and God knew

Haven’t posted in a while.  It’s a crazy season, both nationally and personally, and I hold to the Thumper-rule:  “If you can’t say something nice… don’t say nothing at all.” OK, I try to hold to that rule.

Today, I can say something that, if not “nice”, should at least be encouraging.

My Bible reading this morning included the first two chapters of Exodus.  The Cliff Notes version:

Chapter 1:  A whole lot of time passes between the death of Joseph and the birth of Moses (We’ll leave the specific amount of time to another discussion).  During that time, a new Pharaoh took over, and decided that the Israelites who were welcomed during Joseph’s time, had become too numerous, and were now a threat to the Egyptians.  The Pharaoh declared first that they would be treated harshly as slaves, and when that didn’t decrease their numbers, he decreed that every male baby should be killed at birth.

Chapter 2:  This chapter only covers 80 years, and if you’ve watched the Charlton Heston movie, you know this story:  Moses is born to an Israelite slave couple.  His mom hides him for 3 months, then decides she can’t hide him anymore, puts him in a basket in the river, where his sister watches while Pharaoh’s daughter discovers the baby.  Pharaoh’s daughter gives baby Moses back to his mom to nurse him. When he’s older, she takes young Moses into Pharaoh’s house and raises him as her own son.  Fast-forward to 40-year-old Moses, a member of Pharaoh’s household, who also knows that he’s of Hebrew descent, goes for a walk in the brick yard, sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, and kills the Egyptian, hides the body, and apparently is not found out.  The next day, when he interrupts two Hebrew slaves fighting each other, they get mad at him, he suddenly becomes paranoid that he’s going to be found out for the murder, and runs away into the desert to the land of Midian.  There he marries the daughter of a shepherd, and spends the next 40 years unremarkably watching sheep for his father in law.  The last three verses of the chapter tell us that Pharaoh dies, and the Israelites cry out to God about their oppression in Egypt. God hears their cries, and remembers his promise to Abraham to make Israel a great nation.

I’ve read this account countless times, and seen Charlton Heston act it out several more.  What stood out to me today was the last verse of Chapter 2, and particularly the last three words.  Today I was reading from the English Standard Version (ESV), and it translates Exodus 2:25 as, “God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.”

“and God knew.”  That’s interesting.  I couldn’t recall ever reading that before.  I pulled out “old faithful,” my worn NIV (84 version) and read the verse, where those translators converted verse 25 to the English, “So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.” That sounded a lot more familiar!  In fact, I had looked at that verse many times, and thought, “What a primitive understanding of God.”

It always seemed as if the writer is giving the impression that God forgot about his promise to Abraham, and the fact that his chosen people, Abraham’s descendants, were being beaten as slaves for over 80 years, and then one day he said, “Oh, I wonder how they’re doing?  I seem to hear them carrying on about something.  I should check on them. They may be having some sort of difficulty.”

Now, I hold to a view of God as all-knowing, all-powerful, and present everywhere at the same time, so I am certain that he hadn’t become unaware of the plight of the Israelites.  I just chalked the peculiar language up to the fact that the writer of Exodus didn’t really have as complete an understanding of God as us modern folks do (that’s a joke, by the way).

“and God knew.”  OK, now my curiosity was piqued.  I needed to know more.  It turns out the Hebrew word translated by the ESV as “knew” and by the NIV as “was concerned about them” is yada. This is a complex Hebrew word that has a lot of variation of meanings in the 944 times it is used in the Old Testament.  Without going into all of the variations, it is safe to say that both translations are accurate interpretations of what the word could mean.  Being “concerned about them” fits within the various meanings of yada, but “know” hits the primary meaning.

“and God knew.”  As a parent, this resonated with me.  As we watch our children mature, we sometimes see them experience something for the first time, and we understand their experience better than they do. Often, we understand what they’re going to experience before they get there.  Imagine a teenager in their first romantic relationship.  They are “in love,” but parents know…  There is going to be infatuation;  sickeningly-sweet, life-long commitment; and eventually the  devastation that elicits sobs of, “I can’t live without him (or her)!”

“and God knew.” As that parent, we can’t intervene, we can’t stop the process, we can’t lessen the pain.  We can warn, we can cajole, we can make crazy threats and buy “Dads Against Daughters Dating” t-shirts, but no matter how much we would like to spare them (and us) of the experience, we have to let it play out.  But we know. We let the scenario play out, standing back, but watching intently, knowing that there will be a time when the lovelorn child cries out to us in anguish, and we are ready to step in and comfort.

