Tag Archives: Self-Centered

A Good Day

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
Mark 10:35 (NIV)

Every parent knows a set-up question when they hear it.

“Dad? I’m going to ask you something and you have to answer ‘yes.'”

“Mom? Haven’t I been really, really good this week?”

The set-up question is intended to get the desired answer from the real question. I remember being a young boy playing this game in my prayers with God. If I wanted the Vikings to win the game or my older brothers girlfriends to simply “stop by” our house (they always doted on me, and I loved it), then I would barter with the Almighty to get my wish. I might make the case for my good behavior to have been good enough to “earn” what it is I wanted. I might have promised all sorts of obedient services I could render on the back-end of my fulfilled wish should my Genie-God grant my self-centered request.

Obviously, as a young boy, I had a lot to learn about God, prayer, the Great Story, and my role in it. I’m grateful that God is eternally patient and faithful.

In today’s chapter, I found my lesson wrapped in the layout of events that Mark includes as Jesus prepares to enter Jerusalem for the climactic week of His earthly sojourn.

First, Jesus sends a rich, young man away sad because the man was unwilling to do the one thing that stood between him and God: sell everything he owned and give it to the poor. In the post-event discussion with His followers, Jesus reminds them that in the economy of God’s Kingdom (the real one, not the false one that the institutional church created for 1700 years) “the first will be last and the last will be first.”

The very next thing, Jesus tells #TheTwelve for the third time exactly what’s going to happen:

“We are going up to Jerusalem and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”

Sometimes I’ve noticed that the chapter breaks and headings that modern scholars have introduced into the text keep me from seeing the flow and connections between pieces of the story. Today was a great example. Jesus reminds the disciples that the first will be last, and then He gives them the ultimate example: I, the miracle-working Son of God who heals, frees, feeds, and raises people from the dead, am going to submit myself to suffer and die in order to redeem all things.

What happens next?

James and John come to Jesus with a “set-up question!”

“Um, Jesus? We want you to promise to do whatever it is we’re about to ask you.”

What was the question? They were looking out for numero uno. If Jesus was going to die, then the brothers Zebedee just wanted to tie up some loose ends. They wanted to make sure that their eternal future was secure. They wanted to ink the deal with Jesus, once and for all, to make sure they ended up “Top Dog” on the heavenly food chain.

I can hear the echo of Jesus’ words from what seems like every single chapter I’ve read the past two weeks: “Do you still not understand?”

For the record, James and John got about as far as I did with the Vikings winning the Super Bowl.

In the quiet, on this Good Friday morning, I am reminded of all the ways I have cast myself in the role of James and John. It might have been cloaked in religious set-up questions, bartered goodness, and the economics of a worldly institutional kingdom dressed in religious robes. The truth is what I’ve been quietly contemplating this week. In so many ways, I know that I still don’t completely get it.

Good Friday. The secret trials. The kangaroo court. The beatings. The mocking. The jeering. The crowd screaming for blood. The scourging. The nails driven into wrists and feet. The hanging naked on a cross as public spectacle; Naked, bleeding and losing control of his bodily functions in front of His own mother. And, as He hangs there between heaven and earth on the cusp of death…

Making sure his mother will be cared for.

Forgiving His executioners.

Extending grace to a confessed and convicted thief.

“The first shall be last. If you want to be the greatest, you must become the servant of all.”

A good day to open my head and heart to continue understanding, to continue getting it, and continuing to let it change me.

A Particularly Liberating Thought

Then I looked up—and there before me were two women, with the wind in their wings! They had wings like those of a stork, and they lifted up the basket between heaven and earth.
Zechariah 5:9 (NIV)

In my casual reading this week I came across a historical figure I’d not remembered learning about in history. Girolamo Savonarola was a Dominican friar who led his own version of puritanical reign for a brief period on time in the city of Florence during the Renaissance. The fire-and-brimstone friar led a coup against the Medici family then set up his own regime designed to purge Florence of wickedness and turn it into the “New Jerusalem.” Of course, with himself acting as God’s ordained judge, jury, and executioner.

Savonarola went about bringing his version of moral righteousness by force, as religious tyrants of all faiths throughout history have done. Bands of young men dubbed “little angels” wandered the streets harassing women who wore clothing that was too bright. They broke into homes looking for evidence of “wickedness” such as playing cards, cosmetics, or pornography which was then brought into the streets and burned in a “bonfire of vanities.”

