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.
Amos answered Amaziah, “I was neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore-fig trees. But the Lord took me from tending the flock and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’
Amos 7:14-15 (NIV)
Early in my life journey I worked for an old and well structured organization. There was an organizational chart and rules of governance for the organization. It had operated successfully for well over a hundred years. I had a position of leadership on the staff of the organization, so when our long-time executive director decided to retire I, along with the other staff, were concerned about the choice of an interim director to lead while we searched for a permanent successor.
A potential interim came in to interview. It was a nice person with all the right qualifications, but there was a general consensus among the leadership team that this person was not the right fit for us. A vote of the organization agreed and the candidate was informed that we were going to move a different direction.
The following morning when I arrived at work I was called into a hastily arranged meeting that became one of the most surreal experiences of my life. The chair of the organization’s Board, who just the previous day had agreed that the interim candidate was not right for our organization now blasted the staff’s leadership team for embarrassing the organization and denying the interim the position. We were criticized, chastised and reprimanded for actively conspiring to sway the vote of the organization.
I remember leaving the meeting utterly confused by what I’d just experienced. I couldn’t figure out the 180 degree turn the Board chair made overnight. I felt blind-sided, wrongfully convicted, and punished by a kangaroo court. It was not long afterwards that I came to realize what had really happened.
In this organization was a long-time member who had been active and in leadership for many, many years. This person was also a successful local business owner who had donated a lot of time, energy, and money to the organization over the years. When the vote on the interim did not go the way this person wanted calls were made. Commands were given, pressure was applied, and power was leveraged. Despite the fact that it went against the organizational structure and by-laws of our group, the Board chair buckled and obeyed the demands of this one power-broker who remained hidden behind the scenes.
Human systems naturally develop centers of power. Governments, businesses, organizations, churches, and even families develop systemically around those who develop and wield power to drive the will of the system. It was a hard lesson for me to learn that the organization I worked for was not really governed as organized. The real power in the organization was a power-broker hidden behind the curtain pressuring the organization to do their will even if their individual will ran contrary to the will of the organization as a whole.
In today’s chapter, the backwoods prophet Amos runs into a similar situation with the power brokers of his day. Amaziah was a powerful priest and the religious right-hand of King Jeroboam. Amaziah ran the idolatrous religious center of Israel’s northern kingdom and helped Jeroboam maintain control over the people. When the poems of Amos (critical of the northern kingdom and predicting the nation’s downfall) grew in popularity , the small-town prophet suddenly became a target of Amaziah’s political power. Amos refused to back down, and gave Amaziah a prophetic vision of the down fall of his own house and family.
This morning I’m struck by Amos, the shepherd and fig farmer from a backwoods town whom God used to shake up the powerful systems of government and religion in his day. “My ways are not your ways,” God tells us through the prophet Isaiah. Human systems tend to favor the powerful, the wealthy, the beautiful, the well-connected, and those willing to step on others to gather and cling to worldly power. Again and again in the Great Story God chooses the weak, the broken, the least, the marginalized, the outcast, and the youngest to accomplish His purposes. Jesus teaches that real power, spiritual power, is found when you let go of power and give it away for the benefit of others. Jesus exemplified this Himself when He…
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Today, I’m thinking about my early experiences in that organization and the power-broker who used threats, pressure, and power to pull the organizational strings from behind the scenes. As I have progressed in my journey I hope that I have learned to follow a very different example with what little power and authority I’ve been given. I hope that I can increasingly follow the example of Jesus, who didn’t grasp and cling to power for His own advantage, but let go of it for the advantage of us all.
[King Asa] even deposed his grandmother Maakah from her position as queen mother, because she had made a repulsive image for the worship of Asherah. Asa cut it down and burned it in the Kidron Valley. 1 Kings 15:13 (NIV)
I thought about Asa this morning as he attempted to bring spiritual reform to the tribe of Judah. I try to imagine the family drama playing out when he deposes Grandma from her position of political power. We are told very little about the situation in the text. Knowing a few things about the ways family systems operate I can only believe that it was a tremendously messy affair, especially when you consider that it was far more than just a family issue. Asa and his grandmother were vying for positions of power within the political and spiritual systems of the nation. It had to have gotten ugly inside the palace.
As I pondered Asa’s situation, I thought about a string of incidents in which Jesus emphasizes that following Him often happens at the cost of family relationships. Jesus told the crowds that those who follow Him must be willing to walk away from fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers. When a man said that he would follow Jesus just as soon as he fulfilled his obligation to bury his father, Jesus told the man to “let the dead bury their own dead” and to follow immediately. When another man said he would follow, but first had to go back and say good-bye to his family, Jesus’ response was sharp. He told the man that he shouldn’t put his hand on the plow and then turn back.
These certainly aren’t among the easy, Pinterest worthy sayings of Jesus’ teaching. Family is messy, and Jesus knew that broken family systems often hold people in spiritual bondage. The control that some families exert over individual members, while often appearing to be quite loving and healthy, can keep those individuals from following Jesus and achieving God’s purposes and callings for their lives.
Today, I’m thankful for family who encouraged me to follow Jesus and who gave me the freedom to embark on the course that God set for my life (even when I know they may not have agreed nor been comfortable with where it led). I’m saying a prayer for all of those for whom following Jesus comes at the cost of family relationships. And, I’m continuing to seek out how I can encourage our girls to follow Jesus and His path and purposes for their lives (even when it runs perpendicular to the paths and purposes I might desire for them).
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, 20 Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.
