Context is the circumstance, environment, or background that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea. It sets the terms of understanding and assessment. Context is critical, because it informs us about the importance of something, what assumptions to draw (or not), and it puts meaning into the situation.

Nothing exists, and can be understood, in isolation from its context. As sociologist Alvin Ward Gouldner famously said, ‘context is everything.’ Events occur at the intersection of the individual and the situation. This intersection is the context. If we meet someone for the first time, and they’re having a terrible day, our impression might be that they’re unpleasant or rude. However, under different circumstances, that same person could be utterly delightful. They could be someone to avoid or possibly a close friend.

Context helps change our perspective. Understanding context changed what I once considered one of the worst lines in a song, to one of the best. In Neil Diamond’s “I Am… I Said” there is the line, “And no one heard at all, not even the chair” which I thought was a cheap rhyme with the word “there” from the previous line. However, then I learned the overall meaning of the song, autobiographical about an existential crisis, where he is crying out, and no one hears him, including his psychiatrist sitting in the chair.

As part of high school band, Maynard Jackson, the first African American Mayor of Atlanta in 1973, was asked to march down Peachtree Street on behalf of Senator Richard Russell Jr., a hardcore segregationist who blocked anything even resembling civil rights. Jackson and his fellow band member, Vernon Jordan were reluctant to do it and protested. After a debate in the band room, it was clear that if the band didn’t play, the principal and the band master would lose their jobs. So, they changed the context in which they looked at the issue, went along to play and march, the used the experience to stoke their careers.

A powerful lesson of context I learned long ago is to revise my thought process by changing the expression, “what if” to “even if.” “What if” comes from the perspective of fear and worry. “Even if” comes from a position of trust and faith. Replacing “what if” with “even if” is one of the most liberating exchanges we can ever make. Consider these types of questions we raise in our minds – What if this investment fails? What if I don’t get the job? What if I bomb this presentation? What if I lose this sale? What if the scan shows cancer? We imagine all the ways something can go wrong. “Even if” moves us forward and determines what might come next.

After breaking the record for career passing yardage, NFL Quarterback Drew Brees said, “there were a lot of people that I wanted to prove right tonight and make proud.” He spoke about his motivation being “proving people right” not proving people wrong. A refreshing example of love and respect rather than being fueled by a negative emotion. People can view the same thing differently based on their perspective. A picture is just a picture until we put a frame on it and hang it, then it becomes art.

Context and perspective have fueled several of my blogs. Is it a journey or a pilgrimage? Do we want to do things better or differently? Am I good or am I well? Are there tasks I need to do, or a person I need to become? Are things black and white or are there shades of gray? Do I have to do a chore, or do I get to do that chore? Is it a test or is it a challenge? Is there more to the story?

A farmer mounted a weathervane atop his barn with the words “GOD IS LOVE.” A pastor walking by thought it was inappropriate, believing that the farmer meant God’s love changes with the shifting winds. The farmer disagreed, suggesting that no matter which way the wind blows God is still love.

A basic guideline in interpreting Scripture is “context is king.” We must handle His words with utmost care and put every word in its proper context. Too often, verses are quoted out of context and assigned a meaning that differs from the original intent. Recently the Scripture, “Whoever is not with me is against me,” found in both Matthew (12:30) and Luke (11:23), was thrown ‘back at me’ during a conversation regarding the current social/political climates. Their point was anyone not in line with Christ’s teachings are the ‘enemy’ and we must take a stance against them. I always take the context of that teaching in reference to Christ preaching “love thy neighbor” and “do for the least of my brothers and sisters.” I do not want to use my faith to judge and divide, to create an enemy. We are meant, first and foremost, to love and serve.

The famous Bible story of Cain and Abel begins when the two brothers make an offering to God (Genesis 4:3-7). One sacrifice is accepted, and the other is not. Cain brings “fruit of the ground” that theologians propose came from his abundance. But Abel brought the best of what he had, the firstborn of the flock. The context of these sacrifices determined God’s acceptance and rejection.

Paul uses the phrase “brothers and sisters” a lot, approximately 130 times. The phrase is translated from the Greek word adelphos, which can literally means “a male sibling with at least one parent in common.” However, in the context that dominates Paul’s thinking, it means “God’s holy people”—those of us who have become brothers and sisters in Christ. Whether intimate or estranged, unified or conflicted, we are brothers and sisters in Christ, siblings in the family of God. At the most basic level of our relationships with one another, we are marked by a unique, familial bond.

We can only fully understand in relation to context. Context determines importance and meaning. We control the context of our views and choices, which shapes our life and contributes to our transformation. Let’s view things from the position of trust and faith to forge the context in which we carry out God’s plan.

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