Tag Archives: System

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.

The Trickle-Down Effect of Leadership

This is what the Lord says: “Go down to the palace of the king of Judah and proclaim this message there….”
Jeremiah 22:1 (NIV)

I’ve been mulling around the idea of writing a book. For almost 25 years I’ve made a career eavesdropping on conversations between companies and their customers (e.g. “Your call may be monitored for quality and training purposes.”), and I’ve learned a number of lessons about both business and life in the process.

One of the interesting lessons I’ve learned about business is that a company’s front-line customer service operation typically reflects the personality and values of the person sitting in the CEO’s office. If the CEO values customer service as a differentiator in driving customer satisfaction, loyalty, and retention, then I will usually see a Customer Service team focused and empowered to deliver a consistently excellent service experience. If, however, the CEO views Customer Service as simply a nagging expense and drain on the bottom line, the Customer Service department usually resembles a cut-throat, bunker environment where only the strong survive.

The lesson? Leadership has a trickle-down effect on the team that often goes unrecognized, unappreciated, and unaddressed.

As I make my way through the ancient prophet Jeremiah’s anthology of prophetic messages, I as a reader have to recognize a shift in the structure of the anthology, and remember the context of today’s chapter. Up to this point, the editors who put together Jeremiah’s works had ordered things chronologically. Then in the 21st chapter we reach a climax in the story as the Babylonian army besieges Jerusalem just as Jeremiah had prophesied. Now, the editors shift to arranging Jer’s message’s topically. They begin with a series of messages addressed to the leaders whom Jeremiah holds responsible for the disastrous state of affairs. He begins at the top of the food chain: the King and royal family of Judah.

Today’s chapter is a scathing rebuke of the royal family. He lets them know that God is essentially removing them from office. Exile and captivity in Babylon will be their fate. They will never return or reign over their city, their nation, or their people again. The Chairman of the Board is cleaning house.

This morning as I embark on a long business trip, I am quietly thinking about my own leadership and responsibility for my company. The trickle-down lesson of leadership that I’ve observed in other companies is true of my own. As the old saying goes, “When I point my finger, there are three pointing back at me.”

How does my role as leader in family, in community, in church, and in business impact those who are under my organizational and systemic leadership? How do the positives and negatives of my personality impact the various systems I lead? I certainly don’t have all the answers. I have learned from experience, however, that I had better pay attention, give consideration, and make wise decisions in this regard. It’s critical both for my success as a leader, but also for the success and well-being of my company and all my teammates.

 

The Litmus Test

Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.
1 John 4:20 (NIV)

For a brief two-year period of my journey I worked as a youth pastor. I was not tremendously good at it. The evidence of this fact was the meeting requested one night by a few of the mothers in which they needed a legal pad to record all of the issues they had with me and my performance. It was a much-needed lesson in honesty and humility. Nevertheless, I loved the young people under my charge some of whom I still connect with from time to time.

I recall a young person in my charge from a fine, educated, upstanding white-collar family. I loved this young person and enjoyed the opportunity to build relationship. I recognized very quickly, however, that underneath a well maintained personal facade there hid a seething spirit of anger. It came out only on occasion, but when it did it was a scary thing to behold.

As time when on it was revealed to me that there was a generational spirit of hatred that descended through this young person’s father. There was hatred and suspicion of anything and anyone outside of the legalistic, straight-and-narrow norm. There was hatred of anyone and anything “different.” There was racial hatred, ethnic hatred, and you name it. What I eventually came to perceive was a warm-hearted, confused young person who was raging inside because of a very real spiritual conflict churning inside. I believe that everything this lovable, valuable and capable youth had been systematically taught to believe in the family system was at war with the truth John writes about in today’s chapter:

My beloved friends, let us continue to love each other since love comes from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and experiences a relationship with God. The person who refuses to love doesn’t know the first thing about God, because God is love—so you can’t know him if you don’t love.

I personally struggle with the concept of “litmus tests” as used in the political arena because it tends to reduce broadly complex people, issues and circumstances down to a singular thing. As I read this morning’s chapter, however, I couldn’t shake the fact that John is expanding on the “litmus test” that Jesus, Himself, provided: “They will know you are my followers if you love one another.” John simply takes that to the next step. If you have hatred inside you, you can’t possibly have received the love of God. When you experience the love of God, it transforms hatred into love.

This morning as I prepare for a day of presentations and coaching sessions I am thinking about the diverse group of people I have the privilege to train and coach. For the most part, they are very different from me racially, ethnically, in life experience, and circumstances. But what wonderful, lovable, valuable, and capable people. What an opportunity I have to make new friends, to inspire nervous young people in their first “real” job, to equip struggling leaders in their first managerial positions, to teach eternal truths that drive sound business principles, and to love others well.