“and God knew.” God hadn’t lost track of the Israelites.  He hadn’t become distracted, and suddenly realized he’d left them alone.  He knew. He was there, ready, waiting for them to cry out.

“and God knew.” Not only was he waiting, but he was prepared!  Read Exodus 2, or at least my summary above, again.  How plausible is this story?  A Levite couple (the family that priests come from) hide a baby. The king’s daughter finds it, and says, “Hey, Dad!  I found a baby today while I was taking a bath.  It was one of the Hebrew babies you are trying to kill.  Right after I found it, there was a girl standing there who said she could find a slave woman to nurse it for me, so I gave the baby back to her.  When he’s weaned, I am going to bring him here and I’ll raise him like he was my own baby, ‘K?”

Then, when the 40-year-old Hebrew/Pharaoh man kills somebody, he runs away into the desert and hides in another country for 40 years.  So a guy with a top-flight education, military training and leadership experience sits on a brown mountain for 40 years watching sheep do sheep-stuff, until one day when God randomly finds this perfect candidate to take on Pharaoh and lead hundreds of thousands of slaves to freedom from the world’s greatest power.  That’s only plausible if there is an unseen power directing the events.

“and God knew.”  In Jeremiah 1:5, God tells the prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew (yada) you; and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”  God had given Jeremiah a purpose before he gave him a heartbeat.  Exodus 2 is a story that God authored before “In the beginning…”  I am always hesitant to try to determine or explain God’s purposes, but if we look at Exodus 2, it would appear that God needed to get the Israelites miserable enough in their current situation that they’d be willing to go through the hardship, fear, and unknown of leaving Egypt for a “promised land” that they’d only heard stories about.  And while they were getting good and miserable, God needed to raise up a leader, train him, and then shield him from the misery until the time was right.

“and God knew.” There is a lot of turmoil in our world, our nation, our cities, and even in our own homes right now.  My wife and I are facing an exciting, but terrifyingly uncertain future as we prepare to move across the continent to a city we’ve never lived in, to start a church in a place that doesn’t perceive a whole lot of use for Christians or God.  Oh, and the cost of living is higher, starting a church isn’t real lucrative, and my retirement savings is depleted after 3 years of being a volunteer (that’s Hebrew for unpaid) pastor. Things are looking pretty chaotic, unorganized, and… impossible.  Some of my friends are facing uncertainties much greater than mine.  They’ve lost their health, livelihood, or even their spouse, or father, way too soon.  There’s no way this can work!  In their more honest moments, they might even tell you that they might not want it to work.  It’d be easier to just quit.  And if you take the time to sit in their place for a minute, you can see how they think that.

“and God knew.”  God didn’t take away the Israelites misery.  In fact, he used it to move them.  He was standing close by, watching, waiting for their cry, and at just the right moment he sent the leader he had begun preparing (on earth) 80 years prior.  Truth is, if you consider how quickly the Israelites were ready to abandon the Exodus and return to slavery in Egypt, he probably should have let them get a little more miserable before sending Moses.  But he knew.

And he still does.  The Israelites never got all the answers, and their suffering didn’t magically go away.  In some ways, life got harder once they were freed from slavery.  But God was with them, watching over them, knowing them, throughout their time in slavery, their time of testing in the desert; always watching, acting at just the right moment.

“and God knows.”  Wherever you are today, whatever you are enduring, or fearing, or mourning, he still knows. 

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Scared? It’s your choice.

No, this is not a political post, although I can see an application in our current political climate.  But I’m not going there today.  I’ve spent the past few days hanging out in a hospital with one of my closest friends who is fighting a fight that would terrify any of us.  So my mind is primarily there, but it is also with many other friends, who are

