Tag Archives: System

Part of the Family

“The following came up from the towns of Tel Melah, Tel Harsha, Kerub, Addon and Immer, but they could not show that their families were descended from Israel….”
Nehemiah 7:61 (NIV)

A few years ago, I signed up on a site called WikiTree. It is a free online effort to create one massive family tree. The volunteers at WikiTree are not just trying to find their family, but to connect their family to all other families in the realization that, ultimately, we all came from the same woman.

I’ve dabbled in my family’s history for decades. The reality is that I come from pretty common, everyday people. Carpenters, farmers, and poor immigrants who left for the new world to make a better life for themselves and their descendants. That’s my lineage.

WikiTree, however, has a feature in which you can discover how you are connected to various historical people. It’s not a direct blood relationship, but because it’s one massive global family tree you begin to realize that through marriage connections and sibling connections there aren’t that many degrees of separation between you and royalty. For example, there are only 18 degrees of separation between me and King Henry VIII:

In today’s chapter, Nehemiah goes to great lengths to record the returning exiles. Interestingly, he doesn’t do it by name but by families and genealogical records. In the Hebrew system, your family of record was a huge deal. Your career and your social standing had everything to do with your family tree. You’ll notice that some of the exiles were labeled as descendants of “the servants of King Solomon.” Those who had no genealogical record are found at the bottom of Nehemiah’s list. They were the poor dregs.

One of the paradigms that Jesus came to radically change was this genealogical system. In the system that Jesus established, a person’s standing in this temporal, Level 3 world was of no value at all. In the radically new paradigm, Jesus established “the first will be last and the last will be first.” In the introduction of his Jesus biography, the disciple John writes:

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.

John 1:12

For those in the entrenched Hebrew family system of genealogical records and social status, this turned the systemic realities of their society upside down. And, from a spiritual perspective, it’s absolutely life-changing. Anyone, anyone, anyone, anyone can be a child of God, a member of the family, and a partaker of the divine inheritance through simple faith in Jesus. No more pecking order. In fact, interestingly enough, if you look at the family records of Jesus listed in Matthew and Luke you’ll find both Jews and Gentiles, men and women, kings and prostitutes. It’s like a word picture of the spiritual family Jesus came to introduce us to.

In the quiet this morning, I am mulling over that which WikiTree regularly reminds me: We’re all connected. I think that Jesus, the Author of Creation, understood that more than anyone. I’m also pondering on the spiritual, systemic paradigms that I so easily forget and am so quick to corrupt:

“Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.”

Jesus
A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Labor for the Good of the Whole

The next section was repaired by the men of Tekoa, but their nobles would not put their shoulders to the work under their supervisors.
Nehemiah 3:5 (NIV)

Over the years I’ve come to learn that there are three issues that create more marital issues than any other: money, sex, and the division of labor. Each of these marital land mines contains a potentially explosive form of relational power and/or control that can be exhibited in both passivity and aggression. I have found that most couples somewhat expect the conflicts around money and sex, but the division of labor often catches them by surprise.

How we go about dividing roles and responsibilities for the everyday tasks of life together can be as unique as the individuals involved. I’ve found that there are all sorts of elements that factor into both the conflicts and the resolutions including history (how it was modeled in our homes growing up), personalities (and the respective concern with order and detail), giftedness (the ability or lack of ability to do certain things well), interest (one person’s desire/need to have things done a certain way), character (the willingness of an individual to work for the good of the whole), and spirit (the willingness to submit my needs/desires for the sake of my partner).

In today’s chapter, Nehemiah describes all of those who pitched in to help repair the walls of Jerusalem. Different individuals and groups took responsibility for certain sections of the wall that surrounded the city. What stood out in his list is the one group of “nobles” (the Hebrew word used here means “magnificent” or “mighty”) who refused and were unwilling to throw their back into the manual labor. Nehemiah’s calling them out points to an issue of character. The nobles of Tekoa appear to have been unwilling to work.

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking about the work required for the success of a marriage, a home, a team, a business, and/or a community. I’ve observed on many levels that when an individual and/or group refuse (or are not required) to get their hands dirty in the grunt work required for the well-being and success of the whole, then a chain reaction of issues are likely to be set of which will strain the system and may even threaten to destroy it.

