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What I'm Reading Today: Exodus 28-31

As Mike and I approach the start of our second decade together next month (we met November 29, 2001 – but who's counting?), I have thought a lot about those things that make me a good partner and those things where I have room to grow.

I am pretty good, for instance, about giving Mike space when he needs it. I am also very good about communicating what's going on with me (maybe too good, he might say). My sense is that he appreciates those things on most days.

I do have areas where I definitely need to improve. While I'm good about communicating what's going on with me, for instance, I often forget to include time for Mike to share what's going on for him. And my biggest deficit is that I don't make enough time for us to be together. As someone who's prone to being a workaholic, I have trouble setting boundaries and making sure that we get our time together on a semi-regular basis.

Why is time together so important?

It's because that time together helps you stay in rhythm with each another. That time together doesn't have to be an official "date", or a big event. It can simply be intentionally going to the store together or taking the dogs for a walk together. Over our years together I've found it's not important what you do; it's most important that you make time to do it together as you try to keep your relationship connected and alive.

In many ways, that is the same point God was trying to communicate to Moses and the Israelites in today's passage when the issue of the Sabbath came up. Lots of folks think about the importance of Sabbath being of its benefits on the individual entity (i.e. it's a time of rest for a person, or it's something you observe as a gift to God). I don't to think of it that way. I see the Sabbath as a time that benefits the relationship (or connection) between God and an individual. If you don't intentionally spend time together on a regular basis, you WILL begin to drift apart.

As we head into the weekend – a weekend that contains their Sabbath time for many people – I would encourage you to think about your Sabbath in relational ways. How will you approach your Sabbath this week in order to help you grow in your understanding and experience of God?

PS. I'm making the long drive to Atascadero for a UCC Association meeting tomorrow so I won't be able to write. I'll hope to see you back here on Monday morning.

Til next time …

Removing the Distance

What I'm Reading Today: Exodus 24-27

When I first discovered the emerging/emergent ways of being within the Christian movement, there was a huge rush for me initially. I felt that rush because the emerging/emergent Christian communities expressed many of the visions I had held for years that went against much the traditional church was teaching – particularly when it came to ways of being community.

You see for centuries, most institutional Christian churches acted as if there were levels – or layers – in the community that stood between individuals and God. Most Protestants would say that it's only Roman Catholics that have such levels or layers. That is completely untrue. The truth is we Protestants have just as many levels. Instead of calling our levels "popes" and "bishops" we call ours things like "councils" and "committees". Each of these entities function for the same purpose; they were created in order to control or manage things.

Now don't get me wrong. I understand there is a certain degree of control or management that needs to exist in order for a group of people to function as a community. Light bills, for instance, have to be paid – so we need finance committee to empower someone to write a check. Sadly, however, in many faith communities these practical needs have been used to justify the creation of other mechanism so that other areas of the life of the community are being controlled to unhealthy degrees. This has had an unfortunate consequence. It has made many of the lay people in our faith communities feel completely disempowered. Eventually, they get tired of putting up with other people's efforts to control them, and they walk away. Then we wonder why our churches are declining?!

I was frustrated with today's reading because it seemed to feed into this process of disempowerment. We were told, for instance, that God said to Moses: "Climb the mountain to God, you and Aaron, Nadab, Abihus, and seventy of the elders of Israel. They will worship from a distance; only Moses will approach God. The rest are not to come close. And the people are not to climb on the mountain at all."

Talk about disempowerment!

I suppose some would say this was one of those practical moments where it was most effective for Moses to commune with God in a way where there were as few distractions as possible. That's why the leaders and people were told to stand off at a distance.

Even if that's the case, I think as people of faith we are called to be honest with such assumptions and challenge them when people tell us to remove ourselves. For the last thing I believe we want these days are faith communities whose purpose is to put a distance between God and the people. Faith communities should be all about drawing people in to a direct experience of God – a TRANSFORMATIVE experience of God.

Today I would encourage to examine your life for areas where you have been content to allow distance to exist between yourself and God – areas when you've allowed others to mediate or negotiate the presence of the Divine for you. If you find such areas, challenge yourself to be open to taking a different approach. Take the risk of encountering God in new places and in new ways!