There is so much hatred out there. Count me as a simple “grunt” in Love’s army.

As for the young person I referenced earlier in my post, I’m afraid I can only pray that love eventually won that battle. I’ve come to realize that we are constantly part of stories of which we will never get to know the end in this life journey.

Love well, friends.

Personal Faith & Systemic Conscription

The king stood by the pillar and renewed the covenant in the presence of the Lord—to follow the Lord and keep his commands, statutes and decrees with all his heart and all his soul, thus confirming the words of the covenant written in this book. Then all the people pledged themselves to the covenant.
2 Kings 23:3 (NIV)

I was a young man when I made a decision that I would be a follower of Jesus. I was a normal teenager who did the normal things that teenagers do when testing the boundaries of parents and other systems of authority. Looking back at that boy from 40 years down life’s road, he seems rather innocent and naive. But I still remember that with my decision to follow Jesus came a responsibility to make some changes.

In today’s chapter we read the story of King Josiah’s great reform of Judah. After the scroll with the law of Moses is discovered during renovations to Solomon’s Temple, Josiah calls for a national gathering. The Law of Moses (e.g. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) is read to all the people. Josiah makes a decision and a commitment to follow God and keep the Law. He makes an ancient form of binding contract, called a covenant, to do so. The people follow suit.

The rest of today’s chapter is a blow-by-blow description of Josiah wiping out all of the competing local and regional deities. Reading the chapter we begin to understand how prevalent the worship of these gods had become. There were male prostitutes (which were quite common in idol worship in ancient times) who were operating out of Solomon’s Temple. There was child sacrifice to Molech and the worship of the golden calves that Jeroboam had set up when he led the northern tribes to secession hundreds of years earlier. Josiah purged the land of all of it, and pledged that the nation would follow the God of Moses alone.

As I read the chapter over my first cup of java this morning, there were two prevailing thoughts that struck me.

First, we read that Josiah called the nation together, made a covenant to follow God, and the people followed suit. Did they choose to follow Josiah’s lead of their own free will? Did the people even have a choice? A study of history would lead me to conclude that they did not. It was quite common for ancient nations and empires to follow whatever religion the king chose. That’s why Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 313 A.D. When Caesar Constantine became a Christian, then all the people of the Empire became Christians as well. I would argue that the results were not good.

I find this an important point. At the end of today’s chapter we read that Josiah’s son led the people right back to the worship of the local and regional gods. In our journey through 2 Kings we’ve read what seems to be a  game of religious ping-pong. One king follows the God of Moses and the people follow. The next king follows Baal and the people follow. Back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth.

National religion and forced adherence to faith is not really faith at all. It’s conscription. When I chose to become a follower of Jesus it was my choice and my decision. To this day I find that human systems (i.e. families, denominations, communities) use subtle forms of conscription and social pressure to ensure that the members of the system (i.e. children, grandchildren, neighbors, community members) adhere to the system’s sanctioned form of religion. That’s when personal faith is diluted down to blind religion. Jesus spent his entire earthly ministry fighting against that dilution. Blind religion nailed Him to the cross.

The second point that struck me this morning was Josiah’s reform. When I became a follower of Jesus there were some things that I was doing in my life that needed to change, as silly and innocent as some of them seem in retrospect. There were some unhealthy teenaged behaviors that needed to cease, and some healthy mature habits that needed to be developed. When faith is personal, it transforms the person.

This morning I’m thinking about my own children, and my grandson whom I can’t wait to meet in a few months. I don’t want my legacy to be religion instilled by force, conscription and systemic pressure. I want our daughters and our grandchildren to follow Jesus because it’s their own decision, their own choice, their own personal faith. The best thing that I can do to ensure that is not to instill rules, regulations, and mandatory religious observance. The best thing I can do is to model exactly what Jesus did and calls me to follow: love.

When Generosity Becomes Compulsory it Becomes Something Else

Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
2 Corinthians 9:7 (NIV)

In today’s chapter, Paul continues his encouragement to the followers of Jesus in Corinth to be generous. Paul was specifically asking them to give to an offering that was being collected to support impoverished fellow believers in Jerusalem. Paul wanted all believers in Greece and Asia Minor to give so to help their fellow believers in Palestine and it was a significant personal undertaking that had social as well as economic implications. If believers in the “gentile” world gave to the predominantly Jewish believers in Judea then it could only help tear down the walls and prejudices between the two groups.

Yesterday morning Wendy and I were discussing Paul’s encouragement to generously give to their fellow believers in need. Our conversation deepened from the subject of yesterday’s blog post on generosity to the section of Paul’s letter about equality. Paul argues that those in plenty should give to those who have little so as to bring a level of equality between all.

