Tag Archives: Struggle

Not Without Struggle

Not Without Struggle (CaD James 1) Wayfarer

Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
James 1:4 (NIV)

Just yesterday I returned home from a seven day road trip. Part work, part personal, and part sabbatical, I logged more that fifty hours behind the wheel and just shy of 3,000 miles. It felt good to arrive home yesterday, like I’d reached a kind of finish line, a journey’s end.

Journey has always been the core metaphor of this blog. A wayfarer is one who is on a journey, and in these posts I write about my life journey, my spiritual journey, and this chapter-a-day journey.

On a journey, one moves and progresses towards a destination.

On both my life journey and my spiritual journey, my progress is measured, not by distance, but by maturity, wisdom, and the yield of love produced in my spirit, intentions, thoughts, words, and actions along with love’s by-products of joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control.

On Wednesday of this past week, I was in Richmond, Virginia. I took the opportunity to visit the U.S. Civil War Museum located there. As is a ritual for Wendy and me, I picked up a couple of magnets to mark and memorialize the visit on the fridge back home. One of the magnets is a quote:

“Without struggle, there is no progress.”

Frederick Douglass

When reading James’ letter, I’ve found it beneficial to consider the context in which he wrote it. It was a time of intense struggle. James was not written by James, the disciple of Jesus, but by James the half-brother of Jesus who became leader of the Jesus Movement in Jerusalem. The followers of Jesus are facing persecution and many have fled the persecution and are living in other places. James chooses to remain and continue the work of Jesus.

James leadership position as a follower of Jesus in Jerusalem puts him in direct conflict with the same religious aristocracy that put Jesus to death, put Stephen to death, and sent Saul hunting down Jesus’ followers. Not long after penning this letter, James will be killed by them, as well. He writes this letter to encourage Jesus’ followers scattered to the four winds and fleeing persecution. He is writing to encourage followers of Jesus to persevere amidst the difficult struggles they faced as wayfarers on journeys of exile.

In the first chapter, James reminds these struggling wayfarers of the goal.

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

The goal is maturity and wholeness which are produced through persevering in the struggle of many kinds of trials and tests of faith.

Without struggle, there is no progress towards maturity and completeness.

It feels good to be sitting in the quiet of my office this morning. I find myself thinking about “trials of many kinds” through which I have persevered. My mind flashes back to people I met and spent time with on my journey last week. Each one is facing their own struggles and trials on their respective journeys. Each one is making progress. I was blessed by my time with each of them.

I’m reminded this morning as I begin a new work week. This is a journey. Today I progress toward my destination, but not without struggle.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Exilic Reflections

Exilic Reflections (CaD Ps 107) Wayfarer

Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he delivered them from their distress.

Psalm 107:6 (NIV)

As I’ve been mulling over the spiritual milestones I’ve shared about recently, I have been looking back at my life journey of 20,000+ days and my spiritual journey of 40 years. There have been some amazing moments, some stretches of prosperity on multiple levels, and then there have been some seasons of soul-stretching adversity. As I recount the peaks and valleys and where they’ve brought me, it occurs to me that the latter has been more critical in my spiritual growth. And, very often the former follows. The valleys of life prune me spiritually, and when I eventually reach the high places they are particularly fruitful.

“Exile” is one of the grand themes of the Great Story. Some scholars have gone so far as to say that it is the primary theme that occurs over and over again, beginning with Adam and Eve being exiled from the Garden and their intimate relationship with the Creator. The Hebrews living in bondage and exile in Egypt, then later being exiled and scattered by the Babylonian and Assyrian empires. The crux of the Great Story is Jesus leaving heaven to be exiled here as one of us to make a way for us to escape our own earthly exile and be at home in eternity. And, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Exile is a theme in the stories of Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, Ruth, Esther, Daniel, Nehemiah, Mary, Joseph, John the Baptist, Jesus, John, and Paul.