I was reminded of Savonarola’s version of religious fascism as I read today’s chapter in Zechariah. The ancient prophet’s vision addresses one of the major obstacles the rebuilders of Jerusalem were facing in his day. Thieves and false accusations drained precious time and resources from the monumental job at hand, as well as the everyday illicit behaviors that disrupted unity and diminished the rebuilding project. In one vision, God curses the thieves, false accusers, and their households. In another vision God sends two messengers on the Spirit wind to remove wickedness from the land.

What struck me about Zac’s visions is that God was the one responsible for judging and dealing with sin, not Zechariah or the high priest Joshua or the governor Zerubbabel. Unlike friar Savonarola and his ilk, Zechariah’s visions were not self-centric visions bestowing divine responsibility for purging the people and the land of evil. Dealing with iniquity and wickedness were God’s  to deal with. Zechariah and the boys had a more important task at hand.

This morning I’m reminded that history is full of individuals who use religion to justify their own self-centered agendas and ego-driven power grabs. God, on the other hand, repeatedly reminds us throughout the Great Story that judgement is not in our job description, just as His visions to Zechariah indicate. Jesus put it quite bluntly: “Don’t judge, or you will be judged.”

In the quiet I’m mulling over the fact that I’ve got enough on my plate trying to keep focus, energy, and love applied to the relationships and productive projects to which God has led me. If I believe what I really profess to believe, then God is perfectly capable and sufficient to manage the judgement end of things. And, this morning that feels like a particularly liberating thought.

Leadership and Rabble Cravings

The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat!
Numbers 11:4 (NIV)

Throughout my life journey I’ve had the privilege of serving in numerous leadership positions from small groups to decent sized organizations. Leading others can be both a joy and a curse and it is almost always a challenge. When you step into the spotlight of leadership you immediately become an easy target.

This morning as I started reading the chapter I immediately laughed to myself. We just read at the end of yesterday’s chapter that the Hebrew tribes had finally embarked on their journey through the wilderness to the promised land.  We’re only four verses into journey and people are complaining. Not only are there complaints, but I found it humorous that the author describes the complainers as “rabble” driven by their “cravings.”

Complaints are part of the territory for any leader. Sometimes the complaints are well-founded and point to critical needs that need to be contemplated and addressed by leadership. There are also complaints that arise from disgruntled members whose focus is less about the vision, mission, or good of the whole and more about their individual felt needs and self-centric perceptions. When you’re busy trying to lead a major group effort, these grumblers can be maddeningly frustrating to manage. They drove Moses to such madness that he asked God to kill him rather than have to deal with them. Even God’s reply sounds like an exasperated parent dealing with whining children:

“Tell the people, Consecrate yourselves. Get ready for tomorrow when you’re going to eat meat. You’ve been whining to God, ‘We want meat; give us meat. We had a better life in Egypt.’ God has heard your whining and he’s going to give you meat. You’re going to eat meat. And it’s not just for a day that you’ll eat meat, and not two days, or five or ten or twenty, but for a whole month. You’re going to eat meat until it’s coming out your nostrils. You’re going to be so sick of meat that you’ll throw up at the mere mention of it.”

I’m reminded of whiners and complainers I’ve had the opportunity to manage over the years. I confess that the word “rabble” seems an apt moniker in some cases. In every case, however, I have to recognize that they were/are not evil individuals or bad people. I think today’s chapter is a great object lesson in the fact that whiners and complainers are often individuals discomforted by their own felt needs. These poorly managed inner cravings get expressed as tantrum-like complaints and childish demands that steal leaders’ time, energy, and attention away from more important matters.

This morning I’m encouraged by the truth that Moses, and it appears even God Himself, can reach a point of exasperation. I’m reminded that more than once Jesus expressed exasperation (i.e. “How long shall I put up with you?” Lk 9:41). When I as a leader experience craving-driven whines I am in good company.

I’m also reminded this morning that listening to and addressing complaints is part of every leader’s job description. It comes with the territory and being a good leader means managing complaints, including the craving-driven whines of self-centered rabble. Jesus said if you want to be a good leader you have to be a good servant, even to those can be frustrating and distracting.

God, grant me wisdom, patience and grace in the positions of leadership to which I have been called. Help me to serve well, love well, and lead well – even in my periods of utter exasperation.

featured photo courtesy of Tamara via Flickr

Pre-Scribed Events and Reimagined Narratives

But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy.
2 Kings 5:11 (NIV)

I’ve always had a rather active imagination. As a kid I spent a lot of time in the land of make-believe. I can remember many scenes of war and espionage played out in my back yard and neighborhood. There were all sort of athletic miracles and Rudy-like moments that took place on the neighbor’s basketball court. I can even remember drawing colorful geometric shapes on notebook paper, taping them to the wall in a line and transforming my room in to the command deck of the Starship Enterprise. The final frontier alive and well in the limited space of my bedroom. I was that kid.