I am reminded of the words of King David to his son, Solomon, whom his father tasked with the construction of the temple that the exiles we’re reading about rebuilt. It’s become a life verse for me:

“Be strong, and courageous, and do the work.”

King David (1 Chronicles 28:20)

Which reminds me. I have work to do. And, I imagine you do too. All the best to you in your labor this day, my friend.

Getting Direction and Flow Right

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility….
Ephesians 2:14 (NIV)

It’s quiet in my home office this morning. A steady rain is falling and resonating off the roof and window as I sip my coffee. Today marks the end of my 53rd year on this life journey which has me in a particularly introspective mood as I mull over today’s chapter.

For the past year our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been studying the book of Acts. In this chapter-a-day journey I’ve been making my way through the letters of Paul in, more-or-less, chronological order. As a twenty-first century westerner, I’ve come to accept that it is virtually impossible for me to understand the racial, social, and religious division that existed among the first century believers. There was a giant, black-and-white dividing line between those of Jewish heritage and non-Jewish heritage. For centuries they had lived highly segregated lives. Now they were suddenly trying to live together as followers of Jesus.

The conflict within those early groups of Jesus’ followers was very real, and often intense. It was the reason for the first major “Council” of leaders of the Jesus Movement (Acts 15). Most local gatherings struggled with the division. I believe the political divide in our current era provides a hint of the divisive emotions percolating within the two groups, but I believe even that parallel falls short of the divide that Paul is addressing.

In today’s chapter Paul continues to focus his readers on the eternal, cosmic, Level Four spiritual realities in which both Jewish believer and non-Jewish believer stand on common and equal footing. All knew and experienced lack of control with our human appetites (lust, greed, pride, sloth, anger, and etc.). All had been saved by grace (unearned merit) through faith, not in who they were or what they had done to earn God’s favor, but in what Jesus had done on the cross and through His resurrection.

Having established that Level 4 reality, Paul then moves on to  address the conflict that was being felt in individuals (Level 1), between believers (Level 2), and in society (Level 3) between these sharply divided two ethnic groups. He repeatedly speaks of the “two” being “one” through what Christ had done on Level 4. Hostility is transformed into peace, division gives way to unity, and that which is separate becomes whole.

I can’t help but notice the direction and flow of thought. Paul’s focus on, and acceptance of, Level 4 reality flows down and transforms the very human conflict and struggles of Levels 1 through 3. As I look back across my 53 year journey I realize how often I have done the exact opposite. I allow my Levels 1-3 realities to flow upward and dictate my Level 4 perspective. I essentially transform my perception and belief system on Level 4 to justify and defend my entrenched prejudices on Levels 1 through 3.

This morning I contemplate 19,359 days on this Earth, and quietly wonder about however many I have left. I can’t change any of those nearly 20,000 yesterdays, but I want to make sure today, and moving forward, that I get the direction and the flow right. I want the eternal Spirit realities to transform my daily life and relationships here on this terrestrial ball. Not the other way around.

The Inclusive Exclusivity Problem

“…there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.”
Romans 3: 30 (NIV)

A few years ago on this chapter-a-day journey I wrote that the first century conflict between Jewish followers of Jesus and Gentile (non-Jewish) followers of Jesus was actually a foreshadowing of the great Dr. Seuss’ story The Sneetches:

Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches had bellies with stars.
The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars. 

But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches
Would brag, “We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the Beaches.”
With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they’d snort
“We’ll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort!” 

In the case of the Jewish and Gentile believers, it was circumcision and the Law of Moses (a.k.a. Leviticus) that became the metaphorical star on their bellies.

As a 21st century follower of Jesus journeying through this letter of Paul to the Romans, it is critical that I understand this underlying tension and conflict. It is the driver and motivation for Paul’s letter. For centuries the Hebrew people had leveraged their gracious appointment as “God’s people” into creating and maintaining a theology of exclusion. They were the star-bellied Sneetches maintaining their private section of the beach and no one without a star on their belly was allowed. The Jewish followers of Jesus had spent their entire lives inside a cultural tradition that was thousands of years old telling themselves that they were exclusive.

The Gentile believers, on the other hand, had spent their entire lives knowing that the Jewish people lived, by-and-large, in their private culture and excluded anyone who wasn’t one of them.