The conversation between Wendy and me quickly meandered into the fact that the early church is often seen as a shining example of socialism. Based on the evidence, there is no doubt that the followers of Jesus in the first century, connected by a common faith, supported one another financially and were encouraged to do so. As our conversation progressed, Wendy and I surfaced what I believe are some important distinctions in the contemplation of today’s chapter.

The giving and sharing among early Christians was not uniform system but an organic one. It looked very different in varying locations and times. During my life journey I’ve personally become weary of the way our culture (the institutional church in particular) loves to turn everything into a repeatable, marketable formula. We love to try and package what Holy Spirit did at church A and market it in a cool new program so that churches B through Z can easily replicate the experience. It usually creates popularity but I rarely see it result in a replication of spiritual power.

I’ve learned that there’s a reason why God gives us wind as a word picture of Holy Spirit. Holy Spirit mysteriously blows here and quickly moves there. Holy Spirit waxes for a time in one place then inexplicably wanes. You cannot manufacture it or replicate it at will as much as we try.

Paul’s offering was never made compulsory. Money was not demanded of the believers in Corinth. Rather, they were encouraged to be generous and the decision of what and how much was to be sourced in their own hearts. I find this a critical distinction. In Paul’s paradigm each believer was to give as each believer determined and was led personally by God’s Spirit. Paul certainly gave a full court press of encouragement explaining that generosity was a part of spiritual maturity and provided examples of other believers giving. There were, however, no formulas or discussion of percentages of income. There was no larger governing authority demanding it of the Corinthians, nor were there material consequences to be doled out if they chose not to give.

This leads to a final thought. The giving and sharing between believers in the early church happened on a micro-economic level. This was a  relatively small societal sub-culture connected to one another by a loose system of communication and a common faith. It wasn’t an authoritative institutional system trying to provide for all of society. There was no governing authority compelling believers to pay a percentage of their wealth and income to be redistributed to others as that particular governing authority determined. My experience is that things which work on a micro-level in small groups, especially things which are spiritual in nature, are rarely successful at being systemized and institutionally applied at a macro-level across society.

I hope no one will read what I’m not writing this morning. I am not arguing for or against socialism as an economic or governmental construct. I’m not arguing for or against any economic or governmental system or another. They all have their strengths and weaknesses, and thus we experience the never ending debate around our globe.

The conclusion my heart is coming to this morning is this: As a follower of Jesus, no matter what the societal economic system I find myself living in, generosity is an essentially spiritual act. My free choice and willing decision to give of what I have been given to others in need is, and should be, an act of loving kindness. What’s more, as a follower of Jesus the measure to which I give should be personally motivated by the measure of love and grace I have received from Christ Jesus.

As soon as my generosity becomes compulsory, it becomes something else.

Still a Small Cog in a Broken Machine

O my people, your leaders mislead you,
    and confuse the course of your paths.
Isaiah 3:12b (NRSV)

As I write this post, the United States is amidst the most strange political season in my lifetime. In fact, data indicate it may be the most unusual presidential election in our relatively short history as the two major candidates are the more unpopular than any since we gained the ability to track such things.

In my life journey I’ve observed that all human governments are given to corruption. Even the Vatican, a relatively small independent state presumably dedicated to Christ, is constantly fighting corruption (especially at the Vatican Bank). All human organizations are run by spiritually broken human beings. In the case of national governments you will find leaders who are given to indulging their self-centric appetites. Rules are rigged to favor the incumbent, to hold on to power, to profit from power, and to maintain the status quo. Every human government from socialist to monarchy to representative republic shows evidence of this fact.

This should not come as a surprise to any follower of Jesus.

Jesus said that He came to proclaim to us the Kingdom of God. But, He made it clear that the Kingdom of God is not like the Kingdoms and governments of this world:

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

This morning I am, once again, reminded of my dual citizenship. I am a citizen of the United States and a citizen of God’s Kingdom. One is temporal, the other eternal. One is of this world, the other is not. Citizenship in the latter does not excuse me from my responsibilities in the former. In fact, it only makes me more responsible. God’s kingdom compels me to exercise my civic rights and responsibilities in this world as a representative of God’s kingdom.

Like many other Americans, I am not excited about any of the choices our political system has given us this election cycle. Like all human governments, our is ultimately broken. Nevertheless, I have a responsibility as a citizen of this system to be considerate, to be part of the process, and to vote as I am led. Leaders may confuse and mislead, as the prophet Isaiah reminds us this morning, but it does not exempt me from my own personal responsibilities as a small cog in the imperfect machine.

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