Tag Archives: System

“Ins” and “outs”

“Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”
Mark 9:38 (NIV)

Over the past five years, I’ve quietly watched as divergent lines of political, social, and religious thought have become more and more entrenched behind walls of prejudice and across what appears to be a “no man’s land” dictated by either and/or both sides of the great divide. It grieves me to observe, and to experience, the lack of grace, tolerance, love, and simple human kindness for other human beings.

Like every other human being, my life journey has been dotted with observing and experiencing the “ins” and “outs” of social groups. Favorites emerge in family systems. Sides are chosen on the playground. The new kid on the block must navigate how to earn acceptance from the neighborhood gang who’ve known each other their whole lives. Social groups with unspoken rules of “in” and “out” emerge out of the shared identities of being jocks, nerds, band geeks, and stoners. Sororities and Fraternities create shared loyalty through their pledging, hazing, and strict hierarchies. Corporations have well insulated “C-Suites” where executives are sequestered in corner offices with private bathrooms. Churches manage who’s in and out with membership cards, doctrinal litmus tests, and unspoken religious rules about dress, speech, morality, and acceptable political stances.

In today’s chapter, there’s an interesting exchange that, in my experience, doesn’t get much air time. In my forty years of following Jesus and regularly attending the gatherings of various groups of fellow followers, I have never heard one sermon, lecture, or lesson on this exchange.

It comes from the mouth of John who bears the moniker, “the one whom Jesus loved,” and one of the three who comprised what’s known as “Jesus’ inner-circle.” It was that “inner circle” (James, John, and Peter) whom Jesus took to witness His transfiguration in today’s chapter. I have to wonder how that went over with the other nine. I think I can guess.

Jesus and His “twelve” are together in someone’s home, away from the crowds. Jesus is holding a little child in His arms, telling his disciples that in the economy of God’s Kingdom the “greatest” are those who are humble and willing to welcome and serve “the least” of society with open and embracing arms.

John then looks at Jesus (who is still holding the child as a living word picture of this lesson about humility, love, openness, and inclusion), and says, “Teacher, we saw some guy we didn’t know today performing an exorcism in your name and we told him to stop, because he’s not one of us!”

He doesn’t belong “in” our group.

You didn’t choose him, like you chose us.

He hasn’t left everything and followed you like we have.

We don’t know where he is from or what he truly believes.

Be proud of us, Jesus, we’re keeping “out” those who don’t belong “in” your entourage!

Jesus, still holding the child in His arms, rebukes John for what he’s said and done. John can’t see the disconnect. Jesus then tears down the wall of John’s “in” group distinctions: “Whoever is not against us, is for us.”

In the quiet this morning, I find myself contemplating all of the walls of distinction that have been erected by various social groups on every side of every issue. And this is where my heart lands as I consider Jesus’ words in today’s chapter, and picture Him holding a little child in His arms:

First:

When I go downstairs this morning to have coffee with Wendy and peruse the news of the day…
I am only going to see what their cameras want me to see.
I am only going to hear what their editors want me to hear.
I am only going to read, watch, and listen to the sources I choose
who, let’s face it, I choose because it makes me comfortable in.my.own.groups.

Second:

What I will see, hear, and read is an infinitesimal and skewed vision of the daily lives, experiences, conversations, and interactions that I and billions of other human beings will have on this planet on this day.

Third:

I can’t control what others may think of me or what they perceive me to be. People may very well choose to hate me and be against me in any way one chooses. Nevertheless, no one is going to get me to hate them any more than they could get Jesus to hate them.

As a follower of Jesus, that’s my calling, my mission, and my heart’s desire.

Forgive? Yes. Hate? No.

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

“Just the Way it Works”

"Just the Way it Works" (CaD Ps 94) Wayfarer

They slay the widow and the foreigner;
    they murder the fatherless.

When anxiety was great within me,
    your consolation brought me joy.

