A Few Thoughts on Prophecy…

Hazael went to meet Elisha, taking with him as a gift forty camel-loads of all the finest wares of Damascus. He went in and stood before him, and said, “Your son Ben-Hadad king of Aram has sent me to ask, ‘Will I recover from this illness?’”

Elisha answered, “Go and say to him, ‘You will certainly recover.’ Nevertheless,the Lord has revealed to me that he will in fact die.” He stared at him with a fixed gaze until Hazael was embarrassed. 
2 Kings 8:9-11 (NIV)

Along life’s journey I have had people speak to me, prophetically, about things that they claimed would happen, or be true, in my life. In fact, it happened to me just yesterday. Sitting down to coffee with a friend and colleague, he started the conversation with, “By the way, my wife had a prophetic word for you.” What it was I’ll keep to myself for now. If there’s anything I’ve learned from experience (and from Shakespeare’s Scottish play) it’s that there are both wise and foolish ways to handle prophetic words.

I’m sure there are those reading this post who think the whole notion of prophecy (e.g. someone knowing and proclaiming something that’s unknowable about the future or about another person), is a bunch of hocus-pocus nonsense. You can’t journey your way through the Great Story God is telling, however, and deny the fact that prophecy is an integral part of the telling. From Isaiah to Malachi, there are 17 books of God’s Message written by prophets. Jesus gave a nod to prophecy when He said that He came to “fulfill the Law and the prophets.” When Paul lists out the spiritual gifts that Holy Spirit manifests in Jesus’ followers, prophecy is smack-dab in the center of the list.

Beyond God’s Message, I have found the prophetic to be part of human experience. Our epic stories always use the prophetic as a device in their telling. From Homer’s Odyssey (Penelope’s Dream) to Shakespeare (i.e. Hamlet‘s Ghost and the Weird Sisters of Macbeth) to Lord of the Rings (“thus saith Malbeth the Seer“) and the Harry Potter saga (“Neither can live while the other survives“) the prophetic is everywhere. Then there are the mystical prophets of history that continue to be pop culture favorites like Nostradamus and the Rasputin. Look back through our history and our stories and you’ll find prophecy all over the place.

Prophecy makes for some dramatic moments. The story in today’s chapter reads like a climactic scene right out of an epic movie.

A man named Hazael, who was a servant of the King of Aram, comes to the prophet Elisha to ask if the King, his master, will recover from an illness. Elisha at first tells Hazael to inform the king that he will, in fact, recover from the illness.

Now, you have to imagine the scene. Elisha glares at Hazael with a long, penetrating look. He’s got an icy gaze like Michael Corleone in The Godfather. The look from Elisha cuts right through Hazael as the tense silence is filled with low, ominous sounding music swelling beneath the scene. Suddenly things are getting really, really uncomfortable…

“Nevertheless,the Lord has revealed to me that he will in fact die,” Elisha says in a slow sonorous statement that hangs out in space and drips with the prophetic.

Elisha continues his Michael Corleone stare. Shame is all over Hazael’s face. He can’t look at Elisha. His eyes dart back and forth and to the ground. His hand fumbles in his pocket for his fidget spinner…

Can you see it? Man, what a moment.

The King of Aram must have had the 24 hour flu because the very next day (in Macbeth like fashion, I might add) Hazael kills his master and assumes the throne of Aram. This morning I find myself mulling over whether Hazael had already conspired to kill his master the next day, or if Elisha’s prophetic revelation pushed him over the edge. That’s a great conversation for Wendy and me to have over breakfast this morning.

The story also has me mulling over prophesy in broader terms. I do believe in prophesy. Not only because it’s such a part of the Great Story, but also because I’ve had too many experiences with it to be utterly dismissive. I have also learned, however, that I’ve got to handle the prophetic wisely.