All good stories are a reflection of the Great Story, and I typically find the theme of exile in every major human epic.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 107, kicks off the fifth and final “Book” of Hebrew Song lyrics we know as the Psalms. Psalm 107 is another liturgical song, most likely written to be sung during one of the Hebrew religious festivals. Most scholars agree that it was penned during the period of time when the Hebrews returned from Babylonian exile, rebuilt Jerusalem and God’s temple there. Having come through years of captivity and exile, they have ascended Mount Zion to worship, reflect on their experiences, and give thanks.

The song lyrics introduce different exilic experiences: wandering in the desert, living in darkness, struggling through captivity and forced labor, bitter consequences of foolish choices, sickness and disease, and being lost and rudderless on the stormy seas. In each of the stanzas the description of exilic struggle leads to the phrase: “Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble.” This is followed by God’s salvation, deliverance, redemption, and restoration. Each stanza ends calling the listener to gratitude and praise.

In the quiet this morning, I’m seeing the pattern. Out of darkness into the light. Up from the valley to the mountaintop. Return from exilic adversity to the blessing of finding myself safe at home. This is the Great Story. It’s life’s story. It’s my story, too.

As I meditate on the lyrics of Psalm 107 and look back on my journey, I’m reminded that there is purpose in the painful stretches. Perseverance has always paid off. I have always been able to cry out to the Lord in my troubles. There have always been better stretches ahead.

Note: A new message has been posted to my Messages Page.

“Consider it Joy” (Again)

"Consider it Joy" (Again) [CaD Ps 86] Wayfarer

Bring joy to your servant, Lord,
    for I put my trust in you.

Psalm 86:4 (NIV)

For centuries, followers of Jesus around the world have annually recognized different seasons of the calendar year as they relate to celebrated holidays (or Holy Days) of the faith. We are currently in a season called Advent, in which followers of Jesus prepare hearts and minds to celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas.

One of the metaphors that followers use in this season is the advent candle. Each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, and then on Christmas Eve, candles are lit reminding us that with Jesus’ birth the “Light” of heaven had come to earth. Each of the five candles represents a theme. This past Sunday was the “Joy” candle. “Joy,” as it was described among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers on Sunday is the soul’s deep happiness, contentment, and sense of well-being which is experienced regardless of circumstances.

Joy has a specific meaning for Wendy and me. Over the years I have shared in these posts about our journey through the valley of infertility. Joy was something Wendy and I found in that journey, and not a Christmas goes by without being reminded of the story of Elizabeth’s miraculous deliverance from barrenness, Mary’s miraculous conception, and of course Jesus’ humble birth. Each year I am reminded of the verse tatted on Wendy’s forearm, where it can be a constant visual reminder for both of us:

“Consider it joy when you encounter various trials…” (James 1:2)

She and I learned that sometimes joy must be consciously considered, sought after, and found as one finds buried spiritual treasure. Finding joy requires surrendering the momentary, circumstantial pain in order to seek something deeper; We reach for joy which is always “further up and further in.” The joy of Christmas is found despite the often unconsidered circumstances that stare me right in the face: a socially outcast little girl, her scandalous teen pregnancy, her equally outcast husband, and the exilic, compulsory, uncomfortable journey to a strange town. The humility of having nowhere to stay, the realities of childbirth, not in a luxurious modern birthing suite surrounded by talented caregivers, but alone in a dirty barn. I sing Joy to the World but only because I’m looking back with 20-20 hindsight at the larger story, knowing where it led.

As I read today’s chapter, Psalm 86, I was a few verses in before it struck me that it’s the first song of David I’ve encountered in Book III of the psalms. The lyrics are so personal. They are coming from deep in David’s heart. It’s another song of lament which was written at a time of personal distress. What fascinated me is that David doesn’t share any real specifics about his personal distress until the very last stanza. The song is front-loaded with David’s faith, hope, and trust. He dwells on God’s goodness, faithfulness, love, and deliverance. Only then does he describe his circumstances in light of these things.

Today’s psalm is David’s version of “Consider it joy.” And how many of his songs contain that theme? “Consider it joy” is not a one-and-done deal. It’s a perpetually repeated exercise along my spiritual journey.

It often amazes me how this chapter-a-day journey leads me right to the thing I need to read on the day I need to read it. Like David, I’ll spare you the specifics. Suffice it to say that there are days when I have to be reminded, once again, to consider joy: Surrendering the circumstances of that day in order to reach further up and further in to take hold of it.