Psalm 94:6, 19 (NIV)

While a college student, I took a semester off of classes and worked as an abstractor. My job was to take the abstract of a property that was being bought or sold and search the county records for the property, the buyers, and the sellers with regard to most recent taxes, liens, contracts, or transactions. While I worked for an abstract company with an office in the county office building, most of my day was spent visiting various county offices.

The county I worked in had long been under the tight control of a political machine, and my daily observations were a harsh life lesson. There was a law against smoking in public buildings, but some county employees continued to smoke at their desks as much as they wanted without consequence. I remember one office in which a county employee told me she wasn’t going to help me simply because she didn’t want to do so that day. I was told by my employer that there was nothing that could be done about it. “That’s just the way it works,” he said. Then there were the employees who sat in offices and pretty much did nothing all day knowing that they were “untouchable.”

Along my life journey, I’ve observed that corruption exists everywhere. It exists in governments, business, education, healthcare, and religion. Wherever you find a human system you will find individuals who will rig that system for personal power and gain. There is no perfect system because there are no perfect people. I’ve come to believe that the best we can do is to have systemic accountability through checks and balances.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 94, is a song of lament from of one who sees a corrupt system, and those who suffer because of it. In particular, the songwriter calls out the three most vulnerable groups in the Hebrew society of that day: widows, orphans, and foreigners. What is both fascinating and depressing is that the Law of Moses clearly instructed the Hebrews to take care of these three vulnerable groups. The writer of Psalm 94 laments that the system isn’t working.

From my own experience, it’s a helpless, hopeless feeling.

“That’s just the way it works.”

The song shifts in verse 12, and the songwriter places his hope and trust in God being the eternal “Avenger” who will ultimately bring justice to a corrupt world. In placing faith in God’s ultimate plan, the psalmist’s anxiety gives way to joy.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself grateful that I live in a representative republic in which individuals have some opportunity to address systemic corruption through the voting booth, the courts, speech, protest, and press. At the same time, I recognize that there are some places, even in the best of human systems, in which corruption is “just the way it works.”

This leaves me responsible to do what I can, within the systems I’m in, for those who are most vulnerable. That’s what Jesus calls me to. It also leaves me trusting Him who was crucified at the hands of a corrupt human system, to fulfill His promise of ultimately bringing justice and redemption at the conclusion of the Great Story. Joy, like that the psalmist expressed in the lyrics of today’s chapter, is experienced not in the absence of negative circumstances and human corruption, but in the midst of them.

Of Rules and Appetites

Of Rules and Appetites (CaD Ps 24) Wayfarer

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
    And who shall stand in his holy place?
Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
    who do not lift up their souls to what is false…

Psalm 24:3-4b (NRSVCE)

The further I get in my life journey, the more I’ve come to understand that the black-and-white behavioral rules of the most strictly religious groups are really about social control in which an institution or group exercise authority over another. The goal and benefit is a sense of order, collective security, and control. Within this type of system, the individual’s role is simple and strict obedience to the group’s behavioral rules (those written, and those insidiously unwritten but understood) under the threat of public shaming and being socially ostracized from the group. This type of system exists as religious fundamentalist sects and denominations, fraternal organizations, gangs, cults, secret societies, and the systemic equivalent can even exist in businesses, corporations, sports teams, and community organizations.

Systems like this have existed throughout history and continue to this day. It is this type of system with which Jesus conflicted in the Temple when he overturned the moneychangers’ tables and railed against the Temple’s religious cabal. It was this conflict that led them to treat Jesus as a threat who was to be ostracized and executed. It is the same system out of which Paul transitioned to becoming a follower of Jesus. Paul also was considered a threat they needed to ostracize and execute.

Please don’t read what I’m not writing. Don’t hear what I’m not saying. It doesn’t really matter which system we’re talking about. They all operate the same way and follow the same basic systemic rules.

The problem with this type of system is that it chains the individual to the group rather than freeing the individual from self. Behavior modification is not about spiritual health but of social order. The individual tries to control behaviors rather than be spiritually transformed. Paul recognized that all the behavioral rules of the system only created more rulebreakers sneaking around in the dark breaking the rules and trying not to get caught.