For what it’s worth, here’s what I’ve learned:

  1. When someone shares a prophetic word with me I receive it, but hold it very loosely. False prophesy is every bit a part of our stories as well. I don’t want to be too quick to cling and I don’t want to be too quick to reject. Chill, let it sit, and contemplate. Pray. Mull. Chew.
  2. I will share the prophesy with my closest, most discerning friends who know me well, who know my journey, and who in my experience have proven wisdom. Their reactions to what ever prophetic word I’ve been given tell me a lot.
  3. I never try to make what’s been prophesied happen. That’s the road to tragedy (just ask Lady Macbeth and her husband).
  4. I confess to myself that prophetic messages can be layered with meaning and may have a very different interpretation than what I’m thinking. The scholars of Jesus’ day read the prophets and had a very different picture of Messiah than the one Jesus fulfilled. It would be just as easy for me to hear a prophetic word and interpret it one way (e.g. the way I want it to mean) when its true meaning is something altogether different.
  5. I continue to repeat step one. I continue to hold on to the prophesy, but I hold it loosely. I contemplate and consider, but I keep pressing forward in my journey day-by-day. Obsessing on the prophetic usually leads to paralysis which leads nowhere fast. Some of the most ineffectual people I’ve ever known are those who’ve mired themselves and their lives in the prophetic. This is another place where I find I must put the “faith” in  “faith journey.” There is a flow to life and story. What will be will be. The prophesy someone gave me will happen or not. I’ve got to keep pressing forward.

And now, it’s time to do just that. If you’re reading this (thank you) I hope you have a great day today.

 

 

Everyday Miracles and Deep Water Calling

The officer on whose arm the king was leaning said to the man of God, “Look, even if the Lord should open the floodgates of the heavens, could this happen?”

“You will see it with your own eyes,” answered Elisha, “but you will not eat any of it!”
2 Kings 7:2 (NIV)

I listened to a great podcast yesterday while I was in the car. Rob Bell was continuing his series on alternative wisdom and he unpacked an event in Jesus’ life when the religious leaders came and demanded a sign from him. This committee of theological high-brows seemed to want miracles on-demand from Jesus, but Jesus refused to play the game the self-important religious fundamentalists were trying to play. Jesus begins by pointing out that no matter what He did, no matter what signs He might come up with, they would never be satisfied. They didn’t want to believe, nor were they concerned with the bigger picture of why Jesus was there in the first place. Jesus then told the religious authorities they would receive no sign but “the sign of Jonah.”

With that Jesus referred to the ancient prophet who was swallowed by a fish and spent three days and nights buries at sea in the fish’s belly. With this Jesus was foreshadowing the real mission He came to perform, which had little do to with a magical miracle tour. Jesus would be called into the depths just like Jonah; He would descend into death for three days, and come out the other side.

As we make our way through 2 Kings we are reading about a lot of signs and miracles. Both Elijah and Elisha’s stories are littered with stories of the miraculous. There’s no doubt that the scribes and editors who put together this history of the ancient Kings are going to make sure to include these miraculous stories. They are great stories, and they are compelling reads. I have found, however, that it is easy for me to read this stream of miracle stories and forget Jesus’ admonishment to turn a blind eye to the penny-ante miracles for a moment and to consider the sign of Jonah.

I believe in the miraculous. I’ve experienced the miraculous and have  heard the testimony of miracles from others whom I know, trust, and believe. I have never felt comfortable, however, who seem to be in the miracle on-demand business. It seems to me that Jesus was always a bit dismissive of signs and miracles.

This is nothing,” Jesus said to Andrew of his knowing that Andrew was sitting under a tree. “You’ll see more impressive things than this.”

What I’m doing is small potatoes,” Jesus said to the disciples. “You’ll see the same and more by the time I’m done.”

You have no idea how really simple this all is, and what little faith is required for these miracles,” Jesus told his followers.

Jesus was so dismissive of the miraculous that He also was quick to shut down miraculous operations. Not only did He do it with the religious leaders, but He did it with the crowds as well. “You’re following me because I gave you free filet-o-fish sandwiches,” Jesus said to the crowds, “but you’re missing the point. If you want the real food I came to give you you’ll have to eat my flesh and drink my blood.”

