Soul Care and Sources ~

Mathew 13: 6b- “They withered because they had no root.”

One of the most daunting aspects of the Christian journey is the ability to discern correctly between the soul and the spirit.  Perhaps, more succinctly stated, the work of the human soul versus the direction of the Holy Spirit.

There is a type of good work that seems pious and godly.  To all outward appearance, the exterior trappings speak of exceptional outcomes and right intentions.  Our human tendency is to assume that all things which appear to give glory to God and call on his name also originate from him.

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However, the soul is highly versed in the ability to mimic and imitate.  It is afterall where personality is formed and groomed.  The soul is also the place in which the will exerts preeminence.  Thus, acts of the soul, even religious activities that are intended to ‘impress’ God may have nothing whatsoever to do with what God initiates, wants or directs.  These works will have no lasting impact or spiritual results and as a consequence must eventually wither.

What originates from the realm of the soul cannot by its nature (which is soulish) ever produce spiritual fruit. The origins (the seeds) are so different, it is like asking a banana seed to make itself into an orange.  They are both plants best grown in the tropics, but that is where the similarity ends.

When the assaults of life threaten, only what is born of the spirit has the power to prevail. While the works of the soul and spirit can appear to come from the same source (which is especially difficult to discern in religious work), the work of the spirit is refined by fire while the work of the soul disintegrates when severely tested.

So, we must learn to avert our gaze from what a thing seems to be and instead ask for the gift of discernment.  It is not what something looks like which is important.  Rather, the question to be asked is what does a thing originate from?  What is the source of this desire, action, reaction, intention?  Does it originate from the soul or from the spirit?

 

On Wheat and Weeds…

44371121_sThere’s a somewhat convoluted tale related in the Scriptures about a farmer who plants good seed in a large field.  However, as the seedlings begin to mature and ripen for harvest, it becomes apparent that the field has been contaminated.  Weeds (tares) are everywhere! With dismay, the workers who have labored diligently face the prospect of ruining the harvest.  The weeds are competing with the plants for nutrients, but if they are removed, the harvest will be ruined because the crops are not yet fully matured. (Matthew 13:24-30 KJV)

This crisis becomes an issue for the Master whose advise is sought regarding what to do.  As the Householder (as he is referenced in some versions) surveys the damage, he gives an interesting assessment.  First of all, he zeros in on the one responsible for the corruption.  ‘An enemy has done this’.  This damage is not a result of a lack of diligence or laziness on the part of the workers.  Rather, it is deliberate, mean-spirited and intended to cause harm.

This story came to mind recently as I contemplated the difficulty of setting things right, especially when these issues have become habits or patterns of thought and behavior that have been in place for a long time.  Not every issue that we face can be solved instantly.  Sometimes, the chaos is so deeply embedded within the psyche that healing requires more than simply applying standard or seemingly straightforward solutions.

There are issues in life which involve different parties, some which may be unwilling or unable to make wise choices.  Going in with the sledge hammer of human judgement can do more harm than good because discrimination is required when sorting out the solution.  Evil is not always obvious.  Nor is the task of determining who is the perpetrator versus the victim always clearly defined.

The fact is that we have all sinned.  We are all to some degree a mixed bag of tares and wheat.  When Jesus confronts a woman who has been caught in adultery and brought to him to pronounce judgement, he turns the table and asks the expectant crowd to cast the stones, but with the caveat that the first stone must be thrown by one who has never sinned.  Beginning with the oldest, the crowd begins to disperse. (John 8: 1-11)

Which brings me back to the wheat and tares.  The work of the Spirit of God here on earth is to gather the tares in our lives.  It is through grace, that we are even brought to an awareness of how deeply the soil of our souls has been contaminated.  As God matures us into his likeness, he uses various agents to identify and bundle together that which is not fit for healthy consumption.

I used to think that this parable only related to the end of time, but I see that the work of the Kingdom of God is ongoing, starting here and earth and on to eternity.  God loves us too much to simply let us be.  Just as spring time and harvest will continue, in the same way this process is ongoing in our lives and as we cooperate in listening and yielding to God’s inspired instruction will enable a true harvest of righteousness in our lives.  So within the despair of a life which seems to be so imperfect, there is really good news.  God is able, God is willing to perfect that which concerns me and you if we will let him.

