Tag Archives: Rugged Individualism

Things I Don’t Control

Things I Don't Control (CaD Ps 132) Wayfarer

For the sake of your servant David,
    do not reject your anointed one.

Psalm 132:10 (NIV)

Wendy and I are almost through the first season of Poldark, originally a 2015 Masterpiece Theater production. It’s been thoroughly enjoyable. The series is set in the late 18th century and tells the story of a headstrong and struggling English nobleman who returns from the American Revolution to find his father dead, his family estate in shambles, the love of his life engaged to his cousin, and the family business on the edge of bankruptcy.

The themes of the show include the clash between nobility and peasant, the long-held tradition of the entitlement of the first-born son, and the legacy of both family systems and family names.

Over the past year of Covid-19 with all its tension over masks, mandates, and lockdowns, one of the conversations I found fascinating was the individualistic spirit in Americans. From our break from mother England to today, we don’t like being told what to do. Along my life journey, I’ve come to believe that we don’t have a full realization of, nor appreciation for, just how deep the “rugged individualism” that fueled our country runs in our veins. In the entire history of human civilization, human rights and the freedom of self-determination are relatively new concepts. For thousands of years, an individual’s lot-in-life was pretty much fully established the moment they were born. It was completely dependent on your family, your gender, and your birth order.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 132, is a case-in-point. This ancient Hebrew song was used at the coronation of monarchs ascending to the throne of King David. Some scholars believe it was initially written to honor King David at the dedication ceremony of the Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. David’s family line was firmly established as the royal line of Judah, the prophets also pointed to the coming Messiah being from the same lineage, and the lyrics of today’s chapter would have been a clear reminder to the people not to forget it.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself meditating on the concept of determination. Growing up, I and my peers were told that we could be anything we wanted to be in life if we were willing to work hard, study hard, and pursue our dreams. Once again, I’m reminded that this very notion would have been ludicrous for the vast majority of human beings who ever lived. And yet, while I would argue that there are, in general, greater opportunities for self-determination than in any other time in human history, there are still those determining influences of life that I don’t control.

Among the teachings of Jesus that fueled the Jesus Movement of the first century was that everyone was welcome at the dining table where believers sat, listened, prayed, feasted, and “communed.” Men, women, slaves, slave owners, rich, poor, societies’ big shots, and social lepers. As Paul put it in his letter to the followers of Jesus in Galatia:

In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ. Also, since you are Christ’s family, then you are Abraham’s famous “descendant,” heirs according to the covenant promises.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking about the things in this life that I can control, and the things that I can’t. When Jesus said to those seated around Him, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” I believe that He was telling his followers that I don’t have to be enslaved to systems that formed me. When Paul said that for the believer “old things pass away” I believe that among the things that pass away are beliefs, patterns of thought, and behaviors that were instilled in me by the systems into which I was born and in which I was raised. I observe that the spiritual transformation I’ve experienced on my spiritual journey as a follower of Jesus has not only changed me, but it has led me to leverage the fruit of God’s Spirit to help transform the human systems I’m a part of for the better.

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

Then my God put it into my mind to assemble the nobles and the officials and the people to be enrolled by genealogy.
Nehemiah 7:5 (NRSV)

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Astronaut, athlete, soldier, doctor, teacher, fire fighter, actor, engineer…

I sometimes think that many take for granted what freedom, rugged individualism, and the American experience have meant for those of us who’ve been blessed to grow up here, whose families have been here for generations.

My great-grandfather came by himself from the Netherlands as a teenager. He started as a carpenter, helped found the Co-op in Boyden, Iowa. He then started his own hardware store. My grandfather went to college and became an educator. His sons worked in meat packing and accounting. My dad’s children have worked in restoration and architectural arts, education, ministry and business. My children are finding their way into art and event management along with cosmetic sales.

What do you want to do with your life?

For the ancients in Nehemiah’s day, your family of birth often determined what you would do as an occupation. To quote Fiddler on the Roof, it was tradition. Only descendants of Aaron could be priests. Only descendants of Levi could work in the temple of God. If you were a “son of Korah” you were a musician. The genealogical record that Nehemiah referenced was critical to their society. Your family told who you were, and what you would be when you grew up.

The destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman in 70 A.D. was a momentous event in Jewish history because all of the extensive genealogical records of the Jewish people were destroyed. In the global diaspora of the Jewish people over the centuries the Jewish people lost track of which family and tribe they belonged to. Those orthodox believers in Israel today who wish to see, and are actively working towards, the rebuilding of a temple in Jerusalem face a legal dilemma in the law of Moses. If only sons of Aaron can be priest and only Levites can serve in such a temple according to God’s law, how do we know who the descendants of Aaron and Levites are? I wouldn’t be surprised if there are DNA experts in Israel working on an answer.

Today, I’m thinking about how awful it would be if I was stuck in the original family business of my great-grandfather. I’d be a terrible carpenter, and a very depressed adult. The same goes for being an accountant like my father. Both of those men were good at what they did, but my passion, gifts, and abilities lie elsewhere. I wonder how the ancients did it.

I’m grateful for the unique passions, gifts, talents and abilities God gives to each of us. I’m equally thankful to live in a land of freedom where I can choose to pursue those passions … or not.

chapter a day banner 2015

Freedom, Rights, and Responsibility

“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial.
1 Corinthians 6:12a (NIV)

When I was growing up there was premium placed on personal responsibility by my parents and grandparents. You took responsibility for your own needs, your own debts, your own responsibilities, and your own actions. Looking back, I believe that some of it was motivated by their spiritual principles and some of it was motivated by social pressure. No matter the motivation, there was a self-respect that simply came from doing what had to be done to make your own way and not be dependent on others.

It seems to me that the social pendulum has swung in the past fifty years. I perceive that the rugged individualism and value of personal responsibility that seemed rather pervasive in my youth has given way to a spirit of entitlement and a “take what you can get” mentality. A few weeks ago I spoke with an employer who was behind because a part of the work force on which he depended  was choosing to be unemployed as long as possible in their off season to collect as much “free money” as possible. I recall a friend who was quite capable of providing for he and his family, but chose to manage their lives to get as much welfare as possible. “The money’s just sitting there,” he said. “If I don’t take it someone else will. Might as well be me.” I’m afraid that our world has become adept at taking for ourselves while shifting the cost to others.

In today’s chapter, Paul is addressing a parallel thought process among the believers in the city of Corinth. There were those who were acting out of a claim that they had a right and freedom to act in ways that were having a negative effect on themselves and the whole of the community. Paul points out that having a right and freedom to do something does not make it beneficial for yourself or for the whole.

This morning I’m doing a little soul searching of my own. I’m asking myself a few hard questions. Where in life am I cost shifting? Where in life am I exercising rights and freedoms in ways that are ultimately not beneficial to me, my family, my fellow believers, or society as a whole? In what ways am I acting out of self-centeredness that may ultimately be detrimental to everyone else?

Chapter-a-Day Exodus 18

Moses' father-in-law said, "This is no way to go about it. You'll burn out, and the people right along with you. This is way too much for you—you can't do this alone. Exodus 18:17 (MSG)

Moses was a great leader, but he was given to human faults and issues like all of us. It sometimes seems easier to just do something myself than to take the time to teach others to do it and risk the problems which will likely arise. But, like Moses, I can only do that for so long before I burn out – then everyone loses.

Self-sufficiency and rugged individualism are admirable traits in the right circumstances, but our greatest strengths easily become tragic weaknesses. As tasks grow, we need to trust and rely on the strengths of others.