In this morning’s chapter, Elisha performed another miracle. In announcing what would happen the King’s captain refused to believe. Elisha announced that the captain’s lack of faith would ensure that he’d see it happen but would miss out on the blessing.

What struck me this morning is that I think it’s quite possible to see and experience the miraculous and miss the point. Jesus performed many signs that the religious leaders witnessed, and yet they came back to him for more. They didn’t want to believe. The crowds followed Jesus fully believing that Jesus could multiply loaves and fish endlessly, but eventually they’d become jaded and demand a change of menu. The miracles were never the point. They are momentary blips on the infinite radar focused on temporal earthly things.

Jesus rolled His eyes and continued to tell us that the miracles were there to point us to deeper things. The real important stuff happens three days and nights buries in the depths. The point is in  torn, sacrificial flesh and spilled blood that accomplishes the miraculous on a cosmic, eternal scale.

I believe in miracles. I believe in shallow, everyday miracles on a small temporal scale and big, “deep water” miracles on the cosmic, eternal scale. I have also come to understand that what Jesus was saying is this:  Never trade the latter for the former.

 

Eyes Open and Aware

And Elisha prayed, “Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.” Then the Lordopened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.
2 Kings 6:17 (NIV)

There was one summer back in my later high school days when I happened to pal around with a couple of guys who were in their early twenties. It just so happened that every time the three of us got together we found ourselves in circumstances in which we had opportunity to  help others. One afternoon we happened upon a boy who had just been struck on his bicycle by a truck. We sprung into action to try and help both the situation and the boy’s family as best we could. Another time we happened to show up at a nearby lake just as a child fell out of the boat near shore and we were able to dive in and help the boy to shore. Upon hearing of our string of adventures, the mother of one of my friends jokingly referred to our threesome as  “Angels Unaware.”

Throughout God’s message there is reference made to a spiritual dimension that exists all around us. We are, for the most part, completely unaware. There are multiple instances across the Great Story of people being visited by the divine, or by those from the spiritual realm. From the early chapters of Genesis in which Abraham receives three mysterious visitors to the visions of Revelation which, John chronicles, were revealed to him while he was “in the Spirit.” Paul speaks of being caught up to heaven “in the Spirit.” The author of Hebrews tells followers of Jesus to be hospitable to strangers because you never know when you might entertain “angels unaware.” Thus the moniker given to my trio of friends back in the day.

Here in the west our culture is one of science and reason. We tend to believe only what can be quantified by our physical senses and proven by science. I find it fascinating that science is now pushing into places that a generation ago would have seemed the make-believe world of science fiction. Physicists tell us that there are 10-11 facets, or dimensions, to what we perceive to be reality. In other words, there’s a whole lot more going on than that which our physical senses perceive. Fascinating. I find that not unlike what Elisha’s servant experienced in today’s chapter. There was a reality that existed in the spiritual dimension that he couldn’t see until his spiritual eyes were opened. The further I get in my journey the more I have come to believe that the lines between science and spirit is not as distinct or defined as many scientists and/or theologians would have us believe.

In his letter to the followers of Jesus in Ephesus, Paul wrote, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened….” I think that’s what happened to Elisha’s servant. I think that’s what happened to Jesus companions on the road to Emmaus. There are physical eyes that see things in the physical realm, and there are spiritual eyes that perceive things in the spiritual realm.

This morning I’m thinking about the spiritual realm and the eyes of my heart. I hope that as my physical sight continues to diminish that my spiritual sight becomes more acute. I pray that the eyes of my heart will be enlightened in unimagined ways that I may see things clearly that I once may have never perceived. Until then, I hope that my physical eyes will be more attuned to identify daily opportunities to be someone else’s “angel unaware.”