Luke 2:1-2;19-20 (NIV)
In yesterday’s chapter, Luke related the story of Simeon who told Jesus’ mother that Jesus would cause the “rising and falling of many.” Now he lays out the political landscape of the day. The land at that time was under Roman occupation, so the Roman emperor (Tiberius Caesar) ultimately ruled along with the Roman governor in charge of the occupational force (Pilate). Then there was the local civic leaders, the sons of Herod the Great who operated the region as a client-state of Rome. For the people of Israel, they also answered to the religious authorities led by the high-priest Annas and his son-in-law, Caiaphas. Talk about a political mess.
Into this midst of this mess strides John, the cousin of Jesus. Luke introduced us to John’s story in the first chapter. John is out in the wilderness. While visiting Israel years ago I visited an archaeological site in the wilderness of southern Israel. At the time of Jesus, there was a community residing there who lived frugal, hermitic lives very similar to the monks in medieval monasteries. This community preached and practiced baptism and archaeologists had unearthed baptismal pools. Because the men were celibate in this community, they took in orphans as both a community service (orphans were a huge societal problem in that day) and to perpetuate their ranks.
Luke does not delve into the particulars of John’s life, but we know that his parents were old when he was born. It is quite possible that they died while he was young and he was sent to this community to be raised. There, he would have been taught to live off of the land, would have been educated in the scriptures, and they would have instilled in him the importance of ritual baptism.
I find it interesting that Luke lays out the landscape of political power, then introduces us to John who suddenly appears on the landscape like an ancient prophet out of the desert. John is not from inside any of the political or religious systems of that day. He is an outsider, preaching against the corruption and greed which the political systems bred. It would land him in prison.
Today I am thinking about the systems in which I live and work. Political systems, corporate systems, religious systems, and family systems. It’s amazing how we live within these systems and are influenced by them constantly without giving them much thought. I find it fascinating that both John and Jesus were outsiders. The Kingdom of God, which Jesus would preach to the world, is not an earthly Kingdom or system. Despite humanity’s constant effort to institutionalize it (which always leads to corruption), it remains a calling for those who are willing to follow a path outside of earthly systems.
Then the men of Judah came to Hebron, and there they anointed David king over the tribe of Judah. 2 Samuel 2:4 (NIV)
Life gets messy. When individuals and complex systems of individuals are all navigating their disparate paths and personal agendas, the results are inevitably going to include conflict. Tracing David’s path from being anointed king as a young man and his ascension to the throne of Israel is a meandering path through some very messy personal and political terrain.
King Saul is dead, but that doesn’t mean that David’s path to the throne is now less messy. Just the opposite. Things are going to get even messier. David’s family belongs to the tribe of Judah, and with the death of Saul the men of Judah move quickly to anoint David as their king. There are 12 tribes in Israel, however, and Judah’s brash act of independence reveals a schism between Judah and the other tribes that foreshadows centuries of bloody civil unrest to come when the nation splits in two during the reign of David’s grandson.
David is now King of Judah and its vast southern territory. The remnants of Saul’s political machine are not, however, eager to lose power or cede control of the nation to Judah’s famous outlaw. David was, after all, the young man Saul had designated as #1 on his most wanted list. Saul’s general, Abner, has is own political agenda. Abner sets up Saul’s son, Ish-Bosheth as King of Israel and, no doubt, his puppet. Let the games begin.
Today I am again reminded of how messy life can get. Even as time and events lead towards divine ends, the journey is fraught with difficulties, dangers, toils and snares both personal and corporate. History should teach us that this has always been the case east of Eden, but I find we humans constantly surprised by the reality of it. In midst of the mess I’ve found no other recourse than to spiritually focus on the basics:
- Love God.
- Love others.
- Seek God’s kingdom first
… and then to press on one step, one day, at a time in the right direction.
“Gentlemen, you know that our wealth comes from this business. But as you have seen and heard, this man Paul has persuaded many people that handmade gods aren’t really gods at all. And he’s done this not only here in Ephesus but throughout the entire province! Of course, I’m not just talking about the loss of public respect for our business. I’m also concerned that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will lose its influence and that Artemis—this magnificent goddess worshiped throughout the province of Asia and all around the world—will be robbed of her great prestige!” Acts 19:25-27 (NLT)
A few years ago I read a book about the history of Dutch culture. Having come from Dutch heritage and living in a town steeped in its’ Dutch past, I thought it would be an interesting read. It was.
The author argued that Dutch culture sprang from three intertwining influences. On one side there was the influence of the great Dutch Catholic philosopher, Erasmus who instilled in the Dutch the culture of education and the humanities. On the other side was the Protestant Dutch Calvinists who instilled strict morality and a strong work ethic. When the opposite poles of Catholic and Protestant influence conflicted with one another (and they always conflicted), it was the third major influence that became the tie breaker and trump card: Commerce. In other words: believe what you want across the spectrum of Catholic and Protestant doctrine, but don’t mess with business.
In today’s chapter we see a similar issue boiling to the surface. Paul’s missionary exploits were having the desired effect. Many people were putting their faith in Jesus and becoming followers of this new Christian religion called “The Way.” The idolatrous Greco-Roman culture with its dizzying array of gods did not seem to care much about this upstart religion, until it started to have an effect on the bottom line. Paul’s teaching about turning away from idolatry to the one true God created an economic recession for the local idol makers. Call the local chamber. Organize the Smith’s Union and start a rally. Don’t mess with business.
When spiritual truth is having maximum earthly effect, the spiritual transformation in individuals and communities creates systemic disruption in family systems, cultural systems, economic systems, political systems, and systems of commerce. Disruption creates anxiety. Anxiety creates fear. Fear creates strong, emotional reactivity.
“Don’t imagine that I came to bring peace to the earth! I came not to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” – Jesus