  • dealing with loved ones battling major health issues,
  • dealing with the too-soon unexpected death of a spouse,
  • facing dramatic career-change and relocations,
  • and many others who are rightfully overwhelmed by the unknown future of family members, close friends, and their own inner struggles.
I was reminded of the phrase “be strong and courageous” from the book of Joshua, and I share it with all of you.  Joshua was the successor to Moses.  If you’ve ever taken a job where the person you are replacing was a legendary figure in the company, you have a little idea what it was like for Joshua.  Moses was the greatest leader they had ever known, and he had led the Israelites to do extraordinary things.  The book of Joshua begins with God talking to Joshua–passing Moses’ leadership mantle to Joshua.  What makes Joshua’s assignment even more daunting is the fact that he’s not merely taking over an organization that is running in a steady state, with the job “not to screw things up.”  Joshua is charged by God to take the nation of Israel to the next level–literally to lead them to take the “Promised Land,” the mission for which Moses had been training them for the past 40 years.
It’s easy to sit here in the luxury of nearly 3500 years of hindsight and underestimate Joshua’s situation.  Because, of course, God “promised” the Israelites this land, so certainly Joshua was going to be successful, so he should have no doubts, right?  Joshua was probably more focused on the fact that Moses was the one God chose to lead the Israelites out of slavery and into the Promised Land, and he died in the desert.  If Moses couldn’t do it, how was he supposed to pull it off?  Joshua had been a faithful second-in-command, but when you become “the guy,” everything changes.  All that to say, Joshua had more than a little reason to be overwhelmed with legitimate fear.
Fear is a messy thing.  Our culture has cast it as a weakness, a thing to be ridiculed, a sign of insufficient confidence or inner strength.  Religious people point to it as a lack of faith, as if it were some sort of character flaw or shortcoming.  Many try to deal with it in a number of unhealthy ways.  People suppress fear and deny it, or at the other end of the spectrum, embrace it as part of “who they are” and allow it to suppress them.  I don’t want to delve too deeply into the psychology of fear, but instead I want to look at this one teaching on it, and see if there’s something in here to help all of us as we grapple with the emotions generated as we contemplate the unknown (or sometimes that which we do know, and are about to encounter again).
God’s charge to Joshua starts brutally bluntly:  “Moses my servant is dead.  Now, you get all these people ready to invade the land that your ancestors have been dreaming about.” (Joshua 1:2, GMW version)  He then goes on in verses 3-5 to tell Joshua about the success God has in store for them.
Then in verse 6 God changes the topic slightly.  In the next 4 verses, God deals with a critical issue:  Joshua’s fear.  Joshua was a confident, courageous leader who had proven himself strong already on multiple occasions.  He is one of the few major biblical characters who has no significant character flaws (the only real negative I can find recorded in Scripture was his failure to consult with God about the Gibeonite treaty–a mistake, to be sure, but primarily because it was so out of character for Joshua).  Joshua was no wimp, no weak man.  But three times in four verses, God encourages Joshua:
  • v6: “Be strong and courageous…”
  • v7: “Be strong and very courageous…”
  • v9: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous….”
God didn’t dismiss Joshua’s fears.  Too many times someone who is dealing with fearful situations is told “don’t be afraid” or worse yet, “Why are you afraid?”  Dismissing fear is less than pointless; it’s demeaning.  God doesn’t do that to Joshua.  He offers something better!  He tells him to be strong, to have courage.  That’s easy for God to say, he’s not looking at the situation through my eyeballs!
I left out a lot of text from those four verses, where God gives the details of how Joshua can “be strong and courageous” in the midst of his fearful circumstances.  More on that in a minute.  But first, I want to explore something I hadn’t noticed in that passage before, even though I’ve read it dozens of times.  In verse 9, God starts with “Have I not commanded you?”  I’ve always read that as something akin to that parental breakdown point, when logic and patience fail simultaneously, and the parent screams, “DO IT BECAUSE I SAID SO!!!”  But that’s not what is going on here.  Just as in John 13:34, where Jesus tells his disciples, “a new command I give you:  love one another”, Jesus is not commanding an emotion.  So also God is not commanding Joshua to have an emotion.  Emotions can’t be forced.
In our culture, we don’t fully understand Jesus’s command in John 13, because we think “warm fuzzy feels” when we think “love.”  But Jesus’s command is to an action, rooted in a choice.  In the same way, God commands Joshua, “Be strong and courageous.”  He’s not saying “don’t have an emotion (fear).”  He’s saying, essentially, “Make a choice:  Choose to have strength and courage.”  Just as our culture misunderstands love, we also misunderstand courage.  What most of us think of as courage is more accurately “bravado,” which Oxford defines as “a bold manner or a show of boldness intended to impress or intimidate.” 
God’s command to Joshua is something different.  He is commanding an action.  And precluding that action is a decision.  Joshua gets to decide whether he is going to act on his fears, or on something else.  Courage is the act of choosing to persevere despite the conditions that warrant fear.  Courage is focusing on your source of strength, and acting.  Fear is nothing more than empowered doubt.  Courage is choosing to focus on and continuing to work toward the right outcome, despite the risks.
God redirects Joshua’s attention from the obstacles and enormity of the task at hand.  Joshua wasn’t acting on blind wishes.  He’d seen God’s work and knew His strength.  He knew God’s assurances that Joshua would succeed could be trusted, because he knew God.
All of us face fearful circumstances at times in our lives.  Some of us are staring at the impossible, the insurmountable–at monsters so big that the only reasonable response is to curl up in the corner and wait for it to devour us.  But we have another choice.  We can choose to be strong and courageous.  We can choose to focus on the sources of strength in our lives, and to recognize that those strengths can help us press on in the midst of our fears.  When fearful thoughts start washing over us, we can choose to think a new thought!  We can decide to keep going, and not let our fears control us.  They won’t always go away, but they don’t have to dominate.