Pre-Scribed Events and Reimagined Narratives

But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy.
2 Kings 5:11 (NIV)

I’ve always had a rather active imagination. As a kid I spent a lot of time in the land of make-believe. I can remember many scenes of war and espionage played out in my back yard and neighborhood. There were all sort of athletic miracles and Rudy-like moments that took place on the neighbor’s basketball court. I can even remember drawing colorful geometric shapes on notebook paper, taping them to the wall in a line and transforming my room in to the command deck of the Starship Enterprise. The final frontier alive and well in the limited space of my bedroom. I was that kid.

As I’ve continued on in my life journey, I’ve come to the realization that my active imagination has some unintended consequences. Because I have this unconscious ability to make up a narrative in my head, I sometimes find myself applying my imagination to real life. I just read the other day how, according to the author of the article, eye-witness testimony has become one of the least reliable forms of evidence in today’s justice system. People testify to what they honestly imagined they saw. I get that. Wendy sometimes corrects my retelling of events as my imagination makes changes and embellishments to the facts over time.

I have also found that I like the stories I tell myself. In fact, if I’m honest, I often like my own imaginative narratives better than the one God seems to be dictating in my current “real life” and present circumstances.

So it was that I found myself uncomfortably identifying with Namaan in today’s chapter. The worldly rich and power leper came to the prophet Elisha for healing. He also came with an imaginative narrative already written in his head how the events of his healing would unfold. Perhaps he’d heard others’ stories, or perhaps someone planted ideas in his head of what Elisha would experience (here I go again, imagining what might have happened). What we do read in this morning’s chapter is that when circumstances didn’t live up to the imagined narrative Namaan had prescribed for himself he became disappointed, frustrated, angry, and finally was utterly dismissive of the instructions Elisha prescribed for healing.

Namaan almost missed out on being healed of his leprosy because it didn’t match the events as he’d imagined them and pre-scribed (think of the word pre-scribed, literally: “scripted ahead of time“) them in his head!

In the quiet of this beautiful summer morning I’m glancing back into the past and honestly taking stock of ways that I have attempted to pre-scribe life along my own journey. I’m also doing my best to genuinely search for ways I may have imaginatively reimagined past events to place myself in a better role, give myself better lines, and alter others’ perceptions of events to place myself in a more favorable light within the scene.

I confess that I do these things more than I’d like to imagine.

[sigh]

Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

 

Catching Good News at the Ballpark

I have been going to baseball games since Grandpa Spec threw me in the passenger seat of his 1972 Volkswagen Beetle (sans seat belt) and hauled me to Sec Taylor stadium to watch the Iowa Oaks. It’s been a lifetime of going to games as a kid, of taking my kids to baseball games, of attending games of the Iowa Cubs, Chicago Cubs, Kansas City Royals, San Antonio Missions, and Laredo Lemurs. Somewhere along the way I gave up on the notion that winning the ballpark lottery is in the cards for me.

I’m never the one lucky enough to catch a foul ball or a home run shot. Wendy and I have never been on the “Kiss Cam” even when we’re one of ten couples at Principal Park on an April afternoon. I’ve never caught a hot dog out of the golf cart cannon. The t-shirt cannon never shoots the t-shirt my way. I’ve never won Ballpark Bingo. My row or seat has never been chosen to win the free car wash. Yes, there was that one time that they announced my birthday on the board, but that was because Wendy paid for a suite for a birthday party for me with our friends. It’s not so special when you pay for it. (Anyone who heard my message last Sunday is laughing at the sheer pessimism of this paragraph)

So it was that on this past Tuesday night Wendy and I arrived at Principal Park to watch our Iowa Cubs take on the Sacramento River Cats. It was a gorgeous night for baseball. We had been invited to be guests of our daughter Taylor who had some “Cubbie Dollars” given to her for her birthday in July. She also invited a few of her friends. It was “dollar hot dog” night and also “bring your dog to the ballpark” night so we were eating our hot dogs, drinking our beer, and enjoying all of our canine friends running around the place.