The “How Long?” Blues

The "How Long?" Blues (CaD Ps 13) Wayfarer

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?

Psalm 13:1 (NRSVCE)

Along my journey, I have come to observe that there is a natural ebb and flow to life. It’s like the Sage of Ecclesiastes pointed out. Time and seasons for everything. There are times of plenty, and times of want. There are times when everything seems to be going my way, and times when every circumstance seems stacked against me.

Back in Psalm 11, David penned that “the upright behold [God’s] face” and I mentioned in my post that day that the notion of seeing a King’s face was a metaphor in the ancient Near East which meant that you had the king’s attention and favor. David used the metaphor to close that psalm with the faithful assurance that God would come through.

What a stark contrast. In today’s Psalm David begins by asking God how long he will hide his face from David. If holding the King’s face is his favor, then the King hiding his face means just the opposite. Today’s psalm seems to be David’s cry to God during one of those stretches of the journey when nothing is going right.

The contrasting metaphor remind me of the way I thought of life as a child. If things seemed to be be going my way, then I assumed that I had been good and God was blessing me. When things weren’t going well then I assumed I had done something wrong and God was punishing me. It took me a long time to see what a self-centered perspective that really was, as if everything in life is about me. Jesus said that if I want to find Life then I have to lose it, including the surrender of a childish notion that I am at the root of every circumstance.

Back in Psalm 7, I pointed out that David was singing the “Why Me?” Blues. Today’s song can just as easily be entitled the “How Long?” Blues. And, I think that’s the point as I meditate on it this morning. What makes the blues such a powerful music genre is that it resonates with and expresses the cries of my heart when life’s road gets rough, as it does for all of us.

Along the way, I’ve learned that the road is going to have its ups and its downs. There are going to be good times and bad. It may not be about me, but it’s certainly for me if I’m willing to learn what each stretch of the journey has to teach me about faith, gratitude, perseverance, joy, praise, growth, humility, blessing, trust, and maturity. And, when the road seems like a hard slog and my petulant inner child feels like God has hidden His face from me, I can always sing the “How Long?” Blues in which David begins with lament but ends with a refrain of trust and a reminder of God’s goodness despite the struggle.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Blind Spots (and Parenting)

I have the blessing this weekend of spending time with a friend and his son. It’s a rite-of-passage weekend. It is a time to empower, launch, and let go. Every parent has his or her blind spots, but I am so thankful for those who are willing to confess this, address it, and work to shed Light on the blind spots even after their children are launched. This post about King David’s parenting “blind spots” has had a lot of traffic in the five years since I first published it. I’m sowing it out there again today, and praying for good soil.

When King David heard of all these things, he became very angry, but he would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him, for he was his firstborn.
2 Samuel 13:21 (NSRV)

David was a great warrior, a great general, and a great leader of men. Evidence leads me to believe that he was not, however, a great husband or father. As we’ve read David’s story he has slowly been amassing wives like the spoils of war and the result was many children. But, an army of children do not an army make. A family system and the complex relationships between birth order and gender can be difficult enough for a monogamous, nuclear family. I can’t imagine the exponential complexities that emerge when you have eight wives, ten concubines and children with most all of them.

As I read through these chapters I’ve noticed that we never see David telling his children “no” nor do we see him discipline them for their behavior. David appears to have even had a reputation among his offspring of not refusing their requests. David’s daughter, Tamar, tells her half brother Amnon that if he simply asks Dad she’s sure he’ll let them get married. When Amnon rapes Tamar instead and then turns her away we hear of David’s anger, but he doesn’t do anything about disciplining his beloved firstborn son. When Tamar’s full brother Absalom plots to kill their half brother Amnon in revenge, Absalom goes to David and presses good ol’ dad until David relents and sends all the brothers on Absalom’s little fratricidal sheep-shearing retreat.

David has a blind spot. He can lead an army to endless victories but his record as leader of a family is a tragic string of failures and defeats.