For followers of YHWH, Joshua’s God, our source of strength is the same assurances that Joshua had:  God is worthy of being trusted, because he has always proven himself to be true.  While verse 9 was not specifically addressed to us, God’s nature is such that we can be assured that we have the same promise:

“Have I not commanded you?  Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” 

A pause, and an aside

Life’s been busy, and I’ve been slacking, so I haven’t finished the series on health care reform yet.  I’ve written more than you’ve read, and I’m about to dive back in, but I needed a break.

I’m taking off an a bit of a tangent today.  I’m studying poverty right now; it’s an area of extreme interest, which lead me to a new job, which makes it all the more important for me to study poverty.  Anyway, I read a quote in a book I’m studying, that made me think…  And I think it’s really relevant for all of us.  It’s the intro quote to a chapter on mentoring people who are seeking to escape from generational poverty.

The wise … mentor knows that being aware of what is not known is important in order to begin to learn.*

One can read this sentence in two ways, and I haven’t read the chapter yet to know how the author intended to use it.  The first, and what I believe the more likely way for most people to interpret this sentence, is that the one being mentored must be aware of what he or she does not know.  While this is true, I believe it is just, if not more important, for the mentor to be aware of his or her own unknowns.  Like it or not, most of us operate with a huge blind spot, in that we don’t know, and in most cases don’t even consider the existence of, what we don’t know.  Poor Donald Rumsfeld was lampooned for discussing this concept, when he talked about “unknown unknowns” when in reality, he was thinking so far beyond his audience that they couldn’t comprehend a very intelligent point.  Most of us operate in the majority of our lives and decisionmaking processes from the incredibly blind point of view that we know all of the salient facts.  Fortunately, most of those decisions don’t have significant consequences.  That doesn’t make us smarter, so much as it makes us lucky.

Back to the point on poverty:  Most of us have never experienced true poverty first-hand, and quite a bit of our nation hasn’t experienced it second-hand.  Therefore, our opinions are formed predominantly from third-hand information.  When trying to address concerns of poverty, our first inclination is to tell folks to “get a job,” or “get a better job, that earns more money.”  If our experience in life doesn’t include any real contact with poverty, this makes perfect sense.  However, it ignores the fact that people who are in generational poverty are truly members of a different culture than the vast majority of the rest of us (I’m not ignoring that they’re immersed in a broader American culture that we all share, but using the term culture to refer to the fact that they are a people group who tends to be clustered together geographically, with a common set of experiences, values, language, and dress that makes them uniquely identifiable).  A reasonable person would not expect a member of another culture (for example, someone born and raised in a farming village in China) to respond to a situation the same way someone from the US would.  We recognize that they have a different frame of reference.  I believe we need to approach the generational impoverished in the same way-=-we need to start out with a desire to become aware of what we don’t know (those cultural norms of the generational impoverished that differ from our middle class norms) if we hope to help them change their condition.  Otherwise, even the best-intentioned efforts to help will be misunderstood, and at the least will only be marginally ineffective; in many cases they can exacerbate the problem.

“Seek first to understand…”

________________________________________

*Payne, Ruby K. PhD, Philip E. Devol, Terie Dreussi Smith. “Bridges out of Poverty: Strategies for Professionals and Communities.” Highlands, TX: aha! Process, Inc., 2009, p. 79.

Help me understand?

Last week I wrote about a meta-theme in our world today that I labeled a “spirit of offendedness.”  In trying to understand this phenomenon, I also observed a perceived relationship between it and the divisiveness in our country today (although I’m still not prepared to try to categorize the relationship).  I concluded the post with a commitment to try to help bring about change, at least in my little corner of the world, by focusing on not being offended, and by trying to unite people, seek common ground, and understand their perspective.  I titled that post “Radical Change”, but in reality, in some aspects of my life, it’s not so radical; I’ve got a lot of experience and training in doing exactly that in the professional world.

Divisiveness is a fact of life.  Life is a web of interactions with people who have perceived or real differences in objectives for those interactions.  Basic economic theory teaches that most of our decisions in the world around us involve taking our own selfish interests into the world in order to get maximum satisfaction (fulfillment of our needs) at minimum cost (fulfillment of someone else’s needs)–while the other person is trying to maximize his/her own satisfaction.  This concept has much broader application than the basic supply/demand curves that you were forced to try to understand in your Econ 101 class (yes, I’m an Econ major, and I think it’s important and valuable to all of life–that does NOT make me a nerd, no matter what my kids say).