As the Jesus movement rapidly expands across the known world, attracting followers of both the Jewish and Gentile camps, you’ve suddenly got star-bellied Sneetches and the Sneetches with “no stars upon thars” thrust together and co-habitating a “no-man’s land” section of Spiritual Beach.

Paul in his letter, is addressing this divide by explaining to the Jewish believers that God’s Message all along has never really been a theology of “exclusion” but one of “inclusion.” He’s walking a theological tight-rope, hearing the voices of his fellow Jews arguing with him about the law (i.e. “So you’re saying the Law is nothing?“), and hearing the voices of the Gentiles making counter arguments on the other side (i.e. “Well if more sin means there’s more of God’s grace to forgive me, then why don’t I just sin more so that there will be more grace?!“), and through it all he’s trying to bring them all together by laying out an inclusive understanding of what God has been doing all along in the Great Story so as to realize the end of Dr. Seuss’ yarn:

[That] day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches
And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.
That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars
And whether they had one, or not, upon thars. 

This morning in the quiet I find myself admitting that we human beings have a penchant for systemically creating social  and personal exclusivity. We’ve been doing it since the beginning of time in our tribes, our religions, our country clubs, our street gangs, our political parties, our families, our races, our racial ghettos, our denominations, our social systems, our church groups, our middle/high school cliques, our small town and big city attitudes, and et cetera, and et cetera, and et cetera.

Jesus came to change all that.

And, we’ve messed that up, too.

Which means that this morning I have to confess and admit the ways I’ve gone all “star-bellied Sneetch” in my own ways (and there are multiple ways I have done so) along this life journey. Paul reminds me in today’s chapter: We’ve all (that would be inclusive) fallen short of God’s design and desire.

Maybe when I was younger I was ignorant and didn’t understand. I can’t claim that anymore. I am a mature adult. If I am going to follow Jesus. If I’m going to really follow the heart of Christ, then I have to stop shutting people out, pushing people away, and ignoring people who are uncomfortably and inconveniently different.

In that regard, the message of Paul to the Romans is every bit as relevant today as it was then.

Old Habits Die Hard

Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses,you cannot be saved.”
Acts 15:1 (NIV)

Yesterday I was with a young manager my client has asked me to mentor. The manager described a particular conversation they’d had with a peer in another department. The conversation was about some procedural changes that would affect both of their respective teams. The manager described their opposing views and the conflict that arose as the procedural change was not going to be universally popular.

The manager described the conversation and the slow descent they felt themselves falling into as they dug their heels in and felt stubbornness consume them. In that moment there was no possibility of compromise. The manager recognized what had happened, even felt it happening in the moment, but had been unable to stop it. The manager then confessed that this was a deep-seeded, long-recognized pattern of behavior. And, it was not a positive one. They even recognized the source: “That’s my mother!” the manager said.

Along life’s journey it’s become clear to me that old habits die hard for every one of us. If we are to make progress on our journeys, whether personally, emotionally, relationally, and/or spiritually, it will require old habits to pass away and new patterns of thought and behavior to come.

I found today’s chapter in the book of Acts to be an inflection point. Through the first fourteen chapters the explosive and expansive growth of the Jesus Movement had everyone frantically trying to keep up. When systems experience that kind of explosive growth, the system quickly goes into survival mode, setting aside minor and/or complex matters just to address the giant issues that are staring everyone in the face. As equilibrium is found, the long suppressed issues begin to surface. That’s what I see happening in today’s chapter.

The Jesus Movement sprung from the Jewish tribe with its centuries old set of religious and behavioral customs. It was, perhaps, inevitable that some of the Jewish believers were going to want to retain and cling to their Jewish customs. Old habits die hard. In today’s chapter a few of these habitual believers from the Jewish tribe tell a bunch of believers who weren’t from the Jewish tribe that they would have to adopt all of their old habits and customs in order to be a true believer in Jesus. Primary among these old Jewish habits was the rule that all men would have to be circumcised. Yeah, I’m sure that went over like a lead balloon.