Scholars believe that today’s psalm was a song David wrote to be sung as the people entered God’s Temple in Jerusalem. If you read it and imagine the Hebrews carrying the Ark of the Covenant (cue: Raiders of the Ark Theme) into the Temple as they sing this song you get the gist. It starts by asking the question: “Who can ascend the hill of the Lord?” (That refers to Zion, on which the Temple was built) and then “Who can stand in his holy place?” (That would refer to the “Holy Place” within the Temple as designed and prescribed through Moses).

The lyric of the song then describes who may do these things. The description is that of a good person, but here’s where translation from the original language (Hebrew) to English can make a huge difference. In verse 4 the English phrase “do not lift up their souls” has an original Hebrew physiological imagery that references the throat. Some scholars argue that the word picture here is more like “nursing an appetite” and the Hebrew word translated “false” is rooted in the idea of “empty” or “vain.” So it’s really about those who don’t nurse their appetites for things that are empty.

In the quiet this morning, that’s what really struck me. What I’ve learned along my journey is that all the religious and systemic rule keeping does not address the real issues of Spirit that lead to transformation. Keeping the rules so as to appease my church leaders, parents, college, pastors, teachers, and peer group in the attempt to avoid being shamed and ostracized did not transform my soul.

What really led to transformation for me was when I realized that all my human appetites were good and created within in me by God. Paul realized it too when he said “Nothing is unlawful for me. It’s just that some things aren’t beneficial.” My appetite for food, for drink, for pleasure, for rest, for sex, for relationship, for security, for peace, for affirmation…all of them are good and part of what God created in me. It’s when I “nurse my appetite,” any one of them, and indulge my good and healthy appetites in empty and unhealthy ways that I hurt myself. And, I bring the unhealthy results to every relationship and system in which I am a part.

It’s not about me behaving for acceptance in a system. It’s about me being the person, the true and healthy self, God created me to be. It’s about what Jesus said when He told His followers to nurse their appetites for the things of God, and not for the things of this earth (including the safety and acceptance of a human system). How can I “love my neighbor as myself” if my unhealthy indulgence of natural appetites is leading to my continual self-injury and disrupting my relationships, my work, my family, and my life?

What appetite am I going to nurse today? That’s the question as I head into the weekend.

Have a great weekend.

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

Before “Old Things Pass Away,” They Often Lure Me Back

Before "Old Things Pass Away," They Often Lure Me Back (CaD Ex 32) Wayfarer

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”
Exodus 32:1 (NRSVCE)

Along my life’s journey, I have gone through multiple stretches of time in which my life experienced major change. In each one, it was a period of upheaval, deep introspection, conscious breaking with old patterns of thought and behavior, seeking to reach for new things that were further up and further in than anything I’d experienced before. Each time I have gone through one of these shifts has been a period of discomfort. Comfort, on the other hand, is both simple and easy. All I had to do was stay in the same patterns of thought, relationship, and behavior.

When I was in my mid-to-late twenties I began to seriously address some hard-wired, addictive behaviors, and unhealthy patterns of thought and relationships in my life. I began working with a counselor and going to support-groups with others who were dealing with their own unhealthy patterns. One of the things that quickly came into focus for me was that many of the patterns of thought and behavior I was struggling with were present in me as a child and in my adolescence.

In a moment of God’s synchronicity, I just happened to be traveling on business to the city where my older brother lived. My brother is seven years older than me and we rarely saw one another in those days. We got together for dinner and I discovered that he was walking his own version of trying to figure out his own unhealthy patterns. As dinner turned into several hours of late-night conversation, we found ourselves attempting to unravel and understand a mystery to us both. Why, when we return home as adults, do we seem to fall back into what feels like this defined role we had always played in the system with which our family operated, complete with scripted lines, well-rehearsed relational blocking? My brother and I walked that stretch of the journey together. In fact, we’re still on it! But, together we’ve made significant progress and some really worthwhile personal discoveries that have informed our respective lives and relationships.

