accompanies the ebb and flow of life circumstances. If I fall into the pattern of being spiritually connected when times are hard, but ignoring God when times are good, then I’m not really any different from my friend in college.

I want my relationship with God to be rock steady, no matter what I’m going through in life. If times are good then I want to be connected to share my gratitude and share the blessings. If times are bad then I want to be connected to share my fears and anxieties.

God doesn’t have to worry about me returning if I never leave.

Personal AND Universal

“Sit in silence, go into darkness,
    queen city of the Babylonians;
no more will you be called
    queen of kingdoms.”
Isaiah 47:5 (NIV)

The Great Story told throughout God’s Message weaves multiple storylines together throughout history. There is the storyline about God’s relationship with humanity on an individual, interpersonal level, but there is also the storyline of God’s relationship with the nations. As I journey through God’s Message I believe that it’s important to recognize and distinguish between the two in understanding the Story.

In today’s chapter, God speaks through the prophet Isaiah to the nation (you might also say Kingdom or Empire) of Babylon. Earlier in the Isaiah’s prophetic writings God said that He would raise up that nation of Babylon in order to deal with the rebellious Kingdom of Judah.

When we read the story of Daniel and his friends, who had been taken into exile by the Babylonians, we find that God is at work in the life of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. Once again we see God at work in storylines on the national level and on the personal level.

Now Isaiah’s prophetic pen targets this nation of Babylon whom God will bring low just as He had raised her up. God was at work in the storylines of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar, Isaiah, Jeremiah, while at the same moment being at work in the storylines of Babylon, Israel, Judah and Persia.

This morning I’m thinking about my belief that God cares about me and my story in intimate and detailed ways, AND that God cares about the nations and the larger storyline being told in the rise and fall of nations and kingdoms. I have heard some argue that God has bigger issues to deal with than their own personal troubles. I don’t believe that God is limited in power, knowledge or presence so that either storyline be excluded for the other. I’m thinking this morning about the tension of being grateful for God’s care and involvement in my own personal story, without being deluded into thinking that it’s any more important than all the billions and trillions of storylines woven into the Great Story God is telling.

The Natural Order of Things

“…but I will remember in their favor the covenant with their ancestors whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, to be their God: I am the Lord.”
Leviticus 26:45 (NRSV)

When our girls were young I could have said of them that when they were a bit older they would bristle against their father’s authority and would test what I had always said about right and wrong. Our relationship would be strained and stretched thin. They would, in one way or another, choose to do that which was unpleasing to me. They might even rebel against me and say things against me that were untrue. They would likely spurn my advice and choose their own path and experience the consequences of their actions. But, my love for them would not change nor would it change my caring for them in need or my desire to have harmonious relationship with them. In time, their hearts would turn back toward me and we would have a good relationship once again.

As I write that previous paragraph I am recalling specific moments with both of my daughters over the past 15 years. How could I have predicted all of this when they were young? Because it is the natural order of things. Children grow to be their own persons. They bristle against authority and roll their eyes at parents. They test that which they’ve been authoritatively told. They stake their independence and choose their own way. Once they strike out on their own path, their perspective changes. The father who seemed so stupid a few years earlier suddenly seems to have worthwhile wisdom.

God is winding down His ancient law given to Moses. In today’s chapter God delivers an amazingly prescient foreshadowing of what’s to come in His relationship with His children:

  • “If you will not obey me…” (they wouldn’t)
  • “If you continue to be hostile to me…” (they would)
  • “But if, despite [correction] you continue to be hostile…” (they would)
  • “I will scatter you among the nations…” (He did)
  • “Those who survive I will send faintness into the heart of the land of your enemies…” (Like Daniel, Esther, Ezekiel, and etc.)
  • “But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their ancestors…” (they did)
  • “Then I will remember my covenant…” (He did)

As I read this foreshadowing this morning I am reminded that God is parenting His fledgling children. I could have predicted when our girls were small what was likely to happen, and I’m nowhere near as omniscient as God. Yet there’s an order to God’s creation. There is a natural way of things and God knew how they were going to go. He wove it into telling of the Great Story.