So we have conflict brewing between believers from the Jewish tribe and those from non-Jewish (described as “Gentile”) tribes. While Dr. Luke describes a fairly well-mannered meeting of the minds and peaceful solution, Paul’s description of events is different. Paul describes conflict between he and Peter. He describes conflict in the relationship between Peter, believers from the Jewish tribe, and believers from Gentile backgrounds (Read Galatians 2). In Paul’s description, Peter said that he was all for Gentiles not having to adhere to Jewish customs, but then he hypocritically acted with favoritism towards the Jewish believers. Old habits die hard.

Then at the end of the chapter we find Paul and Barnabas in a sharp dispute about whether to take John Mark on their next missionary journey. The argument ends in the two friends and colleagues splitting up. What I observe is that Paul’s behavior and words in these conflicts with Peter and Barnabas don’t reflect the new code of love that Paul himself describes in his letter to the Corinthian believers, but reflects more of the old proud, arrogant, temperamental and fiery Pharisee who persecuted the church. Yep, old habits die hard.

As I wrapped up the mentoring session with my young business protege yesterday we discussed that recognizing negative behaviors and feeling the negative results from them is the first step toward positive change. The manager described the subsequent meeting between managers, their heart-felt apology, and the constructive progress towards compromise that followed. Well done. Old things begin to pass away as new behaviors and habits are formed.

This is a journey and old habits die hard, but I’ve perpetually found that they will eventually change when I surrender myself to Holy Spirit, when I diligently pursue the person I was created to be, and when I make my mission to be a person marked and controlled by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, perseverance, and self-control.

Have a great day, my friend.

Organism and Organization

“While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul….”
Acts 13:2 (NIV)

For anyone who is interested in how organizations and human systems grow and function, the book of Acts provides some fascinating insights. The Jewish tribe from which the Jesus movement sprung was a rigidly structured religious system based on  tribes, families, and descent (thus all the endless lists of genealogies). Only descendants of Aaron could be priests and offer sacrifices. Only members of the Levite clan could work in the Temple. If you were a woman or you weren’t genetically connected to the Jewish tribe, then you were always held a lower class position. This was the centuries old system that the first believers were raised in. It’s all they knew.

Within weeks of Jesus’ ascension the “new” system turned everything these believers had once known on its head. Thousands upon thousands of people became believers. And it wasn’t just people from the Jewish tribe, but people from every walk of life. Holy Spirit power poured out on everybody regardless of gender, tribe, class, age, nationality, socio-economic position, or education. Not only was the movement organically growing exponentially, but everyone had a role to play. Everyone had a spiritual gift with which to contribute to the good of the whole. Read between the lines of Acts and you can feel the heady mess that Jesus’ followers had on their hands.

In today’s chapter there’s a little hint of this reality. Barnabas had been among the first believers, but certainly wasn’t one of Jesus’ original twelve. We find Barnabas in the town of Antioch where he seems to have some position of leadership along with guys named Simeon (Wait a minute. Who!?) and Lucius (What?!) and a dude named Manaen (Who is that?!) whose claim to local fame was having been the foster brother of Herod Antipas when he was a kid. Notice that Saul (Yes, that Saul, the one we know as the Apostle Paul) is named last on the list.

Welcome to the Jesus movement, the early church, where groups of believers sprung up everywhere out of nowhere and people you never heard of are suddenly leading local groups of Jesus’ followers.

This group in Antioch is worshipping and a person with the gift of prophecy gives Holy Spirit direction that Barnabas and Saul need to go on a journey to take the good news about Jesus to other towns. Notice that this sending didn’t come from the central authority, The Twelve, in Jerusalem. There was no committee formed, no delegation sent from Antioch to petition approval from the leadership in Jerusalem. Holy Spirit spoke direct to some dudes we’ve never heard of telling Barnabas and Saul to go. The dudes we’ve never heard of laid hands on Barnabas and Saul because they had the authority of Holy Spirit. It is an organic, living, breathing, growing, multiplying system.

And, it was messy.

It fascinates me to look at this organism of the early Jesus movement and then look at the denominations that make up most of the Christian churches in the world. When I look at denominations from Roman Catholic to Greek Orthodox, Lutheran, Methodist, Reformed, and Assemblies of God with their hierarchical org charts, their strict rules about who can do what, their educational systems, and their religious hoops it reminds me more of the old Jewish system from which Jesus freed the early believers.