As I’ve continued on in my life journey, I’ve come to the realization that my active imagination has some unintended consequences. Because I have this unconscious ability to make up a narrative in my head, I sometimes find myself applying my imagination to real life. I just read the other day how, according to the author of the article, eye-witness testimony has become one of the least reliable forms of evidence in today’s justice system. People testify to what they honestly imagined they saw. I get that. Wendy sometimes corrects my retelling of events as my imagination makes changes and embellishments to the facts over time.

I have also found that I like the stories I tell myself. In fact, if I’m honest, I often like my own imaginative narratives better than the one God seems to be dictating in my current “real life” and present circumstances.

So it was that I found myself uncomfortably identifying with Namaan in today’s chapter. The worldly rich and power leper came to the prophet Elisha for healing. He also came with an imaginative narrative already written in his head how the events of his healing would unfold. Perhaps he’d heard others’ stories, or perhaps someone planted ideas in his head of what Elisha would experience (here I go again, imagining what might have happened). What we do read in this morning’s chapter is that when circumstances didn’t live up to the imagined narrative Namaan had prescribed for himself he became disappointed, frustrated, angry, and finally was utterly dismissive of the instructions Elisha prescribed for healing.

Namaan almost missed out on being healed of his leprosy because it didn’t match the events as he’d imagined them and pre-scribed (think of the word pre-scribed, literally: “scripted ahead of time“) them in his head!

In the quiet of this beautiful summer morning I’m glancing back into the past and honestly taking stock of ways that I have attempted to pre-scribe life along my own journey. I’m also doing my best to genuinely search for ways I may have imaginatively reimagined past events to place myself in a better role, give myself better lines, and alter others’ perceptions of events to place myself in a more favorable light within the scene.

I confess that I do these things more than I’d like to imagine.

[sigh]

Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

 

For Your Consideration

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
Philippians 2:3-4 (NIV)

It’s when I’m hungry and ready to eat that I seem to be most consistently inconsiderate. It’ usually about half-way into my sandwich or meal prep that Wendy looks across the island.

Wendy: “Did you get a plate out for me?”

Tom: Uh…[he stares blankly in shame at her]

It would be really easy for me to make some lame excuse about a man being driven by his stomach. The excuse conveniently pops to mind and sits waiting on my frontal lobe waiting for me make its argument. It would be inappropriate to do so. I was simply inconsiderate of what Wendy was doing in that moment, if Wendy was hungry, what Wendy planned to eat, and if Wendy might also need a plate.

Believe me, this example is just the convenient tip of the iceberg. I have plenty more patterns of inconsideration that I could reference. I am honestly ashamed at just how self-centered I am.

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned being a work in progress, and I meant it. I am literally and actively working on my personal and interpersonal development on an on-going basis. One of my big goals of late has been to work on being more considerate of others, and I’ve been really focused on the word consider-ate. I’m finding that, with me, it takes discipline to proactively set aside my “want” of the moment to consider others persons, thinking about what they need, what they desire, what I can do to help them. It then takes initiative to act on it.

Today, I continue my desire to consider the needs of others ahead of my own silly whim or fleshly appetite of the moment. I’m once again taking a moment to consider the example of Jesus, who considered my spiritual need of salvation as more important than His comfortable position in heaven, and considerately came to die in my place. Please forgive my not being a better and more grateful, tangible reflection of that kind of consideration.

I’m working on it.

 

photo:  tjgehling via  Flickr

A Lesson in Abner

joab assassinates saulMay God deal with Abner, be it ever so severely, if I do not do for David what the Lord promised him on oath and transfer the kingdom from the house of Saul and establish David’s throne over Israel and Judah from Dan to Beersheba.” 2 Samuel 3:9-10 (NIV)

Abner is one of the most fascinating characters in the unfolding drama of the conflict between the houses of Saul and David. Abner was Saul’s general, and second in command. As such, Abner had amassed tremendous power and influence. With Saul’s well known mental health issues, it was likely Abner who provided stability, respect and fear in the chain of command. Upon Saul’s death, it was Abner who quickly propped up the weaker younger brother of Jonathan, Ish-bosheth as his puppet to maintain control of the northern tribes.

Abner served Saul and his family faithfully, but his ultimate service was always about himself.

It struck me as I read this morning that Abner was well aware God had anointed David king of Israel. The way he worded his threat to Ish-bosheth it would seem he even believed that David’s ascent to the throne was a divine oath. Yet, Abner spent two decades fighting faithfully for the house of Saul because that was where his bread was buttered.