I’ve had the privilege to take several graduate level courses on negotiations, with a focus on both traditional business negotiations and on less obvious negotiations such as dealing with personnel performance issues.  From that training, and lots of opportunities to apply it, I’ve come to the conclusion that pretty much any personal interaction is a negotiation.  Based on how I observe people interacting in our society today, I think that most people have come to that conclusion as well, either consciously or subconsciously.  However, most folks seem to be defaulting to the most rudimentary negotiation strategy:  I win by you losing.  If you never got much past the fourth week of Econ 101, the basic supply/demand curve was just the beginning.  Most transactions/human interactions are much more complex, and demand more intricate approaches.

In order to avoid totally derailing this post and turning it into a negotiation class, let me just say that there are volumes of studies that indicate that in almost all situations, “win-win” scenarios exist where both parties can get a satisfactory level of satisfaction that is generally greater than the outcome they achieve by approaching the scenario from a win/lose mindset.  I had a hard time believing it too; I was presented with lots of statistics and with detailed case studies to back them up.  Why, then, do we not see more of these win-win scenarios play out?  The simple answer points back to the failure to apply one of my blog themes:  “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”  Most of us either instinctively, or through conditioning, approach an interaction with an understanding of our own desired outcome, and an assumption about the other party’s desired outcome.

We fail to achieve win-win, however, by acting on that assumption without validating it.  We just behave as if it were fact.  And in that case, we often act on really bad assumptions, particularly in our current social environment, where it seems to be the norm to assume that all those who are not in our own tribe are evil, ignorant, and have malicious intent toward us.  The reality is almost always quite different!  Whether one is exploring the opposing political party’s position (they really aren’t godless Marxists set upon destroying our nation, or heartless robber-barons intent upon getting rich on the peasant labor of the expendable poor), or frustrated at the person who cut you off in traffic (it’s entirely possible that they didn’t see you through a legitimate mistake, not that they have some superiority conflict which makes them think it’s OK to seize the right of way), our assumptions tend to be inaccurate, and more often than not, tend to deviate toward the most negative or pessimistic possibility.

Pretty big assertion there, but I can back it up with decades of personal observation that affirm it.  Just in the past week I’ve seen it play out several times, where someone takes offense at another, and builds that offense to a fever pitch, because they assume the worst about the offender.  But they never took the time to validate their assumptions!  In two of the specific situations I have in mind, I know that the offended party was totally inaccurate in their assumption.  In one case, they found out the real truth, and the situation was defused.  In the second, the party is too busy being offended (I’m talking serious anger and hatred here) to even give consideration that they totally misunderstood the interaction, and what they thought they saw was not at all the case.  In a third situation, one that’s going to have major ramifications for millions of people who should all be agreeing and working together for good, one highly influential leader has declared millions of others wrong in the most divisive, hateful language possible, without so much as a single thought to trying to understand the other side of the story.

In the business world, negotiating like this might make you money in the short run (if you’ve got a lot of market power–if you don’t, you’ll find yourself bankrupt quickly), but it will soon get you branded as a heartless monster who no one wants to do business with.  In leading people, you’ll be effective only to the extent that you have significant power to wield–but you’ll also be hated as a ruthless, uncaring boss who gets ahead by stepping on the backs of others.  Competent negotiators will go to great lengths to gather as much understanding as possible of the opposite party’s position, their needs, desires, constraints, etc.  Only a foolish negotiator would enter into a negotiation by refusing to even try to gather information on the other party’s position.  Unfortunately, most of us are not trained negotiators, and we do exactly that every day.  Most of the time, it doesn’t really hurt us too much, because most of our interactions are too casual and insignificant to have lasting impact.  But when our interactions have significance, we fall right squarely in the “foolish” category if we choose not to even attempt to validate our assumptions that are the basis for our offendedness and divisiveness.

So, pitfall number one on the road to win-win is acting on assumptions without even attempting to validate them.  Pitfall number two is attempting to validate our assumptions from lousy sources.  Let’s say you’re trying to understand why proponents of Obamacare think it’s a good idea.  You assume it’s because they’re all graduates of liberal arts colleges who have been mindlessly indoctrinated in Marxist philosophy, and are programmed to destroy our nation and way of life by turning every aspect of life over to the government, that they wan to destroy the rich, and use the money of the wealthy to make it so that no one has to work who doesn’t want to.  Consulting with Rush Limbaugh, The Heritage Foundation, and Glenn Beck will certainly give you confidence in the accuracy of your assumption, but you won’t in fact have validated it.  Either of these pitfalls will knock you off the road to win-win, and leave you fuming instead in a wreck of offendedness.