The Conundrum: Exploring Why Grand Rapids MI Landed in 51st Place in a Recent Forbes Survey

green shoot

green shoot

I’ll admit it was uncomfortable to see the link to this article float down my Facebook feed citing Grand Rapids MI as a city where minorities are not prospering.  Over the past couple of years, Grand Rapids, MI has topped many complimentary lists with regards to housing price increases, job growth,  community life etc.  So, when Forbes indicated that a recent study ranked the city as one of the worst places for economic advancement for minorities, (Rank #51 amongst 52 metropolitan areas across the nation) it was an unsettling notation to what has seemed to be an unrelenting flow of positive indicators about the area.

Yesterday, the keynote speaker for the Economic Club of Grand Rapids, Dr. John Powell took the issue head on as he challenged the assembled business leaders about the implications of having a community which to some degree regards the ‘other’ as instinctively dangerous, less worthy or even inhuman at a deeply sub-conscious level.  The UC Berkley Law Professor told the audience that racial prejudices guide our subconscious responses and are far more powerful than any conscious programs we might put into place to remedy them.

These prejudices also impact the structures and institutions of our community in ways that are deep below the surface and rooted within the intrinsic foundations of society.  Thus creating environments which make it difficult for individuals who fit into the category of ‘other’ to thrive and prosper.  In real economic terms, minority populations such as African-Americans earn $10,000 – $15,000 less on average in West Michigan than their counterparts in the south.  They are also less likely to be successful entrepreneurs and more likely to struggle academically.

Is this because minority populations are inherently ‘damaged goods’?  Dr. Powell answered the question with a resounding ‘NO’, giving examples of communities which had recognized a pattern of low achievement amongst minority populations and had seen dramatic results in changing the status quo through gaining more understanding of the underlying causes.  One notable example being the city of Atlanta, located in the heart of the South which was a segregationist stronghold.

So, the question remains why is it hard to prosper if you’re a minority living and working in the Grand Rapids area?  I  have worked in the real estate community for almost twenty years.  The sad truth is that there are significantly fewer experienced minority agents today on the local real estate board than when I started in 1995.  When I attend real estate functions at the local, regional or state level, I am often the only minority in the room or one of less than a handful.  At a time when the minority population is on the rise, why is my profession heading in the opposite direction?

In taking a deeper look at this issue, I think that some lessons can be gleaned from a famous parable about a farmer who was sowing seed in different types of soil. Theoretically all the seed had the same potential as it had come from the same bag.  However,  subsequent patterns of growth revealed an important truth – depending on where the seed fell, it either prospered or in some cases withered and died.  In the real estate world, we know that LOCATION matters.  Where your property is located can make the difference between significant margins of profit or loss.  The same truism has relevance for where human beings live in community with one another.

These are the actual words of the parable as told by Jesus in the gospel of Mathew 13: 1-9:

“That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

Seed on the Path:  Seed that fell on the path was very vulnerable to being trampled.  Even though the path was likely a dirt path at the time, it had been walked on and become hard and unviable.  Thus making it difficult for even good seed to take root.  There is something to be said about the need to provide a level of acceptance for minority/marginalized populations.  Think about how you behave when you’re out of your normal element.  All of us can recall going to an unfamiliar space and scanning the room to see if there is someone present we can relate to.  A minority person has this type of antenna up all the time.  It can be emotionally and spiritually exhausting.  Creating spaces and opportunities for people to enjoy the simple things of life and get to know each other as human beings can be very instrumental in softening the process of integration from the hard grind of daily life.  Cities, communities and individuals can all do this.  It takes some intentionality, but it’s definitely doable.

Seed on the Rocks:  Seed that fell on the rocks was in for a really hard time.  Rocks are totally impermeable and hostile to growth of anything apart from maybe algae.  But, where there was a little soil, this hardy seed did all it could to cling to life and it sank its roots into the ground.  But, alas the shallow soil could not support the seed and it withered.  That’s what sometimes happens to minorities who find themselves labelled as the ‘one black friend’.  Eager to be accepted and reclaim the humanity of friendship wherever it can be found, we find ourselves absorbed into circles which lack depth and real community.  These are the types of relationships which seem to thrive at work and church, but just about every minority has had the unsettling experience of having your newly found ‘friends’ fail to recognize your smile or eye contact when you meet at the grocery store. Slowly the minority individual recognizes that the relationship does not have the nourishment to truly support what it means to be a friend.  It becomes a rocky, rough and desert like experience to live in this sort of ‘quasi’ community.