For anyone who grew up annually watching The Ten Commandments with their family every Easter/Passover weekend, today’s chapter should be eerily familiar. Several chapters ago, Moses when up the mountain to talk with God. It’s been over a month now, and he still hasn’t come down from the mountain. So, the Hebrews basically give-up on their relatively new leader and his unfamiliar God with His really strange belief system. They approach Aaron and ask him to make for them a god just like one of the 1500 gods they were familiar with back in Egypt. Aaron relents, makes a golden calf god, and Moses finds the camp in religious revelry.

I confess this morning that every time I watched the movie and every time I’ve read this story before, I have been led to the prescribed audience reaction. I shake my head and whisper a “tsk, tsk” in self-righteous judgment for the weak-minded Hebrews.

This morning, however, I’m seeing it in a whole new way. The Hebrews were only doing what I so often do. I try to push forward into being more like Jesus in how I think, act, and related to others only to find myself slipping back into comfortable old’ patterns that are comfortable, simple, and easy. I spiritually go home and just mindlessly play the old role I’ve always played. It’s just easier. The Hebrews are simply doing the same. God is pushing them out of Egypt, out of victim-mentality, out of the chains of slave-mindedness, into the spiritual boot camp of the wilderness, into a new way of understanding and a new level of maturing relationship. It feels hard, uncomfortable, strange, and unfamiliar. So, they default to back to what is familiar, comfortable, and easy.

In the quiet this morning, I’m recognizing a pattern that has emerged in this chapter-a-day journey through the Moses-story. I keep seeing how the Moses story relates to the Jesus story. Jesus, like Moses, led His followers into major shifts in understanding God, how we have a relationship with God, and how that should lead us to relate to one another and our world. However, when the Jesus movement became the institution of the Holy Roman Empire it was the golden calf moment for Jesus’ followers. In short order, the Jesus movement went back to old, entrenched patterns of social hierarchy, patriarchy, and religious institutionalism.

How do I change? How to I grow? How do I allow old things to pass away and lay hold of the new things God has for me? I’m still learning that piece, but I have learned along the way that it takes both willful determination and the faith to jump and trust that the net will appear. It requires the patience and perseverance to endure discomfort and to keep running even when I hit the wall. It’s helpful, almost essential, to have good companions with me and good mentors out ahead of me. It demands that I learn to have grace with myself when I stumble, stall, and fall back; To receive the grace that God endlessly showers on me if I simply open my heart to it.

It requires that I press on.

And so, on this Monday morning I’m lacing ’em up once again. Another wayfaring stranger on his way home over Jordan.

Thanks for being my companion on the journey today, my friend.

Let’s go!

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

The One-Person Org Chart

The One-Person Org Chart (CaD Ex 18) Wayfarer

Moses’ father-in-law replied, “What you are doing is not good.”
Exodus 18:17 (NIV)

I have heard it said that there are three things that most commonly lie at the root of marital discord: money, sex, and the division of labor. Based on my own experience, I can believe it to be true. Each of them requires the negotiation of power and responsibility within the relationship. With the division of labor within a relationship and household, my experience is that it can take time to understand one another’s strengths, abilities, interests, disinterests, and quirks in order to get into a good groove.

Within any human system, there is a structure of power and responsibility. In some cases, that structure is well-defined and ordered like a community organization with by-laws run by Robert’s Rules of Order. Companies have organizational charts to define who answers to whom. My observation is that the more intimate and small the system, the more difficult things can get. And I’m not even talking about the passive-aggressive ways power can be manipulated within a system.

One of the fascinating things I find about the Exodus epic is that we get to observe the organization of a nation. From Genesis 12 through today’s chapter the narrative moves from one man, Abram, who becomes the father of Isaac and the grandfather of Jacob. Jacob then has 10 sons and two grandsons settled in Egypt during a famine. They are eventually enslaved but over hundreds of years grow exponentially into the 12 tribes who leave Egypt. They are now officially a large people group, a small nation, and they’ve got to figure out how they are going live and govern.