I cannot point at David without three fingers pointing back at me. We all have our blind spots. Our greatest strengths have their corollary weaknesses. We cannot escape this reality, but we can escape being enslaved to it. What we can do is be honest about our blind spots. We can choose to shine a light on our time and attention to addressing them. We can surround ourselves with others who will graciously help us see them, work through them, and who will patiently love us as we do.

Today’s chapter seems perfectly timed as I’ve been made painfully aware of a blind spot in my life. If you’re reading this, and are a person who prays, please say a prayer for me as I address it.

Grappling With “Never”

“And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.” Luke 1:20 (NIV)

“I don’t know what to with never,” Wendy confessed to me one afternoon.

There are some moments in this life journey that are etched indelibly in my brain’s memory bank, and this is one of them. When the two of us were married Wendy inherited two teenaged daughters. Still, we had always desired to have a child together. After multiple surgeries and what seemed like endless months of fruitless attempts to conceive, Wendy’s admission of fear as we stood silently in our despair on the back porch felt like a giant weight on our souls.

The story of John the Baptist’s parents in today’s chapter holds a special place in my heart. There is so much happening in the subtext of Zechariah’s conversation with the angel Gabriel that is completely lost on any reader who has not walked through the long, depressing, desolate path of infertility.

A few of observations:

  • I find it ironic that Dr. Luke diagnoses Zech and Liz’s infertility as “Elizabeth was unable to conceive.” Perhaps there’s more to this story than is told. Nevertheless, having walked this journey I know that it’s also possible the low sperm count or poor motility were the culprits of their childlessness. Of course, this medical knowledge was not available in their day, but it makes me sad that Elizabeth got the blame.
  • I’ve been digging into the theme of exile on this chapter-a-day journey over the past months. The truth is that Elizabeth and her husband were in a personal exile of their own. When you are walking the path of infertility you realize that the vast majority of people don’t understand and it’s usually emotionally painful when they try. Furthermore, you’re not sure you want to talk to those who’ve been through it themselves. Those who walked the path and ultimately conceived are just a depressing reminder that it hasn’t worked for you. Those who never conceived are a reminder that “never” is a possibility which you don’t want to face and don’t know what to do with (a la Wendy’s confession). Infertility can be horrifically isolating for the couple going through it.
  • When the angel tells Zech “Your prayer has been answered.” My husband’s heart shoots back with a cynical “Which one?” If Zech’s heart was like mine, then there’s a section of it calloused over from month-after-month, year-after-year of fervent, unanswered prayers and wiping away his wife’s river of tears.
  • When Zech asks Gabriel “How can I be sure of this?” he is, once again, being defensive and protective of the hearts of both his wife and his own. Infertility is a vicious cycle of summoning faith, raising hopes, and having them dashed again and again and again and again. The last thing the elderly husband wants to do is put his wife through it one more time.

It’s easy for the casual reader to point the finger at Zech’s lack of faith. I’m sure many Jesus followers will hear messages this Advent season comparing Mary’s simple acceptance of Gabriel’s message to Zech’s rather obvious doubt. My heart goes out to the dude. He’s been made the Steve Bartman of the Christmas story for two thousand years, but I get where he’s coming from.

In the quiet this morning I find myself contemplating the long-term effects that disappointment and unanswered prayer can have on one’s spirit. As for what to do with “never,” Wendy and I worked through it together with God. We discovered, and continue to discover, deep lessons about joy, grief, faith, perseverance, character, maturity, and hope. At the same time, there is a lingering sadness that rears itself unexpectedly at odd times, which in turn pushes me back to the lessons already learned. I plumb their depths once more.

Still, if Gabriel showed up in my office this morning and told me Wendy was going to have a baby, I totally believe that the subtext of my reaction would land somewhere between sarcastic and cynical.

Zechariah would understand.

Weathering the Storms

So he said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.'”
Zechariah 4:6 (NIV)

Along my life’s journey, I’ve come to recognize that there are particular stretches of the trek when trouble, trial, and trepidation seem to close in on every side like a perfect storm. You can’t escape it. You can’t plan for it. They just happen. The real question is, have I prepared myself, spiritually, to weather such storms?

