Tag Archives: Relationships

The Mess of Relationships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Puritans, Relationships and Moral By-Products

See, the stone I have set in front of Joshua! There are seven eyes on that one stone, and I will engrave an inscription on it,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will remove the sin of this land in a single day.

“‘In that day each of you will invite your neighbor to sit under your vine and fig tree,’ declares the Lord Almighty.”
Zechariah 3:9-10 (NIV)

The further I get in my life journey the more I’ve come to understand and appreciate just how much of American culture has been framed by our Puritan roots. For the most part, I don’t think this is a bad thing. From our Puritan forerunners we inherited a great number of basic virtues such as honesty, integrity, charity and a strong work ethic. These virtues have served us remarkably well as a society.

From our Puritan forerunners we also inherited a very strong sense of morality that comes packaged in black and white. The “Puritans” were so-called because they believed the Church of England was not reformed enough from Catholic doctrine and practices. They were willing to start a bloody civil war and behead a king to “purify” England of her perceived sins. When the purification didn’t go as planned, a good many fled to America to carve out life in the “new world.”

Growing up in an evangelical protestant tradition, I was taught that purity and a conservative set of moral behaviors were the pinnacle goals for me as a follower of Jesus. As I have progressed in my spiritual journey and in my study of God’s Message, I find God to be more concerned with relationship than anything else. If you get relationships right as a priority, with God and with others, then doing the right things becomes a natural consequence. Intent on maintaining a strong, healthy relationship I naturally choose to do things that will enhance relationships and cease to do things that will disturb shalom.

I see this in today’s chapter. Zechariah has a vision of the high priest standing before the Angel of the Lord, with Satan standing beside as prosecutor and accuser. God prophetically declares that He will send his “Branch” who will “remove the sin of this land in a single day.” He then describes what the outcome of this carte blanche grace and forgiveness will be: “you will invite your neighbor to sit under your vine and fig tree.”

Isn’t that fascinating?! God says nothing about morality, purity, righteousness, or remaining untainted by the world. The outcome of sin being washed away is right relationship with others: reaching out, being hospitable, sharing the shade, and loving one another.

This morning I’m thinking about my relationships with God and with others. As a follower of Jesus I want to truly follow His example. I’m reminded in the quiet this morning that when encountering those whom the orthodox establishment had branded and rejected as immoral, Jesus chose to join them for a meal and share some stories. Funny thing: When these “immoral” people (e.g. Matthew, Zaccheus, Mary Magdalene, and etc.) entered into relationship with Jesus, their lives were subsequently marked by radical life changes. These changes weren’t about adhering to some legalistic moral code Jesus maintained to judge who “made the cut.” The live changes were motivated by being in relationship with Jesus, and a desire for that relationship to grow; They chose, quite naturally, to eliminate behaviors that might hinder their relationship with Jesus.

With God, the goal was never morality. The goal has always been relationship. When you get relationship right, then making good life choices to maintain and grow those relationships is a by-product.

The End of the Line

In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria and deported the Israelites to Assyria.
2 Kings 17:6 (NIV)

In this life, some things end. That’s the simple truth of the matter. Along this life journey I’ve come to the realization that we human beings like to feel a sense of the eternal amidst the temporal. We like things to remain fairly stable. We are lulled into a state of accepting that what has been always will be…

  • I will always live here…
  • I will always have this job…
  • We will always be together…
  • We will always be friends…
  • My parents will always stay together…
  • My children will outlive me…

And then suddenly, things end. Relationships end, jobs go away, homes are destroyed, people move away, churches split, companies are acquired, and so on, and so on, and so on.

World rocked. Equilibrium off. Heart breaking. Mind spinning.

Life changing.

In today’s chapter, we get to the end of the line for the northern Kingdom of Israel. For 190 years they had existed through a roller coaster succession of monarchs. Hoshea would be the final king. The Assyrian empire lays siege to Israel’s capital city, Samaria. It is destroyed, plundered, and the Israelites taken back to Assyria as slaves. Using the ancient playbook of conquest, the Assyrians move a melting pot of other immigrants peoples into the neighborhood to ensure that the Israelites left behind don’t unite in rebellion against the Empire. It is the end of the Kingdom of Israel.

As I read and mull over this morning’s chapter, I’m reminded of our chapter-a-day journeys through the prophets who warned that this was coming. For those who had ears to hear, the warning signs were there. Amidst the chaos, grief and questions that arise when things end, we can often look back with 20-20 hindsight and see that the signs were all there. In our desire for the eternal amidst the temporal we simply choose to ignore them.