Til next time …

Digging Below the Surface

What I'm Reading Today: Exodus 21-23

Over the last several years lots of folks ask me why they should bother reading the rules contained in the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament. "After all," they suggest, "they are culturally bound pronouncements that don't make any sense within the context of our time and our culture."

On one level, there is some truth to that assessment. On another level, however, such an approach misses an important point.

Let me use an example from my teaching days to help spell out why I think reading such passages has value.

As some of you know, I taught English and Social Studies in a juvenile detention center for six years. Because it was an extremely dangerous environment, we had to be very strict (and explicit) in spelling out our expectations of the students. One of the most basic rules was that a student couldn't get out of his or her chair without permission. On the surface, this may sound excessive– but the rule was necessary because the students could have easily acted out against each other if they were able to move around freely in the classroom. In other words, the purpose of the rule was to ensure the students' safety.

One day we had the fire alarm go off. Most students instinctively figured out that they needed to stand up and get in line in order to make it to a place of safety. There was one student, however, that didn't get in line. When I asked him why, he said: "The rules say 'Don't get up without permission'. You didn't give me permission to stand up so I'm staying seated!"

It was a great example of someone learning the rules, but entirely missing the point of those same rules. It was a reminder for me to spend some time with the students helping them understand some of the reasoning behind the rules.

There are lots of religious fundamentalists who make that same mistake when they read the scriptures. They become so obsessed with the literal expression of a rule back in the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament that they entirely forget to ask why that rule was communicated in that particular time and place. If we dig below the surface and ask ourselves that question, we begin to move away from a rigid and moralistic approach to our faith – toward a living and breathing application of the principles of our faith that can guide us no matter in what age we live.

Today I would invite you to examine those rules that you've decided to live your life by. Are there some of them where you've become so focused on the rule itself, that you've lost sight of the underlying principles and perhaps become somewhat rigid and inflexible?

Til next time …

My Worst Habit

What I'm Reading Today: Exodus 18-20

Like most folks, I have quite a collection of bad habits. I have a tendency, for instance, to waste too much time surfing the web when I should be reading more constructive materials. I am constitutionally unable to say no to most forms of junk food. And I won't even mention my affinity for consuming too much caffeine. We would be here for days if I went down that path.

Most of those bad habits don't get me in too much trouble. There is one bad habit I have, however, that is incredibly dangerous.

I have an inability to say "No!" to people when they come to me with requests. It doesn't matter what the request is – it might be a request for help putting together a flier for an event; assisting with a transportation need; or a request to buy cookies from a girl scout – you name the request, and I'm likely to meet it.

This habit gets me in trouble more than all of my other bad habits combined. That's because my inability to say "No!" often makes me feel completely overwhelmed and as if I'm in "it" (whatever the particular "it" happens to be at any given moment) alone.

My awareness of this challenge is one reason I so appreciated today's reading from Exodus. In that passage, we get a piece of a conversation Moses had with his father-in-law Jethro. In that conversation Moses reveals to Jethro that "the people come to me with questions about God. When something comes up," Moses then concluded, "they come to me!"

Lot of folks would think such an admission is praiseworthy.

Not Jethro.

That's because Jethro has a healthy sense of perspective. "This is no way to go about it," Jethro observed in response to Moses' crazy life. "You'll burn out, and the people right along with you. This is way too much for you – you can't do this alone."

What wise words for Jethro to pass along to Moses – and to you and I as well. We CAN'T do everything alone. That simple truth is a great principle to guide us through our days.

I would encourage you to find opportunities throughout your day today to watch yourself as you engage the world. Are you always saying "Yes" to requests - acting as if you can meet everyone's needs on your own; or are you able to break that bad habit and say "No" – or at least, "In order to meet your request, I'm going to need YOUR help."

Til next time …

Systems Thinking

What I'm Reading Today: Exodus 15-17

I was talking with a friend the other day about my blog entry from last Thursday. My friend was curious why I spent time talking about addictions (i.e. alcoholism) and family dynamics so much – especially in the context of a blog about spirituality.