In the book of Acts we witness the early church struggling to create systems to keep up with all that Holy Spirit was doing. An organization evolved and structures were clearly put into place. We as humans need structure and organization in order for things to work well. At the same time, what differentiated the early Jesus movement was that Holy Spirit was given free reign to work in and through everyone just as God designed the body of Christ to work. Along my journey I’ve observed that we always seem to put Holy Spirit back into the well ordered boxes of our human systems and organizational structures. When the Body of Christ is no longer allowed to be the organism it was designed to me and it is forced into rigid human organizational structures, it’s like putting a leash on Holy Spirit. Explosive, dunamis (the Greek word from which we get “dynamite”) power Jesus unleashed at Pentecost is reduced to a safe, child-proof sparkler.

There is a need for structure and organization, but I believe that we need to unleash Holy Spirit and rediscover the organic, living, breathing, growing, multiplying organism the Body of Christ was created to be.

Change, Action, and Reaction

The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”
Acts 11:1-3 (NIV)

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of presenting Letters from Pella, a one-act play I wrote some years ago to an academic conference. The academic conference celebrated the 150th anniversary of the birth of H.P. Scholte, the founder of our town. Scholte, a secessionist pastor in the Netherlands, led hundreds of Dutch immigrants to carve out a new home on the Iowa prairie in 1847. Historians from both the Netherlands and the U.S. participated in the conference.

At the Scholte Conference with Dutch historians Leon van den Broeke, Ron van Houwelingen, Michiel van Diggelen, and George Harinck

Each year in our town’s annual Tulip Time festival we celebrate a polished narrative about our founders, but as I researched the actual events that transpired in those first years I found a very different story. Letters between the first immigrants and their families back in the Netherlands gave evidence of anger, conflict, discord, and disagreement. I sought to give voice to that story in my play.

Newton’s Third Law states that for every action there is an opposite reaction. Along my life journey I’ve observed that there are, at times, parallels between physical and human interactions. As both leader and participant in many human organizations I’ve observed that any action or initiative that introduces change to a human system will create a reaction from that system.

In today’s chapter, Peter returns to Jerusalem from his experience of being called by God to the home of a Roman Centurion named Cornelius. Cornelius and his entire household became believers. They had been filled with Holy Spirit and Peter realized that God was doing something “new” in this rapidly growing Jesus movement. The movement was expanding beyond the Jewish tribe to include non-Jewish “Gentiles” whom Jews found religiously unclean. There was a general attitude among the Jewish people of that day despising and looking down on anyone who wasn’t born Jewish.

In going to the home of a Roman Centurion and befriending Cornelius and his household, Peter had crossed a whole host of religious, social, and political lines that his tribe religiously held with systemic rigor.  Now he returns to Jerusalem and the Jewish believers hear what happened, they criticize Peter for what he’s done. Peter’s action has created a powerful reaction.

Peter provides his defense, explaining his vision, God’s call for him to go with the three visitors, and his experience in Cornelius’ household. According to Luke’s description, the believers in Jerusalem “had no further objections.” The Greek word translated “no further objections” is esuchasan which is defined as “quieting down,” “rest,” and “becoming silent.” In other words, no one pushed the issue with Peter, but my experience as a leader tells me there were those who kept their mouths shut publicly and began to whisper their questions and criticism of Peter behind his back. Radical change to deeply rooted human system doesn’t quickly result in “no further objections.” This Jew-Gentile conflict is not going to go away.

This morning I’ve been thinking about some of the “reactions” to systemic change that I’ve observed and experienced over the years. Some of them are instructive. Some of them are tragic. Some of them are downright comical. Yet this spiritual journey had taught me that spiritual growth always necessitates change. God is always calling me and challenging me to love more expansively, forgive more deeply, and to be more sacrificially generous. Those things don’t happen unless there is a willingness within my spirit to things changing, sometimes in uncomfortable ways.

H.P. Scholte certainly experienced his share of “reactions.” Twice the pastor was thrown out of the pulpit by his own congregation when they didn’t like the changes he had introduced into their social and religious system. They called him a scoundrel. Those are the things our town politely forgets to talk about. Yet, all of those radical, uncomfortable changes brought about a really bright future for our town.

Growth happens through change and struggle, while human systems tend to cling to a comfortable status quo. I see this paradigm wherever God is working in the Great Story. If I want to grow, I have to  prepare myself for the reactions I know will be coming my way.