In today’s chapter, we find that the org chart for this emerging nation has just one box on it. Moses is a one-man show, and he’s handling everything. Now, along my journey, I’ve led small teams, a small church, a small community organization, and a small business. They have all been incredibly challenging experiences. I can’t even imagine the headaches Moses had trying to lead a million people and their livestock through the wilderness. That’s, like, a form of slow, painful suicide.

Moses’ wise father-in-law immediately sees that, too. He helps Moses get organized. There are capable leaders all around. Every human system is an organism with lots of individual parts with individual gifts and abilities to contribute to the good of the whole. So, Moses essentially adds four management levels to the org chart and appoints leaders for every five, ten, hundred, and thousand people complete with a multi-layered process of appeal. It works.

I’m reminded this morning of the early Jesus’ movement who organized in a similar fashion. The word picture given was that of a body. Each member is a part of that body and serves in an indispensable role in the healthy function of that body. No one person can do it all. Every person contributes to the whole just like every cell in my body plays a part in my health and life.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself looking back at various leadership roles I’ve had along the way. As a capable individual, there have been plenty of times in which I took on way more organizational responsibility than I should have. While it may have worked for a while, I eventually burned out and others missed out on using their gifts and the fulfillment that accompanies being a part. Of course, there are always issues and struggles that come along with any human system. They’re always messy. But, like Moses found out, a system always runs better when every part of that system knows its part, is in the right functional role, and knows that it is contributing to the life and health of something greater.

How am I doing in the various systems in my life? My marriage, my family, my job, my local gathering of Jesus’ followers? Am I in the right roles? Do I know where I best contribute? Am I contributing to the health and life of each system? Am I taking on responsibilities for which I’m not really suited? Am I finding purpose and goodness in them?

All good questions to reflect on as I enter back into another day in the journey.

Have a great day, my friend!

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

Villains, Justice, Wrestling

Villains, Justice, Wrestling (CaD Ex 11) Wayfarer

Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the female slave who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the livestock. Then there will be a loud cry throughout the whole land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again.
Exodus 11:5-6 (NRSVCE)

The past few months of COVID shut-downs have been strange on a number of levels. For being non-athletic, creative types, Wendy and I both enjoy watching and avidly following certain sports and teams. We also have the shows we avidly watch. It’s been strange to have so little to watch. Not necessarily bad, mind you. I confess we’ve gotten a lot of things done that have been on the task list for way too long. I’m just recognizing how often we look forward to certain games or new episodes of a certain series.

Game of Thrones was a series to which I was late to the party. Wendy had no interest and I didn’t want to pay for HBO or for each year’s series on DVD. It was a ridiculous Black Friday deal for all but the last season on DVD that gave me many wonderful months of binging while on the road for work.

One of the hallmarks of the Game of Thrones series was the quality of the villains. I can’t think of another series with more despicable characters whom I wanted to get their just desserts and (I confess) die in despicable ways. The writers knew how to create characters I loved to hate, and how to keep me as an audience member passionately desiring a villain’s demise so for so long that when the climax finally arrived it was oddly satisfying in somewhat creepy ways.

Today’s chapter is a climactic point in the Exodus story, though I find it easy to lose sight of this fact. I think that it’s a combination of breaking up the narrative in small daily chunks, translating it into English from an ancient language, and the fact that the ancients weren’t exactly George Martin or Stephen King when it comes to crafting the narrative.

The final plague on Pharaoh and Egypt is the death of every Egyptian first-born, which feels rather heinous on the surface of things as we read with the eyes of 21st-century mindset. There are a couple of important parallels in this story which, I can’t allow myself to forget this, is at its heart about an enslaved, oppressed people being freed from their chains.

Pharaoh and the Egyptians have all the earthly power. They have the absolute authority, socio-economic status, and a system completely rigged in their favor. The Hebrews have one respected leader (Moses, who was raised an Egyptian member of Pharaoh’s household) and this mysterious God who has come out of a burning bush to reveal Himself as the One underdog champion of the oppressed Hebrews against over 1500 Egyptian deities.