At the bottom of the second inning I suddenly heard Wendy on my left scream at the top of her lungs and I saw her jump up out of her seat in my peripheral vision. I turned to see her hugging Taylor, who was on her left, and screaming with joy and laughter.

What?!”

Didn’t you see it?!”

What!?”

Didn’t you hear her say, ‘Look!‘?”

No. You’re on my left. That’s my really deaf ear.

It was then amid the laughter and celebration that Taylor’s friend Kim showed me the video she was taking with her phone. It showed the big video board at the ball park with the message “Grandma and Grandpa Vander Well IT’S A BOY!”

My turn to scream and shout and laugh and hug our daughter, even if it was a little bit late.

Just my luck. I missed it. I didn’t hear her say, “Look!” I didn’t see it in the moment. But you know what? That’s okay. I am so blessed. I may never catch a foul ball, or a t-shirt, or a stale hot dog shot from a cannon. I don’t care.

My grandson is on the way (and I caught the good news at the ball game).

featured photo courtesy keith allison via Flickr

Enough

Elisha replied to her, “How can I help you? Tell me, what do you have in your house?”

“Your servant has nothing there at all,” she said, “except a small jar of olive oil.”
2 Kings 4:2 (NIV)

Many years ago I was pushing into my spiritual journey and trying hard to understand my feelings of shame, the deep, abiding sense that I was worth-less to the core. I have shared before about my friend and counselor who asked me to label my shame. He wanted me to give my shame a name tag; A moniker of my shame that would allow me to pick up my Sharpie and write on the my name tag at church: “Hello, My Name Is…” and write my shame right on there.

Not Enough” was the label I gave to my shame.

As I’ve continued on in my spiritual journey I’ve come to have more than a few head-slapping, eureka moments as I mull over my “Not Enough” shame moniker. Of course I feel “not enough” because it’s what culture and marketing have whispered and screamed to me so regularly since I was a toddler that I don’t even recognize it anymore.

You’re not athletic enough. Eat your Wheaties.
You’re not manly enough. Smoke a Marlboro.
You’re not beautiful enough. Wear brand “X”.
You’re not good enough. Work 24/7/365.
You’re not rich enough. Climb that ladder at all costs.
You’re not suave enough. Act like James Bond.
You’re not good enough. Stop sinning.
You’re not Christian enough. Only listen, read, and consume things labeled and marketed as “Christian” and sold by an acceptable, orthodox supplier.

You get the picture.

In today’s chapter the ancient prophet Elisha is approached by a widow who is in a desperate situation. Her husband died and was indebted to another man in the town. In ancient days, if you couldn’t pay your debts the creditor took whatever collateral the borrower had. Because the widow was left with nothing of real value her two sons were going to be taken from her to become the creditor’s slaves.

When Elisha asks the woman, “What have you got?” she replies that all she has is a small jar of oil. Elisha tells her to get all the empty jars she can find and borrow and pour the oil from her small jar into all the empty jars. Miraculously, the woman keeps pouring and the oil keeps flowing until her house is packed full of jars of oil. She is can now sell the oil and pay off the debts. And, there’s enough left over to provide for her and her sons.

What does this remind me of?

Oh yeah. Jesus fed the crowds (more than once) with just a few fish sandwiches that Peter and the boys could scrounge off a little kid whose mother packed him a sack lunch. The woman and her oil jars is kind of like that. In fact, it’s just like that.

I love it on my chapter-a-day journey when I begin to see patterns, themes and dots to be connected across the Great Story. This endless jar of oil is just like Jesus’ endless baskets of filet o’ fish sandwiches.

So, what is the point? What’s God trying to tell me?

In each case, God took the little that they already had and provided all that was needed. In fact, in both cases there were leftovers. The point is that what they already had was enough for God to work with. God can take what I am and what I have and it is enough for Him to work with to be all that I need, all that He needs, when it’s needed.