I’m also mulling over the lessons that I’ve learned both in my journey through God’s Message and my journey through life. Things must end for us to experience new beginnings. In order for there to be resurrection, something must die. God even wove this truth into His artistic expression of creation. The seasons teach us that the new life and recurring promises of spring don’t happen with out the long death of winter. In summer Iowa has such lush green landscape with deep blue skies that it almost creates a new color all its own. But eventually we reach the end of the line. Lush green corn turns to ugly brown stalks, and the blue skies give way to the dull gray snow clouds of winter. And then it happens again, and again, and again. Old things pass away, then new things come.

For the people of Israel, this chapter of life is ended. But the story isn’t over. The prophets predicted this, as well. A new chapter has begun. Perhaps unexpected. Perhaps unwanted. Perhaps scary and unnerving. Yet that’s why we love great stories. They take us to unexpected places and new experiences we hadn’t dreamed or imagined. But we don’t get there without journeying through the end of the previous chapter(s).

Swimming, Speedos, and Spiritual Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meditations on Song of Solomon

In the 11 years I’ve been writing my blog and posting my chapter-a-day meditations, I’ve not spent a ton of time worrying about whether posts are popular. I haven’t actively tried to either please or cater to a particular audience. That’s never really been the point for me. I simply post what’s on my heart and mind each weekday morning and scatter it like seed along my humble little path here in the blogosphere.

I have, however, casually noticed that my daily meditations on the Song of Solomon (aka Song of Songs), have seemed to  maintain a certain level of popularity (I use that word very loosely in the context of my subscribers and page views) that is unusual for my typical posts. It totally makes sense to me. Song of Songs is the one poetic book in all of God’s Message that focuses on man, woman, relationship, love, romance, and sex. We are ever trying to understand the mystery, aren’t we?

So, for what it’s worth, here is a compilation of my meditations from Song of Solomon, originally posted in October of 2013. Cheers!

 

 

Song of Solomon Chapter 1
A Hint of Paradise

God, the artist, created us male and female. He created us naked. He told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply. Love, intimacy and sex between husband and wife was part of the original ideal….

 

 

 

Song of Solomon Chapter 2
With Nobody Else but Me

Be mindful and wary of misplaced and competing affections and appetites.

 

 

 

Song of Solomon Chapter 3
Meeting the Parents

Today, I am pondering this dance of courtship that men and women have been doing since the beginning of civilization.

 

 

 

 

Song of Solomon Chapter 4
Sensually Good

Jesus said he came to give us abundant life. This includes a healthy appreciation for the breadth of senses God gave us to properly experience the full range of creation in its sensual glory.

Song of Solomon Chapter 5
The Art and Progression of Sexual Intimacy

My experience is that sexual intimacy does not become a breathtaking original work of art unless there are two people learning to create something together over time, learning to work together, make mistakes, erase errors, try something new, explore, play, complement one another’s individual style, and develop their own unique style as a couple over time together.

 

 

 

 

Song of Solomon Chapter 6
Browsing Among the Lilies

God created us male and female. He created us as sexual beings with hormones and sexual desires. He created a natural order in which people grow, develop, desire one another and have sexual relations through which new life is created. He called it “good.”

 

 

 

 

Song of Solomon Chapter 7
A Case for Delayed Gratification

In contrast to where our culture seems to be heading, I hear in Song of Solomon the wisdom, art, and beauty of love that takes time, effort, and creativity to develop. I am reminded that delayed gratification makes the climactic sensual feast deeper, more meaningful and ultimately more pleasurable.

Song of Solomon Chapter 8
Signed, Sealed, Delivered

God’s Message has scant descriptors of marriage. It does not prescribe a particular method or ceremony for marriage, but seems to allow room for cultures and history to develop a veritable plethora of customs around the marriage ceremony. What God’s Message does simply say is that a man and woman leave their respective parents, unite themselves, and become “one flesh.”


Tom Vander Well has been writing his blog, Wayfarer, since 2006. He lives in Pella, Iowa with his wife Wendy.

The Letter of Our Lives

Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone.
2 Corinthians 3:1-2 (NIV)

Wherever you find kindness, love, and generosity you will find those willing to take advantage of that kindness, love, and generosity. In the day that Paul was writing his letter to believers in Corinth, the followers of Jesus had gained a reputation for being generous toward those marginalized by the society of that day including lepers, widows, and orphans. They also had a reputation of taking up collections for traveling teachers like Paul.