OK, so I’m back to turning this into a negotiating class, and wearing out my road metaphor–let me cut to the chase:  In most cases, a well-placed question to the other party can reveal a lot of information (maybe not all the details, but enough to validate, or at least make your assumptions significantly more accurate).  “What is this magic question?” you ask!  It’s actually amazingly simple, if asked with sincerity.

“Help me understand…?” 

Now, how you finish the sentence is important.  “Help me understand how come you’re so stupid you can’t see that your idea will ruin the world?” isn’t going to get you too far.  “Help me understand the benefit you see in this approach?” is much better.  It even works when someone screws you over!  Instead of going into attack mode of “why did you provide such negative feedback about me on the recommendation?!”  try “I was surprised by your feedback on the recommendation.  Help me understand what led you to make those remarks about my performance on the last project?” creates an opportunity for the other party to explain their position.  You might just discover that there was a misunderstanding–it’s a lot easier for someone to admit they made a mistake if you give them a graceful opportunity to explain, rather than to tear into them with teeth bared.  And go to the source, not your friends, co-workers, other family members, etc.  As a leader who has made lots of mistakes, I can tell you that I ALWAYS appreciated the opportunity to own up to it to the offended party, rather than to have them ask other members of the team, and in the process multiply the derogatory assumptions.

I really need to wrap this up, and I appreciate it if you’ve hung in this long.  Bottom line:  lots of folks are offended by others today; it either leads to, or is caused by divisiveness.  Lots of science indicates that we all tend to make assumptions about others that we interact with, and that we often fail to validate those assumptions.  The farther outside our own social circle the other party is, the more we tend to assume the worst about the other party’s actions, motives, etc; which exacerbates our offendedness and further divides us.  A critical life principle and foundation of my thinking (and blog) is the idea that we should “seek first to understand, then to be understood.”  A great little tool for seeking understanding in human interaction is to ask a simple question:  “Help me understand?”

Try it.

Radical Change

It’s been seven months since I last posted in this blog.  A lot has changed in my life in seven months:

  • I’ve moved from one end of the continent to the other (Alaska to Florida)
  • My daughter got married in June
  • My son has moved and bought his first home
  • I went from being extremely busy in a well-paying job to relatively unbusy in a non-job.

Technically I’m not “unemployed,” since the formal definition of that term requires one to be looking for a job.  I’m not.  After a lot of discussion, prayer, and doubts, my wife and I decided that I needed to “take some time off.”  If it were a more formal arrangement, one might call this a “sabbatical,” but I don’t have an end date, and I’m not going back to my old job (as far as I know, anyway).  We’ve relocated to an idyllic place where I can spend my time decompressing, studying, thinking, and learning how to relax (which is the toughest task I think I’ve ever had).

One of my goals for this time has been to spend a lot of time thinking and studying, and then writing on a fairly regular basis.  We’ve been in our new home now for a little more than a month, and we’re settled enough that I’ve embarked on the studying, and was starting to feel guilty for not having written yet.  My biggest challenge hasn’t been motivation or finding a topic, but rather to distill all the thoughts into something singular to post about.

“So what are you going to write about today, Brain?”
“The same thing I do every time, Pinky:  How to fix the world.”  (1990s cartoon reference in honor of my kids)

While topics such as the Affordable Care Act, the federal government shutdown, NSA spying on pretty much everybody, and others are interesting potential fodder for future posts, I want to start with what I see as a meta-theme and my approach to it.

I’ve struggled mightily to try to accurately define this meta-theme that I see prevalent throughout our society, and I’m still not sure I’ve done it accurately.  For lack of a more accurate term, I’m going to initially refer to it as a “spirit of offendedness.”  It seems to me that we have a strong tendency to be offended, and in fact, that we often seem to seek reasons to be offended.  Whether it’s in traffic, or an encounter with a neighbor and loose dogs, or collectively in our political tribes, or in just about any group encounter, we are offended by the actions of others.  It seems to be our default position.  Note, I’m using first person plural throughout this description, as I’m seeing it in myself, and not just trying to pin it on everyone else.

I think there’s a relationship here between the “spirit of offendedness” and the divisiveness plaguing our nation, but I’m not sure exactly what that relationship is.  But the combination of our proclivity to be offended, and the divisiveness in virtually all aspects of our country seem to be at the root of much of the troubles we’re facing today, at the macro and the micro level.