Seed on Shallow Soil:  This type of soil is especially dangerous for good seed.  Unlike the rocky soil, it is not initially obvious that this an unfortunate landing pad.  Seed falling on this soil has all the nutrients available in a richly fertile plot of land – up to a point.  It is only when the roots begin to extend for depth and stability that the lie is discovered.  This is not a safe place; there are no deep nutrients to sustain life and this seed becomes very susceptible to the scorching of the sun, often withering up where it is planted and eventually dies.  The unfortunate truth is that many minorities who are actively recruited to Grand Rapids often leave within less than 5 years.  I’ve seen it happen to countless numbers of friends.  Many of whom are highly gifted and educated professionals.  I’ve talked to college professors who share stories of discrimination which are bone chilling.  West Michigan cannot afford to continue recruiting brilliant people of any color only to have them fail to take root and leave.  It’s highly inefficient and incredibly expensive.

Seed on Thorny Soil:  Seed on thorny soil initially grows up strong.  But, this seed has company.  Right there in the same field, the seed is accosted by vicious thorns, weeds that by design will steal the nutrients which the good seed needs and render the good seed useless.  This issue is difficult to remedy, because unless it is recognized early enough, pulling out the thorns will usually result in pulling out the good seed, thus losing a valuable harvest.  However, if the thorns are allowed to grow, the loss of the harvest is guaranteed.  This is what happens when majority communities turn a blind eye to obvious disparities and discrepancies.  Ignoring or explaining in dismissive ways why diversity is absent in a community is nurturing thorns.  Failing to speak up when prejudicial comments and jokes are made in your presence is nurturing thorns.  The refusal to acknowledge the gifts and talents of an ‘other’ simply because they are not like you is nurturing thorns.  The only way to deal with thorny soil is by aggressive weeding thereby dislodging anything that stands in the way of my becoming my ‘brother’s keeper’.

Seed on Good Soil:  Good soil is not perfect soil.  Good soil is simply soil which has the capacity to support growth and nurture life.  Good soil represents spaces in which life thrives.  It is soil which allows the full potential of the seed to be revealed and provide rich benefit.  Communities which are good soil for ALL their citizens will reap a windfall of reward.  Our country is diverse and will continue to become increasingly diverse.  As a result of inter-marriage, almost 60% of Americans are likely to have a member of their family from a different race in the next decade.  We cannot afford to marginalize any citizen and especially when we are competing in a global economy; one in which the top 1% of Chinese students are more than all the students in United States.  Good soil is the rich heritage of a country which was built on the foundation of immigrants who risked everything to come here to make a better life for themselves.  And were allowed to do so.  We must call forth that which is deeply embedded in the psyche of the American Spirit and do what is necessary to provide an environment that supports the welfare, well-being and prosperity for all the good people of West Michigan, including those with whom we do not share a native experience.  I may be a mis-guided optimist, but I believe that Grand Rapids MI is a place where many people care about doing what’s right.

 

 

 

For the Love of Money…

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For many younger people today, their first introduction to the O’Jays group from the 1950’s was the popular theme song for the Apprentice Show with Donald Trump entitled: ‘For the Love of Money’.

The song carried a warning about letting money rule you or fool you and spoke about the many unsavory things that money appears to be able to make people do.

 

 

Money money money money, money (x6)
Some people got to have it
Some people really need it
Listen to me y’all, do things, do things, do bad things with it
You wanna do things, do things, do things, good things with it
Talk about cash money, money
Talk about cash money- dollar bills, yall

For the love of money
People will steal from their mother
For the love of money
People will rob their own brother
For the love of money
People can’t even walk the street
Because they never know who in the world they’re gonna beat
For that lean, mean, mean green
Almighty dollar, money
Read more here

Money can be a harsh task master.  Jesus understood this and personified the way in which the love of money could control people.  In Matthew 6:24, the implication is that money is potentially so powerful in its ability to influence and control human beings that we cannot serve both God and Money at the same time.

Mathew 6:24: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

Contrary to what we think and how we try to live our lives, it’s not really possible to have a divided mind.  Ultimately, we choose one thing or the other.

What might it mean to be in the service of money?  And if money is a harsh task master, is there a potential for it to be a dutiful servant?  Let’s take a look at the context of the verse on money with the verse that directly precedes it.

Mathew 6:23″But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

I find it interesting that Jesus talks about darkness just before he goes into a discussion about money.  In verse 23, he talks about the lamp being the eye of the body and that if the eye is dark, the whole body will be dark.  Could He have been pointing to a link between the two areas that we often don’t consciously link together – Spiritual insight and the way this impacts our relationship with money?  Perhaps Jesus is indicating that how we see and use money is related to whether our view of life as a whole is clear and unobstructed.