This past week my siblings and I moved our parents into an assisted living facility. My dad has been in the hospital for the past three weeks. Diagnosed with a nasty bacterial infection that only complicates his cancer and cardiac issues, we need to get him into a skilled-care facility for about six-weeks of IV antibiotics. Meanwhile, our mother, in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s, is now struggling with the realities of a new environment, a whole host of unknowns to confuse her, and the loss of my father’s constant presence and protection. This, on top of what was already a dizzying travel schedule, seasonal pressures from work, and a daughter getting married half-way across the country in a few weeks. Oh, and I’m now into the second week of a nasty head and chest cold that has zapped much of my energy and doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon.

“I don’t understand how you are doing all of this” Wendy said to me a couple of times this week amidst much needed empathetic and medicinal hugs.

In today’s chapter, Zechariah records the fifth vision of encouragement he has for the exiles who are seeking to restore Jerusalem and the Temple. This vision is centered on Zerubbabel, the appointed Governor who is tasked with leading the daunting project from a political perspective. It is not an easy task. He is subject to a pagan Persian Emporer. He is surrounded by enemies on all sides who want him to fail. He is leading people who are divided regarding whether this is even a worthwhile project to pursue. Then there is the sheer magnitude of the task.

God’s word to the overwhelmed leader:

‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.

I have come to the conclusion that I cannot keep the storms of life from pouring down upon me. That’s just part of the journey. I can, however, prepare myself to weather the storm in healthy ways.

First, I recognize that I am not alone in this. If I truly believe what I say that I believe, then God is always present from which to draw upon the spiritual resources I need. And, I am surrounded by a community of family and friends for camaraderie and support.

Second, I try to stay present in each moment and focus only on what that moment requires. I can’t do anything about the past. It’s useless for me to waste time and energy on the “if only’s” and “we should have’s.” Likewise, Jesus reminds us: “Tomorrow has enough worries of its own.” What do I need to decide or accomplish on this day, in this particular moment?

Third, I choose small ways to care for myself. Choosing not to worry about a task that isn’t a priority right now. Eating a healthy meal, getting a good night’s sleep, consciously noting all of the blessings I have despite the circumstances, taking a short nap, slipping in a quick ten-minute walk around the hospital floor, or sneaking away for a few minutes of solitude and prayer in a quiet place. I’m reminded that Jesus regularly slipped away by Himself. If I’m not caring for myself, I’m not going to well at caring for others and the needs of the moment.

Which is why I find myself in the quiet this morning. I have a lot on the task list today as I prepare for another week on the road. But, I needed the same reminder God gave Zerubbabel this morning. My might and strength only go so far. It’s the infinite resources of God’s Spirit that I require in the perfect storm raging around me. It is the recalibration of mind and heart that I need on this Monday morning.

And now, it’s time to move on to what this next moment requires.

Have a good week, my friend.

“…Don’t Scare Worth a Damn.”

 Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building.
Ezra 4:4 (NIV)

I’m on the road this week for business. I rarely sleep well when I’m on the road. My brain is buzzing from long days of meetings with our client and it is often hard for me to shut down my brain long enough to sleep. I have found that one of the things that help me sleep is to have something familiar playing quietly near me like a favorite audiobook or documentary. Last night, it was Ken Burns’ documentary, The Civil War, that accompanied me to my dreams.

As I woke this morning the nine-part documentary was still playing as it told of how Ulysses S. Grant was able to finally defeat the Confederate General, Robert E. Lee. Lee had successfully defeated a long list of Union generals before Grant. Lee’s army was severely outnumbered and his resolute strategy was to discourage the Union’s resolve to wage war. It was working. When Lee won a battle, the Union’s response had always been to retreat. When Grant lost a battle, however, he refused to retreat. Grant continued to march his army forward no matter the cost or casualties. As one of his soldiers said, “Ulysses don’t scare worth a damn.”

I then read today’s chapter. The Hebrew exiles have begun construction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the repair of the walls. Their regional enemies, however, fear a rebuilt and powerful Jerusalem. So, they set out to thwart the rebuilding. Their strategy? Much like Robert E. Lee, they set out to discourage the Hebrews and break their resolve to rebuild.