This morning I’m thinking about the natural order of things. This morning our daughter will arrive at the lake after making a 14 hour road trip to join us for a few days. We can’t wait to see her and to be with her. There was a day, not so long ago, when I’m not sure she would have considered a 14 hour road trip just to spend a day or two with dad and Wendy worth her time. But today it is, and we’re overjoyed. It’s the natural order of things. I can fight against it, or I can learn to be at peace with it. I think I will continue to fight my natural inclination toward the former and continue to seek to embrace the latter.

“L’chaim”

“You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you.”
Leviticus 18:3 (NRSV)

This past weekend we were with friends at the lake. It was a wonderful weekend. We lay in the sun and on the water. We took a boat ride in which the hum of the engine and the rocking of the waves lulled our friends to sleep. We watched a good movie together that resonated with profound lessons about the contrast between life and religiosity. We drank a luscious red wine and ate a rich mixture of crackers, cheese, fruits and veggies. We explored new ideas. We shared both joys and heartaches. We spoke into one another’s lives.

Our friend raised his glass multiple times during the weekend in what is an important ritual for him, and offered the Hebrew toast “L’chaim” which means “to life.”

When you look at the Great Story God is telling from Genesis to Revelation, there are a few simple themes woven throughout. One of them is the theme of life and death:

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live….” (Deuteronomy 30:19)

We continue our journey today through the ancient sacrificial system described in the book of Leviticus. If you’ve been following along I’m sure you’ll agree with me that the whole thing gets a bit surreal to our 21st century western sensibilities. In today’s chapter, we encounter a host of rules centered mostly around sex. The key to unlocking the message is in the third verse (pasted at the top of this post).

The Hebrews had just escaped from being slaves in Egypt. They were headed to the land God promised them in Canaan. They have been immersed in Egyptian culture for hundreds of years and they are about to experience Canaanite culture. Neither culture was particularly healthy.

King Tut RenderingIn Egypt, the ruling families were known to practice incest in the belief that they were keeping the royal bloodline pure. The Pharaoh and his family were considered deities and the thinking went that if the royal family only bred from among each other that they wouldn’t be tainted by any non-deified humans. Of course, we know today that his is a really bad idea. Consider the famous King Tut. Extensive research on Tut’s mummy reveals that the boy king behind the famous hoard of golden treasure was far from what we would consider god-like. He had a club foot, probably walked with a cane, and he had abnormally wide, feminine hips for a boy. These are likely genetic issues stemming from the fact that his parents were brother and sister.

By the way, before we get too judgmental on the ancient Egyptians, it should be noted that the whole “pure blood” philosophy among royals carried on in Europe for centuries. J.K. Rowling didn’t just make up the “pure blood” notion for the fictional wizarding world. The royal families in Europe are a dizzying mixture of marriages between relatives.

Intermarriage among Europe's royal Hapsburg family.
Intermarriage among Europe’s royal Hapsburg family.
In ancient Canaan, the local tribal cultures had their own mixture of unhealthy sexual practices which spilled into their local religious practices. Ritual worship of pagan gods such as Molech included strange sexual practices and the sacrifice of human children by burning them.

So, as we read through today’s chapter we have to realize that it was a prescription against cultural and religious practices from Egypt and Canaan that were unhealthy for individuals and society as a whole. It’s back to the theme of life and death. These things don’t promote life and its healthy regeneration. These things bring destructive havoc on people, relationships, and society. Underneath the rules lies the same old theme: life and death. God is once again saying, “I want you to choose life by living in such away as to avoid those things you’ve seen in Egypt and will see in Canaan which are really unhealthy and contribute to destruction and death.”

Which brings me back to last weekend with our friends which was so full of life. Our bodies rested, our souls refreshed, and our relationships were strengthened. We tasted and drank in goodness spiritually, emotionally, relationally as well as in the literal food and drink we enjoyed together. Our activity and our conversations were life giving. And that’s always what God wants us to choose.

L’chaim.