Tag Archives: Relationship

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.

 

Kindness without Discernment is Foolishness

Hezekiah received the envoys and showed them all that was in his storehouses—the silver, the gold, the spices and the fine olive oil—his armory and everything found among his treasures. There was nothing in his palace or in all his kingdom that Hezekiah did not show them.
2 Kings 20:13 (NIV)

Whether it be books, plays, television or movies, Wendy and I are lovers of good stories. We often find ourselves sitting on the couch watching a scene of a television program or movie and we will suddenly realize where this is leading. It’s really funny when it hits us at the same time and we turn to one another to exclaim our prophetic realization.

I had a similar moment this morning as I read the story of King Hezekiah welcoming the Babylonian envoys. As it describes him welcoming the envoys with open arms and showing them all his treasures my heart was like “Dude! Can’t you see they’re casing the joint!?!

In the very next paragraph, the prophet Isaiah confirmed my premonition.

Along this journey we encounter many people. As a follower of Jesus I am called to love them. My life, my words, and my relationships are to marked by patience, kindness, and gentleness. This does not mean, however, that I am to be naive and foolish. Jesus told His followers “be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves.” Most people don’t even know that quote. let alone have it memorized. It doesn’t get artistically posted on Pinterest. I’ve never heard a sermon preached on that one. But it’s important. Loving kindness without wisdom and discernment becomes foolishness.

My thoughts go to a person I know whose life has been marked by a long string of bad relationships. Out of a desire to be loving and kind to others in need, this person has attracted a string of crazy makers into their life. Like Hezekiah, I’ve watched them open up the treasures of their heart and life to others who are only too happy to take advantage. The crazy makers tragically raid this person’s being through manipulation and they don’t realize it until much injury of life and soul has occurred.

This morning I’m reminded of the importance of discernment. I am called to love, but also be shrewd. Everyone needs love, but there are those who (consciously or subconsciously) seek innocent “lovers” whom they can take advantage for their own self-centered motivations. In following Jesus’ command, I want to be innocent enough not to be suspicious of everyone, but shrewd enough to discern when someone is merely casing the joint.

“When I Could Stand it No Longer….”

For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith.
1 Thessalonians 3:5 (NIV)

Wendy and I had a moment of nostalgia the other night as we watched The Man in the High Castle. The show is set in the early 1960s. The phone rang in one of the scenes and the character answered the classic rotary wall phone. It was a “private call” so she walked through the kitchen door into the dining room. She was able to do this because the phone had a “long cord.”

Oh my gosh!” Wendy exclaimed just as I was thinking the same thing. “Do you remember the ‘long chord?'”

Back in the day our house had one phone line. For a while we had only phone on the wall in the kitchen, but my parents eventually added another wall phone extension in the basement. There were rotary phones on which the handset had to be attached to the base unit. If you didn’t want everyone in the house to hear your conversation you had to have this 20′ curly cord that would allow you to walk into another room and shut the door.

Suddenly I was back in my childhood hanging around by the phone in the excruciating wait for a girl to call me. I can remember the agony that came with desperately wanting that phone to ring, and for it to be her, so that I could pull the ‘long chord’ on the basement phone to the back of our storage room and have conversation in hushed tones. And as we talked, I would pray that my parents or siblings would not pick up the phone in the kitchen and totally embarrass me while I was talking to the girl on whom I had a serious crush.

In this morning’s chapter I noticed that Paul twice uses a phrase in talking about his love for his Thessalonian friends: “When I could stand it no longer….” I began to ask myself how I could relate to that sentiment of being so emotionally invested in relationship that silence and the unknown create anxiety. Those moments waiting by the phone were an easy memory, but there are others. It’s the experience of having your children half a world away and knowing that they are struggling, but there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s those moments when tragedy strikes a dear friend who lives far away and you feel so terribly helpless.

This morning in the quiet I’m struck by two distinct thoughts. First I take solace of knowing that Paul, who is often spiritualized by believers to the point of being morphed into superhuman status, also struggled with the very human emotion of anxiety and fear to the point he could “stand it no longer.” The normal humanity I see in “heroes of faith” remind me to have a little grace with myself.  The second thought is simply the intense love and concern Paul shows towards his friends he left back in the Greek seaport. It reminds me of yesterday’s thoughts, that Paul’s ministry was not an impersonal evangelistic tour, but a life sharing mission that bore the fruit of deep relationship.

I’m left thinking this morning of family and friends with whom I have not conversed for a time; Those who my heart wonders about. Maybe today’s a good day to wander down to the dock and make a call or two. I can do that. I no longer require a 500′ “long cord “.

featured photo courtesy kris krüg via Flickr

It Was Never About the Rules

The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God.
Hebrews 7:18-19 (NIV)

When our daughters, Taylor and Madison, were young girls they were subjected to a fairly substantial system of rules. There were moral rules (don’t lie, don’t take what’s not yours, don’t hurt another person, et al). There were rules of health and hygiene (wash your hands before meals, no snacks before meals, cover your mouth when you cough, take a bath regularly, et al). There were rules of the family system (do what mommy or daddy says, put away your toys before bed, say your prayers, et al).