It wasn’t long before con men and teachers with selfish intent began making the rounds. The result of being swindled was that these local gatherings of Jesus’ followers would expect traveling teachers to bring a letter of recommendation from someone they knew and trusted. Eventually the con men began forging those letters of recommendation and it became an on-going problem.

Paul picks up on this situation and uses these required “letters of recommendation” as a word picture. The believers of Corinth were his letter of recommendation, Paul argued. The “proof” of Paul’s ministry was the changed hearts, the transformed lives, and the growing spiritual maturity of those in Corinth in whom Paul had invested his time, teaching, and mentoring.

This morning I’m pondering this metaphor of our very lives, and the outcomes of our lives, being a letter read by everyone around us. When people look at the outcomes of my life, my words, my actions, and my relationships what are they reading? What does my life “recommend” to others? And what’s does my influence on others “recommend?”

Yesterday I went on site with our client and ran into a young man who’d started on the front line of their sales and customer service department. I trained him from his first days on the phone and coached him for a number of years. He was promoted to another team I worked with and then got a promotion to field sales. I haven’t seen him for years. He happened to be in the home office yesterday and when he saw me his face lit up. Unexpectedly he came over and gave me a big hug. It made my day. It was rewarding to know that my coaching has made a small contribution to his success.

I sit here in my hotel room prepping for another day of coaching. I’m reminded of the “letter” I’m writing in myself and others today. I want it to be a positive letter of recommendation.

Called Still Deeper

Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. 1 Peter 4:8 (NIV)

I have a confession to make this morning. I’ve been aggravated recently with a particular relational scar. It’s a past injury. Call it near ancient history. I forgave. We moved on and our paths led different places in life. It’s easy to forget past injuries when you don’t really have to continue in relationship with the person you’ve forgiven. Now,  years later I look to the horizon and our paths appear to once again be converging.

My scar itches.

I was struck this morning by Peter’s command, not just to love but to love deeply. And the reason for the call to this deep love is forgiveness. Forgiveness is a tough one, and Jesus certainly addressed it head on. Peter knew this only too well, because it was his question that prompted Jesus to address the matter:

At that point Peter got up the nerve to ask, “Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?”

Jesus replied, “Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven.

“The kingdom of God is like a king who decided to square accounts with his servants. As he got under way, one servant was brought before him who had run up a debt of a hundred thousand dollars. He couldn’t pay up, so the king ordered the man, along with his wife, children, and goods, to be auctioned off at the slave market.

“The poor wretch threw himself at the king’s feet and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ Touched by his plea, the king let him off, erasing the debt.

“The servant was no sooner out of the room when he came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him ten dollars. He seized him by the throat and demanded, ‘Pay up. Now!’

“The poor wretch threw himself down and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ But he wouldn’t do it. He had him arrested and put in jail until the debt was paid. When the other servants saw this going on, they were outraged and brought a detailed report to the king.

“The king summoned the man and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave your entire debt when you begged me for mercy. Shouldn’t you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?’ The king was furious and put the screws to the man until he paid back his entire debt. And that’s exactly what my Father in heaven is going to do to each one of you who doesn’t forgive unconditionally anyone who asks for mercy.”

Ironic that Peter would ask about forgiveness when it would be he who three times denied that he even knew Jesus, who heard the rooster crow, who looked into the eyes of his Lord at that very moment and experienced the need of seventy-times-seven forgiveness. Peter knows all about deep love and forgiveness.

Some other words of Jesus come to mind this morning as I ponder:

“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.

“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

I sit in the quiet this morning with my itchy scar, and I’m reminded that Jesus command to love others was never just about loving those who are easy for me to love and those with whom I don’t have to be in relationship. Jesus calls me to follow deeper on the path of love. To follow Jesus is to push into the deep waters of Love that He waded into when He forgave my heaping helpings of weakness, foolishness, and failings. That was the whole point of His parable of the indebted servant. I have been forgiven for so much, how can I not forgive another for so much less even if I have to keep forgiving in exponential measure.

I’m seeing myself in Jesus parable this morning. If my love is not deep enough to salve itchy old relational scars of an already forgiven issue in the past then it is, plain and simple, not deep enough.

Today, I’m pushing deeper.