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that God’s Message tells me, as a follower of Jesus, I am engaged in a Level Four spiritual struggle. With the resurrection of Jesus, my enemy’s defeat is made certain, but it did not break my enemy’s resolve. Along my life journey, I have found that the enemy’s strategy is basically the same as Lee’s and the same as the Hebrews’ neighbors in today’s chapter. The enemy wants to discourage me, to diminish my faith and break my resolve to trust and obey the One I follow.

Will I retreat like a long list of Union Generals who always backed down despite overwhelming odds in their favor? Or, will I continue to march forward in the face of an enemy who continually works to discourage me from that resolve?

As I ponder this morning, I can’t help but desire that it would be said of me in the spiritual realm: “That Tom Vander Well. He don’t scare worth a damn.”

Fail, Rinse, and Repeat

Now when all this was finished, all Israel who were present went out to the cities of Judah and broke down the pillars, hewed down the sacred poles, and pulled down the high places and the altars throughout all Judah and Benjamin, and in Ephraim and Manasseh, until they had destroyed them all.
2 Chronicles 31:1 (NRSVCE)

I decided to become a follower of Jesus when I was a young man. As I began to walk this new journey there were a number of behavioral patterns in my life that I knew I needed to change. There were thoughts, words, and behaviors that were incongruent with the teachings of Jesus. Just like last week’s post I felt a certain internal conviction that I needed to “carry out the filth from the holy place.”

Some of these behavioral patterns were easy to remedy. I simply willed myself to behave differently and it happened. Other behavioral patterns weren’t so easily changed. For years I had fed certain natural appetites in unhealthy ways. These behaviors gave certain levels of comfort, pleasure, and masked some deep soul wounds in ways I didn’t even fathom. With the best of intentions I committed myself to changing the behavior only to find myself, in short order, back doing the same thing I vowed I wouldn’t do anymore.

In today’s chapter we read about the aftermath of King Hezekiah’s homecoming Passover festival. He’d invited all the Hebrew people scattered in the region to return to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover feast which commemorated God delivering the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery. It was a huge success. Revival broke out. The people were humbled and recommitted themselves to the Lord. They repented of their idolatry and went out to tear down their pagan idols. They were going to change their ways!

But wait a minute. Haven’t we read this somewhere before? The people repented of their idolatry during the reign of Asa back in chapter 15. And again during the reign of Jehoshaphat in chapter 19. And again during the reign of Joash in chapter 24. Each time they repented, vowed to give up their idols and follow God. Then they find themselves right back in their idolatrous ways.

Conviction. Repentance. Commitment. Obedience. Temptation. Disobedience.

Rinse, and repeat.

Oh man, do I get that. Along my journey I’ve battled my own demons in the form of appetites out of control. I’ve found myself cycling around and around and around with these unhealthy thoughts, words, actions, and relationships. I feel like a total failure. Here I am again. Ugh.

Looking back now from almost 40 years in the journey here’s what I’ve learned:

  • The cycle is a natural part of the journey. There are lessons to be learned in it. There are lessons that can only be learned in the on-going struggle against our own out-of-control appetites.
  • The cyclical journey and on-going struggle led me on a long slog to dig deeper (multiple counselors and mentors), search farther (reading, studying, friends, accountability, support groups), and to become more brutally honest with myself about my own weaknesses.
  • Plumbing the depths of my depravity led to a deeper understanding of, and experience with, God’s grace and mercy.
  • Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you’re truly ready to change.
  • With each failure, each renewed commitment, and each return to the path of repentance it was hard to see that I was getting anywhere at all but in hindsight I can see that this wayfaring pilgrim was making slow progress towards addressing the core issues that lay beneath my surface behaviors.

This morning I’m recognizing that the people of ancient Judah were a macrocosm of the human struggle against our human weaknesses and out-of-control appetites. Another call to repentance, another revival, another turn away from what was tripping them up. Somehow I don’t think this is the last time. The cycle of struggle was pointing them and me to a very important truth. I can’t do it on my own.

I need a Savior.

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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.