Taylor and Madison were both good kids, though they were certainly not perfect. Let me make two very important points:

First, I love Taylor and Madison dearly, but not because of the perfection with which they obeyed my rules! I love them because they are my daughters. They are God’s uniquely beautiful creations. They are inherently lovable, valuable and capable beings.

Second, the rules that I as a father subjected them to as young children had nothing to do with earning my love. Certainly there was a measure of pride and joy when they were obedient (which they did most of the time), and there was disappointment and even anger if they willfully disobeyed (trust me, I have stories). However, neither their obedience nor disobedience had any effect on my underlying love for them. The rules were about teaching them how to live healthy, productive lives, how to successfully live in relationship with others, and how to contribute meaningfully to the lives of others and the world as a whole.

In today’s chapter, a very similar distinction is being made that is critical to our understanding of both God the Father (God for us) and Jesus, God the Son (God with us). The law of Moses (that would include the Big Ten commandments and the more than 600 other rules) was the guiding force of Hebrew religion. The Hebrew priests, descendants of Aaron, along with the descendants of the tribe of Levi were in charge of these rules and the rule keeping. Rule keeping became the focus of the Jewish people as if being perfectly obedient to the rules put you in right standing with the Father. But no one became a perfect person by religiously adhering to a set of rules.

A priest is a “go-between.” Some one who represents others, intercedes for others, mediates for others, sacrifices for others before God. Jesus perfectly fits the definition of High Priest, but the author of Hebrews continues to make a very important distinction, that Jesus was not a High Priest  in the traditional, Law of Moses prescribed genetic line of Aaron. Jesus was a High Priest in the line of the cosmic, eternal, mysterious figure of Melchizedek.

Why is this important? It tells us that perfection of religious rule keeping was never the point to earning God the Father’s love any more than my love for Taylor and Madison being hinged on the perfection of their keeping the rules of my house. We are loved by God inherently because we are His uniquely beautiful, lovable, valuable, and capable creation. So loved, in fact, that Father God (God for us) made the ultimate sacrifice of sending Jesus (God with us) to free us from our silly religious rule keeping and to show us the deep, abiding, full, limitless, abounding, abundant LOVE that defines God. When conversing with God the Father, Jesus used the word “Abba” which is defined more commonly as we would use “Daddy,” “Papa,” or “Pops.” Jesus came as Priest, Mediator, and Sacrifice so we could understand that kind of loving relationship with Father God.

This morning I’m thinking about the ways that the rule-keeping paradigm keeps sucking me back into its false economy. I’m mindfully pondering how I actively continue my process of understanding “Abba” and digging into my relationship with Him. I’m reminding myself this morning of the reality that I know deeply as a father of Taylor and Madison: It was never about the rules, or the rule keeping. I am loved inherently for who I am as God’s child.

Relationship and Maturity

Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity….
Hebrews 6:1a (NIV)

The other night Wendy and I were having a conversation with friends. I can’t even remember the entire context of the conversation as it flowed across many subjects and meandered down several tributaries of thought. At one point, however, I remember Wendy making the observation regarding how our relationship has matured over the years we’ve been married. I remember quietly chewing on that fact for a while.

Wendy and I have a great relationship, and we continue to enjoy a wonderful marriage. It has, nevertheless, changed over the years. We’ve pushed into understanding and appreciating one another’s unique and contrasting personality types. On the Enneagram I’m a Type 4 (Individualist) and she’s a very opposite Type 8 (Challenger). [cue: sparks flying..it can be one of the most volatile combinations] You don’t simply skate through life and relationship with such differences and remain unchanged. It forces growth. This is especially true when you journey down the paths of blended family, teenage daughters, infertility, live-in siblings, and house building. And those things are on top of traversing the normal marriage builders of finances, sex, and the management of life’s every day stresses.

The other day I wrote about some of the misconceptions I had about God and spirituality as I grew up. One of those misperceptions was that spiritual life is a compartmentalized part of life, confined to a few hours at church on Sunday along with scattered nods of attention during the week like sporadic prayers or quiet times. Jesus came, however, to make possible our relationship with God. It’s a relationship, in fact, that God likens time and time again to a marriage. Mature marriage relationships in which intimacy and oneness develop don’t happen in an environment of compartmentalization.

In today’s chapter, the author of the letter to Hebrew believers addresses those who have flirted with a relationship with Christ. They have “tasted” of marital relationship as a couple riding the bliss of infatuation into experimental living together while keeping entire parts of themselves compartmentalized and self-centered. The author urges them to push towards a relationship that matures only in a committed 24/7/365 journey with all of its shared peaks and valleys.

This morning I’m again thankful for Wendy, for our marriage with all of its moments of unheralded creativity and, yes, occasional volatility. I’m thankful for the maturing of relationship and what it teaches me about myself, Wendy, and God who is both Life and Love. I am reminded of the necessity to press on and into maturity of relationship, and not be seduced and deluded into spiritual, relational stagnation and compartmentalization.

 

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?