I’m not going to try to defend my argument today; that’s not the point of my post.  Instead, with this new start to my (hopefully) regular blogging, I’m committing publicly to try to defuse this meta-theme in my own actions, thoughts, and writing.  Further, by putting it here, I’m giving you permission to call me on it when I come up short.  Finally, I’m inviting you to join me.  See, the more I consider it, the more I realizing that I’m trying to draw on one of the most significant moments of my life, when wisdom it me so hard in the nose that it still stings 30 years later.

Early in my Army career, I had the extreme fortune to be assigned as the platoon leader’s RTO (although at the time I saw nothing fortunate about it at all).  We had jumped into an exercise at sundown, then moved all night before setting up in our patrol base.  Normally that would mean time to get some sleep, but my PL wanted me to help him build a sand table to prepare to brief the operations order.  I was tired, grumpy, and generally being a punk private, and went into a profanity laced tirade about how hosed up everything was.  As I was about to hit my rhythm, LT Miller bellowed, “Walker, Shut the f*(& up!  You’re real good at telling me everything that is wrong, but you never say a single word about how to fix it.  Until you have a viable solution, I don’t want to hear another word out of you!”  My immediate response was to close my mouth, although I’m sure my brain went into a nonverbal tirade about the obnoxious know-it-all-lieutenant.  But after the red drained out of my face, I realized he was right.  If all you’re doing is telling everyone you see what is wrong with what’s going on, but you’re not doing anything constructive to make it better, you’re just bitching.  That seems to be our new national pastime.  I’ve probably failed at following LT Miller’s advice more than I’ve succeeded, but I’ve tried to make it a maxim to live by.

So here’s the deal:  I am going to try not to take up offense, or to be divisive.  Instead, I’m going to work here, and in all aspects of my life, to try to unite people, to find common ground.  I’m going to work, when I see something that bugs me, that I don’t like, or that might actually inconvenience me, to try to understand the reasoning behind the other position before I assume that the other is trying to ruin my life.  I’m not going to begin with the assumption (or the perceived “fact”) that the person or group that is offending me is a selfish, or worse yet devious idiot who is determined to ruin me, my country, or my drive to the store.  Maybe they know something I don’t?  Maybe they have different (which does not mean wrong) priorities?  Maybe they just made an honest mistake (rather than a devious lie designed to deceive)?

I’m not saying I’m not going to debate, or disagree–just that I’m not going to disagree from a point of offense or divisiveness, but from a point of trying to achieve understanding, and seeking common ground.

For me, that’s pretty radical.  Want to join me?

“You Can’t Have Faith Without Doubt”–the back-story

“You can’t have faith without doubt.”

That statement ought to get you thinking.  I know it did me.  I first heard it from our senior pastor, when our little church was embarking on an incredibly optimistic faith journey a few years back.  I grew up with the impression that doubt was a bad thing; a sign of weakness, of a failure of faith.  How could I not think that, when the church had branded one of Jesus’s closest companions as “doubting Thomas”–a branding so successful that the term is used in popular culture even by those who probably couldn’t tell you who Thomas was, or what heinous act he committed to be viewed with such disdain.  So, when this wise older scholar made the statement, I had to take some time to consider the thought.

First, Thomas got a bad rap.  If you’re not familiar with it, Thomas’s story is told in John 20:19-29.  Unfortunately for most Christians, we’ve read and heard the story so many times that we don’t really read it anymore, we skim it, and jump straight to the anticipated ending, along with all the afore-learned stereotypes.  In studying up on doubt, I took time to really savor this story, reading it as if for the first time, trying to witness it as if I’d never heard it before.

I’m going to refrain from delving too deep into the political and cultural climate of the story; suffice it to say that a full understanding of the climate makes the story much more powerful.  The over-simplified version is this:  Jesus’s closest followers were gathered together on Sunday evening.  Jesus had been crucified three days earlier.  They were afraid for their lives, and had every reason to be.  There were a few in their group who were claiming that they’d seen Jesus alive earlier that day–but people just don’t come back to life after they die.  But then again, some of this very same group had witnessed Lazarus come back to life (at Jesus’s command, no less!) after he’d been dead for four days.