[cue: Rocky’s Theme]

Pharaoh has just threatened Moses with death, but Moses informs his nemesis that it is his first-born son (always the favored-one in ancient Patriarchal systems) who will die. I believe most parents would say that losing a child is worse than dying yourself. Pharaoh and the God of Moses have already gone nine exhausting rounds. This plague is the knockout punch. At the very beginning of the story, it was established that the Hebrew slaves cried out in their suffering, and God heard their cries. Now, God proclaims through Moses, it will be Pharaoh and the Egyptian oppressors who will “cry out” in their suffering.

In the quiet this morning, I can’t help but think about my African-American brothers and sisters. Historically, it’s easy to see why the Exodus story has always resonated with African-Americans. Wendy and I just watched the movie Harriett a few weeks ago. “Grandma Moses” led her people to freedom. The heinous videos of Ahmed Aubrey and George Floyd (a brother in Christ) haunt me. The Moses story will always be relevant in a fallen world where broken earthly systems favor some people and not others.

As I meditate on these things, Jesus’ first recorded message echoes in my spirit:

[Jesus] stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
 

Some mornings my soul is overwhelmed with questions. Like Jacob, I find myself wrestling with God.

Inside Out Transformation

[Jesus] went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”
Mark 7:20-23 (NIV)

I was a young man when I began my spiritual journey following Jesus. The community of believers I often associated with were very concerned about religious appearance and moral purity. My hair was expected to be short and my dress was expected to be coat and tie. My ears were to be kept pure from rock music, my eyes kept pure from looking lustfully at women, and my body to be kept pure from the usual vices of drugs, alcohol, and smoking.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with these things. I’ll be the first to confess that I wasn’t perfect, but I’m also quite sure that adhering to the religious rigor kept me from getting into various kinds of trouble. As I progressed in my spiritual journey, however, I began to observe a few things.

First, my peers who were born and bred into the religious rigor as part of their strict family and faith systems were often big on obedience to the rules and traditions but really short on any real spiritual or personal maturity. They adhered (at least publicly) to the letter of the religious rules to keep the family and community appeased, but I never saw any real inner desire to pursue the things that Jesus was really getting at.

Second, the adults in these communities and religious systems were really focused on all of the easily recognized and visibly apparent illicit behaviors. People, especially young people, were publicly shamed for all the usual social vices. No one, however, seemed to care when it came to gluttony at church potlucks, gossip between the youth group member’s mothers, the man in the church with anger issues who used the Bible to justify the secret physical abuse of his family, deacon John who was not shy about his racism, elder Bob who was a dishonest businessman who’d filed for bankruptcy three times, or that the women of the church treating Ms. Jones like a social leper because her husband left her, filed for divorce, and so she must not have been the dutiful wife he needed.

Finally, I eventually found myself really dissatisfied. When I made the decision to be a follower of Jesus, it was about me being less pessimistic, impatient, immature, shallow, dishonest, inauthentic, and self-centered. It was about me wanting to grow into more self-less-ness and more love, life, joy, and peace. Checking off a bunch of religious and moral rules wasn’t addressing my desire to become more like Jesus. In fact, I don’t think Jesus would want to be with these people. I realized that Jesus would probably want to be with all the people that got shamed and kicked out of that church for their public mistakes.

In today’s chapter, Jesus is hitting this stuff head on. He gets in trouble with the religious rule-keepers because they didn’t ceremonially wash their hands before supper. He looks at the good religious people from His own religious system and explains that they are doing the same thing I witnessed among my own religious community. They were keeping all of the religious rules about washing your hands and eating only the prescribed dietary foods, but they weren’t doing anything about the anger, malice, judgment, critical spirit, discord, gossip, dishonesty, selfishness, racism, hatred, and condemnation that was polluting their souls.