Today’s chapter gives us a clear picture of Abner’s character. Abner seems to have enjoyed the fruits of his position. Now we see that he so disrespected his former master and the son of Saul made his political marionette, that he felt it his right to feast on the forbidden fruit of his Saul’s harem. After all, who was going to stop him? When Ish-bosheth finds the guts to stand up to Abner and call him to account, Abner does what all power brokers do: he makes a power play. He plays the powerful trump card he’s been holding and vows to deliver the northern tribes to David wrapped with a bow.

Abner is Judas. The inner-circle confidant who is secretly pilfering things for himself, and willing to betray his master if it suits his personal agenda. Abner is Iago, the 2nd in command whom the commander shouldn’t trust. Abner is the one who knows God’s truth, but never submits to it unless it happens to dovetail with his duplicitous purposes.

Today, I’m also recognizing the Abner in me. David wrote in the lyric of one of his songs: “search me God…and see if there is any offensive way in me.” I’m kind of feeling that same spirit this morning as I mull over the person of Abner. I can see in my own life the perpendicular lines of God’s way and my way. I am guilty of being duplicitous, too. It could be said that I have served God for personal ends.

On this my 48th birthday, I am reminded by today’s chapter of the difference between the man I desire to be, and the man I sometimes prove to be by my own words and actions. I’m reminded that after 48 years I have still not arrived. I am reminded that I’m still in process. God, examine my heart – and help me be less like Abner and more a man after your own heart.

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Chapter-a-Day John 13

 

Peter's Denial by Rembrandt, 1660. Jesus is sh...
Peter's Denial by Rembrandt, 1660. Jesus is shown in the upper right hand corner, his hands bound behind him, turning to look at Peter. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Simon Peter asked, “Lord, where are you going?”
And Jesus replied, “You can’t go with me now, but you will follow me later.”
“But why can’t I come now, Lord?” he asked. “I’m ready to die for you.”
Jesus answered, “Die for me? I tell you the truth, Peter—before the rooster crows tomorrow morning, you will deny three times that you even know me.
John 13:36-38 (NLT) 


It is Holy Week as I write this, the day before Maundy (Sorrowful) Thursday. How appropriate for our chapter-a-day journey to bring us to the events of that night as all who follow after Jesus remember them in our annual pilgrimage through the calendar year.

The truth is, as I sit in the darkness before dawn and read about Judas, and read about Peter, I want to distance myself from them.

“Who is it that will betray you? I would never. Not me. I would never deny you. I’d die for you!” I hear my own spirit in the words of Jesus closest friends. “Not me. I’d never…”

But, then I hear the rooster crowing in my own conscience. I do it every day. I betray Him with each willfully sinful thought, and word, and act. I deny Him with  each self-centered motive. That’s the point. Not that we would be just like Judas and Peter if we were there then, but that we are just like Judas and Peter here and now. That’s why Jesus went to the cross. Not just because of Judas’ kiss, but also because of mine.

Chapter-a-Day Deuteronomy 9

Lucas Cranach the Elder: Law and Grace, Gotha ...
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Know this and don’t ever forget it: It’s not because of any good that you’ve done that God is giving you this good land to own. Deuteronomy 9:6 (MSG)

Thus far in life’s journey, I have come to believe that the single-most misunderstood of spiritual truths is that of God’s grace (grace: unmerited favor). Time and time again God’s Message reminds me that His blessing and salvation are gracious gifts made possible by His own love and sacrificial act. I have nothing to do with it other than to truly believe.

And yet, my heart and mind always want to wander back to the perception of God being a stingy behavioral accountant sitting in heaven with his tally sheet of good and bad things I’ve thought, said, or done. In practice, I reduce God to some sort of omniscient Santa who will fill my day with presents or lumps of coal depending on how my behavioral scale is tipping today.

When God speaks to the children of Israel in today’s chapter, He is also speaking right to me: “Tom, remember this and don’t ever forget. Salvation and every blessing you experience have zip to do with you or what you’ve done. It’s not about you.”

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Chapter-a-Day Matthew 26

That is when one of the Twelve, the one named Judas Iscariot, went to the cabal of high priests and said, “What will you give me if I hand him over to you?” They settled on thirty silver pieces. He began looking for just the right moment to hand him over. Matthew 26:14-16 (MSG)

I saw an article last week asking whether Judas Iscariot was in heaven or hell. I didn’t read it. It’s the kind of article that whips up emotions, core beliefs and drives a heated arguments. The publisher loves this, of course, because the buzz gets people reading and responding to the article for which there is really no definitive answer (on this side of eternity) so the paper can’t be faulted for taking the wrong side. It’s a silly argument from my point of view as I’ve come to believe that God’s Judgment Seat is a huge chair, and my butt isn’t that big.