I don’t believe this means God is giving me an excuse to be complacent and slothful. It doesn’t mean that I have carte blanche to be foolish and stagnant. God wants me to keep progressing, keep pressing on, and keep pushing further up and further in. It’s important, however, to think about what I’m pursuing.

I’ve found that shame always calls me back. I constantly find my heart slipping off on paths that mindlessly pursue unreachable destinations. The more money I make the more I realize that there’s always someone richer, and I’ll never stop chasing after “just a little bit more.” No matter how skinny, ripped and ruggedly handsome I can make myself with wardrobe, workouts and organic male beauty products, I will still look in the mirror and fail to see Daniel Craig.

This morning I’m reminded that when I stick to the path in pursuit of God and God’s wisdom I find that what I already have is enough. It’s enough even if God has to, once in a while, miraculously stretch my enough to cover what’s needed in the moment.

“Get Me a Musician”

[The prophet, Elisha, said,] “…get me a musician.” And then, while the musician was playing, the power of the Lord came on him.
2 Kings 3:15 (NRSVCE)

I mentioned in my post the other day that while we’re at the lake Wendy and I are limited in our television viewing choices to the collection of DVDs we have there. So it was that last week I pulled out that oldie, but goodie of the cinema: Die Hard. The movie played in the background as Wendy and I sat at the dining room table with our laptops going about our work.

In case you never caught it, the underlying musical score for Die Hard is one endless string of creative variations on what most Americans know as the hymn Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee. The iconic melody of that familiar hymn comes from the final movement of Beethoven’s ninth and final symphony. As I sat at the dining room table, tapping away on my keyboard, the melody suddenly and unexpectedly took me to another moment, in another place.

London. 2009. The Royal Philharmonic. It was our first night in London and Wendy and I had tickets to hear both Mozart’s and Beethoven’s final symphonies in one program. Wendy’s favorite was Mozart, but mine was Beethoven. There is a moment in Beethoven’s ninth when the music suddenly stops and a lone voice begins to sing. I will never forget the moment I heard that voice. I just began to cry as I listened. A chorus of voices joins the orchestra and the music continues to build to one of the most amazing and moving musical climaxes ever. What most people don’t realize is that Beethoven was completely deaf when he wrote his final symphony. He never heard a note of it with his ears. He only heard it in his spirit. Amazing.

There is something deeply spiritual about the language of music, and I have learned over time that music is a language all its own. It has a special place in creation. Music is an integral part of heaven in the glimpses provided in God’s Message and the theme of music is woven throughout the Great Story.

In today’s chapter the prophet Elisha calls for a musician. When the music begins to play the power of God comes upon him. The language of music was the conduit of God’s Spirit. I get that. The language of music is a spiritual language (both for spiritual light and spiritual darkness, btw). Music has the power to reach deep inside to touch hidden places inside us. Music has the power of inspiration, conviction, revelation, exhortation, and even transportation.

My body last week was sitting at a dining room table in central Missouri. The melody of Beethoven’s ninth playing beneath Bruce Willis’ machine gun suddenly and unexpectedly transported my spirit, in that moment, to the Royal Orchestra Hall in London. My eyes began to mist over. Physicists tells us that all of time is contained in each moment. Perhaps music is a gateway.

This morning I’m thinking about this powerful medium we call music. I’m mulling over the incredible breadth of music that has spoken to me, moved me, and inspired me over the years. Beethoven to Berlioz to Bach, Miles Davis to Bob Dylan to Yo-Yo Ma, Gospel choirs to bluegrass banjos to steel drums and a Reggae beat. I’ve come to accept that I will never know (in this life journey) fluency in the language of music that I desire. I still can experience its power in ways human beings throughout the millennia of history couldn’t even imagine. I literally have access to the entire catalog of human music in the palm of my hand.

“…get me a musician.”

Just another wayfarer on life's journey, headed for Home. I'm carrying The Message, and I'm definitely waiting for Guffman.

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