This morning, I find myself contemplating the Jesus that I’m reading about in Mark’s account. I love that He was not about me keeping external rules and regulations, but about me getting my heart and life transformed from the inside out. I love that Jesus heals the daughter of a “sinful” outsider who His religious community would never have even acknowledged. I love that Jesus continues to compassionately pour out love, kindness, and healing even when He was tired and wanted to be left alone for a while. I love that He keeps telling people not to talk about the miracles because they weren’t the point; The miraculous physical healings of eyes, ears, and limbs merely pointed to the real miracle He came to perform: His love transforming me from the inside out as His life emerges from my dead, self-centered spirit.

That’s the Jesus I want to be more like, and keeping rules won’t get me there.

Poison on the Team

As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire,
    so is a quarrelsome person for kindling strife.

Proverbs 26:21 (NIV)

There is a client of mine who had a team that had been struggling for some time. While other teams around them were making great strides in their service performance, this one particular team languished in mediocrity. My quarterly training sessions with this team were sometimes painful. Silence. Arms crossed. No eye contact. No participation.

There was one member of this team who was, by far, the worst performer of the group. His performance on the phone calls we regularly assessed were so bad, that one almost had to willfully try to be that consistently awful to their customers. Over several years, the management team tried just about everything to motivate a change in this person. They tried offering cash bonuses for better performance, they provided remedial coaching (I had the joy of conducting many of the coaching sessions…ugh, also painful), they wrote him up on multiple Performance Improvement Plans with HR, and they made threats to fire him. Nothing worked. The longer this went on, I believe the more convinced he was that he didn’t really have to change and the more stubborn he became.

Coincidentally, I was asked at one point to mentor this team’s new supervisor. The newbie had been a member of the team for a long time and was promoted to his first managerial position. I watched him go through all of the same efforts as his predecessor trying to motivate behavior change in the team’s entrenched curmudgeon.

“What am I going to do with him?” the supervisor eventually asked me directly.

“Fire him,” I responded just as directly.

The supervisor seemed shocked by response. I explained.

Look,” I said, “Your management team has wasted their efforts for years trying to get this person to perform. There is a well-documented track record of a bad attitude, poor performance, and an unwillingness to do any more than the very least that is required to avoid getting fired. His attitude has poisoned the entire team and your team will never be healthy until you get rid of the problem at the source.

I had made this same suggestion multiple times to the supervisor’s predecessor and managers, but they could never take the final step of terminating his employment. I actually expected nothing different from the new supervisor, because he was new and firing a team member went against this client’s corporate culture.

I was, therefore, surprised to learn that my managerial protégé took my advice and fired the team member a short time later. Wouldn’t you know it? That year the team that had been mired in mediocrity reached their service quality performance goal for the very first time. I handed out more year-end performance awards to members of that team than ever. The team that had been so painful to train for so many years was laughing, cheering, clapping, and celebrating.

In today’s chapter, Solomon wisely says that a quarrelsome and contentious person is like adding wood to a fire. It spreads. My client’s entire team was stuck in their contentious mediocrity and poor performance because of one team member’s poisonous attitude. I wish I could say that this is the only example I’ve seen in my years of helping my clients improve the quality of their customer service, but it’s not. It’s actually fairly common. What isn’t common is a client’s willingness to do the right thing for everyone (especially their customers) and decisively extract the poison from the system whether it is firing the person or moving them to a different job with a different team that might be a better fit.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking about other poisonous team members I’ve encountered in my vocational journey and the reticence, even in my own company, of confronting it. What I’ve observed over time is that these individuals really don’t want to be in their positions. Sometimes getting rid of a poisonous team member actually frees that person to find something better for themselves. I have followed the careers of a few fired team members on social media and it appears that they are much happier after finding a job that better suits their talents, desires, and personalities. And, some appear to be tragically angry and contentious people in any role no matter where they work.

At least a company can fire such a person. When the contentious and quarrelsome individual is part of a family system, it’s a far more difficult situation. Solomon had another proverb for such tragic circumstances:

To have a fool for a child brings grief;
    there is no joy for the parent of a godless fool.

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

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.