Growing up, my parents always told me that money was simply a means of exchange.  As I got older, I began to understand that money could be exchanged for a lot of things…goods, services, talents, ideas, physical labor etc.  Money represents to some extent that which is given in exchange for something of value with regards to human potential and productivity.  Because this is an inexact science, there is an inbuilt inequality about the distribution of money in the sense that there is a lot of discretionary judgement that must go into the issue of judging the value of an individual’s contribution.  It is also fraught with the danger of greed and the desire to take advantage of others.  Thus when Jesus speaks about the darkness of the eye one can see that He is right on point.  If our view is darkened, there is no way we can arrive at a right view or valuation of anything.

If we rightly understand that we are Children of God, created by Him and valued by Him in ways that cannot be defined within the narrow perimeters of human judgement and its necessary collary – money, we have the opportunity to enter into another type of freedom.  One which is not tethered to an invalid premisis from the onset.  No longer is self-worth designated by the amount of money that we or anyone makes.  We may now find that Money has the potential to become a Servant, rather than a taskmaster.  Money, when used wisely and with clear perspective can be an agent of good in the service of mankind and creation. But right perspective, insight and wisdom are necessary to provide the right understanding on how to use it rather than be used and ruled by it.

Minced meat matters…

They say that one should avoid watching the making of a sausage.  Because the likelihood of eating one after watching the process may be affected.  First of all, sausage meat is rarely culled from the best cuts and is usually comprised of a variety of cuts, and/or different types of meats.

The end process has a way of completely obscuring the origins of the meat and in a sense transforms it into something other than what any single component would have revealed it capable of becoming. It’s the grinding process and then the  mixed seasoning which makes sausage meat what it is.

Life sometimes feel a little akin to sausage making.  There are days which are so grueling, that feeling like one has been processed through a meat grinder might be a kind descriptive.  There are many examples in the Bible which depict challenging periods in poignant ways.  A story which frankly I have always found difficult to read is the book of Job which chronicles the misfortunes of a man that are so painful that his wife urges him to curse God and die.

Job’s journey, a mixture of good & bad, light and awful darkeness are detailed through the loss of property, family, health, influence, community, stature amidst serious questions about the nature of God.  Thrown into the mix are friends who are well meaning but lack true understanding, thus inadvertently inflaming the rawness of an open wound.

It’s difficult to really understand or imagine what must have been going on in Job’s mind.  But, even problems on a much lower scale can drain the reservoirs of strength and vitality.  Sausage making in real life or spiritually is not pretty or easy.  I don’t know how the Creator and Sustainer of Life, our Father God is able to make something out of life’s messy bits & pieces.  And, during the dark night of the soul it’s not certain that anything of value can be created.  There is usually not a neat and orderly timeline, but somehow He who IS…does.

Ephesians 3:20-21  Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.

 

The Cure for Donkey Kong Foolishness…

29671794_sI am thankful for the growing realisation that much of what causes angst and grief in our lives is not personal.  It may feel personal because we experience it within our personal space. Yet if we are able to step back out of the heat within the moment, we may find that the perceived assault, attack or insult may indeed have little to do with us. Or we may discover that we have set out on a very foolish or unwise path which guarantees chaotic grief to anyone who insists on continuing in that particular direction.

Becoming thankful as a verb means choosing to actively engage tense and difficult moments as an opportunity to gain wisdom.  I’ve found that some of life’s most teachable moments are draped within the unconventional garb of emotionally charged exchanges.  When examined in clearer context, these situation often have a larger context which may not be initially visible.  And then… Sometimes life just is simply what it is.

When the fault is mine, becoming thankful for the course correction makes regaining equilibrium easier and minimizes the loss of vested emotional, spiritual and mental energy.  On this note, I am reminded of the experience of one hapless prophet and his improbable tutor – one very stubborn talking donkey as the story  is told in the book of Numbers 22:1-39.

Balam’s reckless journey to curse the Israelites as commissioned by Balak is interrupted by an angel threatening to end his life. Unfortunately, Balam is blind to the danger right in front of him.  Fortunately his donkey is not!  After beating the hapless beast repeatedly, the donkey finds a voice and has a conversation with Balam about his angry response.

It is only then that Balam’s yes are opened to his foolishness. He also sees the angel with a sword who is about to chop him into minced meat to punish him for messing with the wrong people!  The stunned prophet ends up having a conversation with both a donkey and an angel about the dubious course he seems hell-bent on taking. Suddenly the resistance of that donkey became something to be very grateful for!

Sometimes, it takes the bizarre elements of life to awaken us to the fact that we have much to become thankful for.  Becoming thankful as a way of responding to obstacles may actually awaken the power of grace and God’s protection in the midst of seemingly insurmountable difficulty.