Nevertheless, the question of why Judas betrayed Jesus is one I’m p0ndering this morning as I read the chapter. There were spiritual forces at work. The evil one was certainly not absent. Still, my experience is that there are usually plenty of pre-existing circumstances that make room for the enemy’s presence in a person’s heart. So, this morning I’ve been sketching out a little character study of Judas.

As I journey through the accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching, I constantly run across examples of an ongoing argument among his disciples. Who was greatest? Who was least? Who was going to have a better reward and more honorable position in eternity? There was obviously an inner circle of followers in whom Jesus’ confided and Judas was definitely not one of the inner circle. How badly did this gnaw at Judas? Did the seeds of envy and jealousy help give rise to the fruit of betrayal?

Judas was in charge of the team’s finances. Pretty important position. It was also told that Judas used the position for his own personal gain. I find it interesting that Judas’ betrayal comes immediately after Mary anoints Jesus with an extravagantly expensive perfumed oil.  Had that oil been donated and sold, Judas would have stood to profit from the exchange. Was greed worming its way around his heart, as well? How much did that play a part in tipping the scales from follower to traitor?

Judas betrayal also came at the culmination of an intense amount of conflict. Jesus created a riot when he overturned the moneychangers’ tables at the beginning of the week. There had been an escalating tone to the debate and war of words between the religious leaders and Jesus. Besides, the vision of the disciples riding the gravy train to some glorious take-over and world domination as Jesus ascended a throne in Jerusalem and kicked the Romans out was quickly getting dashed to pieces. The proverbial handwriting was on the wall. A shrewd man could see that the religious leaders would need to kill Jesus to calm the storm he was whipping up against them and to preserve their hold on political power.Besides, Jesus had increasingly been talking about the end of the world and filling his teaching with talk of his death. He was sounding like a mad man, not a king. The future for Jesus’ followers was quickly looking bleak. The pragmatic choice was to throw your lot in with the religious leaders and make enough money to get a new start when the dust settled. In retrospect, for the person concerned with self preservation, it was a simple choice.

Envy, jealousy, greed, and self-centered pragmatism. Those are the core character qualities that I see leading Judas to his decision to betray Jesus. It’s easy to roll my eyes in contempt and shake my head in disbelief at the mention of Judas’ name. However, each and every one of the character qualities which led to his actions are very present in my own heart and life. If you’d like a list of examples, I can give you an earful over coffee. The truth is, I’m not that different than Judas. This is why I’m increasingly reticent slide my rear end onto any kind of seat of judgment.

There, but for the grace of God, go I.

Lord, have mercy on me.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and feargal

Chapter-a-Day Romans 3

 For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. Romans 3:20a (NLT)

It’s been a tough year for my teams. Last January my favorite team, the Vikings tragically missed going to the Super Bowl (once again). Then the boys of summer let me down as the Cubbies fells far short of expectation and finished the season in disappointing fashion. Even the local boys, the I-Cubs, missed the post season when they lost the last game of their season. [sigh]

As a kid, I used to think that my behavior influenced whether my team won or lost. If I was a good kid and made God happy, then maybe God would let the Vikings win on Sunday. One little trip up on my part and a victory was in jeopardy. I was pretty sure three of the Vikings four Super Bowl losses were my fault.

Along the journey, I’ve come to recognize two great lies that trip people up:

  1. God could never forgive me for all the bad things I’ve done.
  2. If I do enough “good” to balance out all the “bad” I’ve done, perhaps I can tip the scales in my favor and God will accept me.

These lies burrow and root themselves deep within the soil of our hearts, but I realize now that the focus of both of these lies is me. I’m the center. My sin is so great. I am so awful. But if I can do better, then I can be “good enough.” My sin is so great that it affects the outcome of the football game for my favorite team, or whether I get that job, or whether that girl will go out with me, or if I win the lottery (notice the I, I, my, me).

The more entrenched in these self-centered lies, the harder it is to hear God’s good news:

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, with undeserved kindness, declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he declares sinners to be right in his sight when they believe in Jesus. Romans 3:23-26

Silly me. The Vikings winning or losing has nothing to do with me. Getting into heaven has nothing to do with me, either. Being right with God is not about me and what I’ve done. Being right with God has everything to do with Jesus and what He did for me. By placing my faith in what Jesus did for me, I’m made right with God.

As for being a fan of the Vikings and the Cubs, that takes a lot of faith, too.