Tag Archives: System

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.

Overturning the Scales on the Spiritual Economy

There is, however, some good in you.
2 Chronicles 19:3 (NIV)

In the past few months my past has resurfaced. It happens once in a while. My many failures are a matter of public record. I have spoken openly about them. For certain individuals my record makes me questionable, and every so often the questions come around again.

I find spiritual economics to be a fascinating thing; The way in which we determine, quantify, and respond to the “good” and “bad” (or “righteousness” and “sin”) within ourselves and others. The way we use key indicators within our spiritual economy to determine our view of everyone and everything around us.

The Chronicler and his ancient world had a very ordered system. He dictates for us whether Kings were winners and losers in the spiritual economy. The good and bad are spelled out in black and white terms. In the previous chapter Jehoshaphat made an alliance with Ahab, so in today’s chapter the Seer Jehu calls him out for his “bad,” but then declares “There is, however, some good in you.” The rest of the chapter goes on to describe Jehoshaphat’s exemplary efforts to promote and improve domestic justice in his kingdom. We the readers feel the scales on the spiritual economy tipping back and forth.

It’s no wonder that to this day we perpetuate variations on this system of weighing and judging people on our personal, spiritual economic scales. It’s a very human thing to do. Yet, one of the radical things that Jesus brought to the table was a radically new spiritual economy. He turned the system upside down. In Jesus’ spiritual economy there was no one who measured up on their own. No personal righteousness was enough to tip the scales to the “good.” Every person was in need of grace and mercy. As James 2:10 says “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” So the “righteous” religious people who were “good” in the standard spiritual economic system incurred Jesus’ wrath, while He made a habit of hanging out and showing kindness, love, grace, forgiveness, and mercy to the “bad,” the sinful, the marginal, and the questionable.

This morning I’m once again looking back across my journey. I don’t think I would have fared particularly well in the Chronicler’s spiritual economic scale. I don’t fare particularly well in the spiritual economic scales of some of my fellow believers.

Two things come to mind as I mull these things over in my heart.

One is a passage I memorized long ago. I like how The Message puts it:

Now God has us where he wants us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus. Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving. He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing.
Ephesians 2:7-10

The other is these lyrics from Bob Dylan:

I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea.
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there.
Other times it’s only me.
I’m hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow fallen.
Like every grain of sand.

Mine, Yours, Ours

As for you….”
2 Chronicles 7:17 (NIV)

Many years ago my friend, a marriage and family therapist, introduced me to three simple questions to ask whenever I am seeking definition of personal responsibility and boundaries in a relationship:

  1. What’s mine?
  2. What’s yours?
  3. What’s ours?

It’s amazing how some of the most profound things in life can be so simple. Time and time again I’ve returned to these questions. I’ve asked these questions in my marriage. I’ve asked them with regard to parenting my children. I’ve asked them with regard to my company and team members. I’ve asked them with regard to clients. I’ve asked them about personal relationships with friends, with organizations, and with acquaintances expecting something of me.

At the heart of these questions is the understanding that individuals and groups of individuals have responsibilities within any human system. When individuals have well-defined responsibilities and an understanding of those responsibilities the system functions in a healthy way. When relationships and human systems break down, it is often because of lack of definition, misunderstanding, and/or the boundaries have been breached.

  • I think this is your responsibility but you seem to expect it of me.
  • I want this to be ours together, but you appear to want to control it as yours.
  • This is an area where I have gifts and abilities and would like to handle it, but you keep trying to insert yourself in the process.

In today’s chapter, Solomon finishes his dedication of the Temple and God shows up in an amazing display of spiritual pyrotechnics. King Solomon, the priests, the worship band, and the congregation are all blown away. Everyone is on a spiritual high. A subtle repetition of phrasing used by the Chronicler is “the king and all the people” (vss 4 and 5) and “all Israel” or “all the Israelites” (vss 3, 6, and 8).

At some point after the successful dedication, God appears to Solomon at night for a heart-to-heart. In his conversation, God defines separate responsibilities for “my people” (vss 13-16) and for Solomon as King (vss 16-22). In other words, “Solomon, you can consider these certain responsibilities ‘ours’ to own as a nation and a people. These other things are ‘yours’ to own and be responsible for as King and leader of the people. And, these other things are ‘mine’ to own conditional to everyone owning the things for which each is responsible. If everyone owns their part then the system will work really well. If not, well the results will not be so good.”

Having just journeyed through the prophetic works of Jeremiah, I know that the kings eventually failed to own the responsibility that was theirs. The people failed to own their responsibilities. The system broke down, and what God warned would happen is exactly what happened.

This morning I’m thinking about my marriage, my family relationships, friend relationships, my work, and the organizations in which I’m involved. I’m doing a little inventory. Where are things working well? Where are things strained and struggling? Where have things broken down?

Okay, so…

Am I doing those things that are mine to own?
Am I allowing others to be responsible for what is theirs, and maintaining a balance of support, encouragement and accountability?
Am I working well with others and being a good team member in accomplishing those things for which we, together, are responsible?

Not a bad personal inventory to repeat regularly.