"Do you do it because you had a family member who was alcoholic?" the person finally asked.

The answer to that question was no. His question did provide me with a wonderful opportunity to explain why I did that.

Toward the very end of my time in seminary I accidentally stumbled upon a way of thinking called family systems theory. It was a way of thinking that tries to move groups beyond the traditional ways of thinking into exciting new ways of thinking. Let me unpack that statement for you.

In traditional ways of thinking, leaders in a community thinking mechanistically. If you were to think of an organization such as a church like a car, for instance, when one part of the car starts acting up – all you need to do is replace the individual part and the problem goes away. Now that thinking might be fine for a car, but it can be dangerous to carry that principle over into the life of a community.

Let's say, for instance, that a person in a community begins to act up. Traditional thinking is that you only address the individual involved in order to get him or her to change his behavior. You pretend no one else is involved in/affected by the situation.

In family systems theory, you don't think mechanistically – you think organically. Instead of seeing each individual as an isolated part of the machine, you see each individual as a connected piece of the whole. As such, you assume that each individual's behavior has the ability to affect the overall functioning of the group. This means when one part of the system starts acting up, you don't just look at the individual involved – you look at others in the community as well to see how they are contributing. That's why in last Thursday's entry, for example, I didn't just talk about the behavior of the alcoholic father; I also addressed the behavior of the spouse and siblings since their behaviors were contributing to the situation since they were enabling the father's decision to continue to drink.

At this point you might see why I would be interested in family systems theory, but still be a little confused about how the issue of addiction ties into all of this.

Well, a few years ago I stumbled upon a book called "Kicking Habits". It was a book about systems thinking within a church context. In making its point, the book suggested that one reason change is so hard in local churches is because individuals get just as addicted to the status quo as other individuals get addicted to substances like alcohol or food. That's why it is so incredibly difficult to make changes in churches. You aren't just fighting something as superficial as personal preferences – you are actually facing an addiction.

So that explains my interest in addictions and systems thinking. But why talk about all this stuff right now?

Well, yesterday in our church we had difficult news to share. Last year it was discovered that a former employee of the church had inappropriately diverted rent that was paid to the church by a user group from the church's bank account into the individual's own bank account. A legal process was initiated in order to recover a portion of those funds from our insurance policy. That process is now culminating with an arraignment that is scheduled for early November – meaning it was finally at a point in the process where we could make the information known.

When I was first informed about the tragic situation, I was curious to see how the faith community would approach the issue. Would they resort to traditional thinking and focus all their energy on blaming either the employee or a few lay leaders; or would they think more expansively and look at the system as a whole so they could determine what changes the community needed to make in order to prevent such occurrences in the future?

Through this year-long process, I learned the community chose to respond in the more expansive way. In addition to appropriately holding the individual accountable for the individual's choices, the faith community saw the problem as a systemic breakdown. It has already begun the hard work of fixing a system that was broken. This made me VERY happy!!!

So what's all of this have to do with today's reading?

As I read the culminating words of today's chapters, I smiled when I got to the part about the battle the Israelites got into with Amalek at Rephidim. In the culminating words of that chapter, we learn that the determining factor for their success (or at least so they thought) was whether or not Moses was able to raise his arms. When he raised his arms, the Israelites had success; when he tired and lowered them, the Israelites started to struggle.

Some would read that and assume this supported the traditional, mechanistic way of thinking about community – that the community's success or failure was entirely dependent on just one person (Moses). The story didn't end there, however. For when the community figured out what was happening, others got involved to help out the community. Aaron and Hur, for instance, decided to hold up Moses arms so that his arms could remain in the air and benefit the people. In other words, they thought organically/systemically and used their individual roles to benefit the whole.

Today, I would ask you to think about one area in your life where there might be a problem. When you find that area, look at how you are approaching its resolution. Are you treating it as an isolated issue that you can handle on your own, or are you willing to explore the communal dimension of the issue and invite others into the process?

Til next time …