A worthwhile detour with respect to the character of Thomas:  In the story of Lazarus’s resurrection, Jesus declares that he’s going back to Judea to Lazarus’s family.  He’d left Judea earlier to escape the religious leaders who were out to kill him. His disciples (names aren’t given, but the plural is used, so one would assume this was a group consensus) try to dissuade him because people will try to kill him.  When Jesus makes it clear that his purpose is in Judea, Thomas is recorded as saying “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  Essentially, Thomas tells the group that he’s committed enough to Jesus that if Jesus is going to do something that will likely get him killed, so be it, Thomas will be right there with him.  Hardly the words one would expect from the weak-minded stereotypical Thomas many of us were taught.

Back to Easter Sunday–that evening, the disciples were hiding together in a locked room.  These are not courageous men of faith; they’re not expecting a resurrected Jesus (realistically, you only can understand his teachings about his resurrection in the Gospels once you know that he rose from the grave.  The disciples didn’t get it until after it had happened, and only fully comprehended it after years of living in the fullness of the Holy Spirit).  If anything, they’re expecting a knock on the door, or a crash at the door, from the Temple guards or the Roman centurions, taking them all to their own cross.  Suddenly, in their midst (without anyone opening the door), Jesus appears and greets them.

Verse 20 has to be one of the most ignored verses in Scripture.  “After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.”  I’m reading a little into the text based solely on the sequencing of the phrasing, but I’m guessing that if they were convinced he was the Lord as soon as he appeared, there would have been little need for him to show his scars.  I read this passage to indicate that he showed him his hands and side, then the disciples were overjoyed, because they then saw the Lord.   Even if my interpretation is inaccurate, the wording clearly indicates that Jesus showed his scars.

In verse 24, Thomas shows up (there has been much speculation throughout history has to why Thomas wasn’t there–most of it seems to be influenced by the underserved slam on his character.  Scripture indicates that the disciples came together that evening, meaning they hadn’t been together all day long.  Bottom line is we can’t read what isn’t there, and it’s inaccurate to judge Thomas negatively based on assumptions).  Jesus has departed prior to Thomas’s arrival, and Thomas walks into what must have been an incomprehensible scene:  His closest companions–all of them–are excitedly talking over one another insisting that Jesus, who had been crucified on Friday, had just been in their midst, very much alive, on Sunday night.  Here’s where Thomas’s story heads downhill in the minds of most:  His response to this excited gaggle’s claim “We have seen the Lord!”:  “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”

Oh, “Doubting Thomas.”  Your friends have told you that the impossible has just happened.  Why don’t you believe them at their word?  Why do you insist on seeing the evidence…  that they saw?  Wait… read that again.  Jesus showed up, and displayed his scars, and the disciples recognized him and were overjoyed.  Thomas walks into this scene of overjoyed-ness (I can only imagine the pandemonium).  Could it be that the author of the Gospel left out some of the dialogue between the group’s claim, and Thomas’s response?  Could someone in the group (whom I imagine were all talking at once, sharing their radically excited, overjoyed news with their recently arrived friend) have said, “He showed us his hands and his side!” prior to Thomas’s recorded response?  While that is sheer speculation on my part, the record is very clear:  Thomas simply asked for the same evidence that the clamoring disciples had already seen for themselves.  And for that, we’ve impugned his character forever.

Thomas wasn’t some sort of faithless, spineless loser.  He was bold, and he was honest.  Sure, the witnesses were his friends, but their claim was incomprehensible and unprecedented (there are differences between Jesus’s resurrection and Lazarus’s–namely, Jesus commanded Lazarus’s resurrection–he couldn’t very well command his own, since he was the one that was dead!).  Nonetheless, that wasn’t enough for Thomas to “believe.”  As I discussed in my post “Contemplating Doubt,” the word translated as “believe” has a lot more depth to it than just agreement that a fact is true.  It means committing and acting on the basis of that truth, to the point that if in fact it’s not true, you are going to suffer significant consequences.  We’ve already seen that Thomas isn’t afraid to stake his very life on something that he truly believes.  Here, he just says, in essence, “I’m not convinced enough to be fully committed.”

Folks, that’s not a sin.  That’s wisdom.  A friend recently called it “intellectual integrity.”  That means that Thomas wasn’t putting on some sort of bogus religious mask to hide what he truly thought and felt, trying to appear all “churchy.”  Thomas didn’t say he refused to believe.  He didn’t say he believed the story was not true.  He just said what was truly on his mind–he wasn’t there yet.

We’ve all been in situations of doubt, and will be there again.  Doubt is real, it’s important, and it’s often mishandled by people who mean to help.  Instead of condemning doubt, either in the church, or in society at large, we need to be open about it.  This is contrary to what many of us have experienced in church, and it’s contrary to what is rewarded in our American culture.  But if “you can’t have faith without doubt,” and faith is a good thing, then isn’t doubt a good thing, a necessary thing?