Building Projects and Bad Blood

But by the twenty-third year of King Joash the priests still had not repaired the temple.
2 Kings 12:6 (NIV)

Anyone who has followed my blog for long knows that Wendy and I have spent years working with our local community theatre. Our organization’s stage home is in a historic old high school building which was turned into a community center some 30 years ago. After 30 years, the tired old building is showing the signs of its age. The lighting system is temperamental, the heat and air conditioning are constant challenges, there are pesky pest issues, and on and on. More than once I’ve had to hurriedly mop up an overflowing toilet in the men’s room before intermission. The show must go on!

As leader of the organization I have often found myself playing liaison with our City with regard to the care and upkeep of the building. I have a great relationship with the folks who work for the City and our organization has benefitted from their generosity. Still, there are always differences of opinion when working with community organizations. There are only so many resources. It takes a lot of money to update and maintain an old building. There are many voices competing for funding to support diverse programs important to different groups and individuals in our community. Lack of communication, miscommunication and misunderstanding can easily lead to a Crossfit worthy workouts in conclusion jumping. Frustration grows.

Over time I’ve learned that when I read one of the chapters in the historical books of God’s Message I have to step back and also read between the lines. At the center of today’s chapter we have an aging community building: Solomon’s Temple (one of the so-called seven wonders of the ancient world). We also have two powerful political leaders within the community: King Joash and the High Priest Jehoiada. Now remember that Jehoiada hid Joash as an infant and placed him on the throne at the age of seven. I can only imagine that Jehoiada enjoyed being the power behind the throne for many years and wasn’t too happy about the King growing up and ordering him around.

The King does call for Jehoiada and orders the powerful religious leader and his priests to take money from the offerings and repair the temple. It would appear that Jehoiada said, “Oh yeah, we’ll take up the offering and do the repairs ourselves. We got this.” Jehoiada and the temple priests took the money, but the repair work never happened! (What?! Taxes collected but not spent on what they were earmarked for?! I’m shocked! SHOCKED!)

Kings don’t like it when their orders are disobeyed. Eventually King Joash loses his patience and calls for another meeting with Jehoiada. I can only imagine the sparks flying between these two leaders. Eventually King Joash sees to it that workers are hired to do the repairs.

At the end of today’s chapter we find that King Joash was assassinated. A quick cross-reference to 2 Chronicles 24:25 tells us that the conspiracy was unleashed when Joash had Jehoiada’s son killed. Obviously, there was bad blood between Joash and Jehoiada’s family. The story of the Temple repairs gives us a hint of the growing conflict between the two.

This morning I’m thinking about relationships and responsibilities as it relates to being involved in community and groups both religious and civic. Along life’s journey I’ve witnessed and been embroiled in many a heated conflict between competing groups within churches, communities, businesses, and families. I’m having a difficult time remembering any of them as being worthwhile. I can’t point to one of them and say, “the end justified the bickering, back-stabbing, and bad blood.”

The further I get in life’s road the more desirous I am to build bridges rather than burning them. I also find myself being very careful where I invest my emotional resources. I only have so much and I’d rather invest them wisely where they might have an eternally positive impact.

Trusting the “Purposes of the Almighty”

When Athaliah the mother of Ahaziah saw that her son was dead, she proceeded to destroy the whole royal family.
2 Kings 11:1 (NIV)

The ancient stories of blood, corruption and political intrigue continue in today’s chapter. As we pick up the stories of royal succession, the nation of Israel had now been divided in two for almost a hundred years. The northern kingdom, called the Kingdom of Israel, had been led by a succession of kings who killed and conspired to both gain and hold the position. The southern kingdom, known as the Kingdom of Judah, continued to follow the royal line of David. Judah trusted Nathan’s prophetic promise that the throne of David would be established forever and, through David, the Messiah would come.

Jerusalem was the capital of Judah and Solomon’s Temple continued to be the center of worship for the Jewish people. Nevertheless, worship of the local fertility god, Baal, had become popular in Judah just as it had been in the northern kingdom of Israel. Just like Queen Jezebel in their northern counterpart, Judah’s Queen Mother Athaliah was a Baal worshipper.

When Jehu seized power in the north, he killed both Joram, King of Israel, and Ahaziah, King of Judah. Athaliah saw opportunity to make a power grab of her own. She, like Jehu, also followed the bloody playbook of ancient takeover and commenced killing all of her son’s children (her own grandchildren) in order to establish her control and make sure the nation could not put one of her grandchildren on the throne.

There was also a religious element to Athaliah’s massacre. Destroying the “whole royal family” would essentially end David’s line. Doing so would render Nathan’s prophecy moot, and it would end the possibility of the prophesied messiah to come. This would cripple the worship of Yaweh and make way for the ascendency of Baal.

Athaliah’s plot is foiled when her infant grandson, Joash, is secreted away from her and hidden in the temple. David’s line survives to eventually give birth to another infant, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger.

This morning I’m thinking about the ways our present reality hinges on past events. Wendy and I have been watching the television series The Man in the High Castle which is predicated on the notion of what life might have been like if the Allies had lost World War II. Historians studying the American Civil War tell us just how close Abraham Lincoln came to losing the election of 1864, which most likely would have led to a peace settlement between the Union and the Confederacy. How different our lives might have been had that happened. Lincoln’s faith was not well-defined, but he came to believe that the purposes of the Almighty were perfect and had to prevail.

So it is that I wonder about our own present realities. There is much turmoil in the world and much angst and anxiety. Here in my little Iowa town I have little power to do much about the course of history. I can only influence the lives around me and leave such legacy as I am able. Nevertheless, as a follower of Jesus I believe that there is a plan for this Great Story. Jesus made it clear that He came to fulfill the plan that had been laid in the law and prophets, and He said there was a plan for how the Great Story would end, as well. Like Uncle Abe, I’m trusting that the purposes of the Almighty must prevail.

Featured photo courtesy gageskidmore via Flickr

Still Using the Same Bloody Playbook

So Jehu destroyed Baal worship in Israel. However, he did not turn away from the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit—the worship of the golden calves at Bethel and Dan.
2 Kings 10:28-29 (NIV)

As I read the chapter this morning, I couldn’t help but think about the news reports coming out of the cities held by ISIS. Our own media have been slow to report the brutal daily realities there. People forced into religious submission and immediate death sentences for any who do not proclaim religious allegiance. Immediate death for anyone caught in the most minor moral infraction such as smoking a cigarette or not wearing the right garb. Those of other faiths beheaded or crucified. Dead bodies hung out for public display as a warning to all.

Life in ancient times was bloody and brutal. Today’s chapter is not a light, devotional read. It’s a veritable blood bath. Last week I used the Godfather saga as a modern parallel to Jehu’s take over of Ahab and Jezebel’s regime. The word picture continues to parallel in the today’s chapter. Having “capped” Ahab and Jezebel, the new Godfather Jehu consolidates his power by killing all of Ahab and Jezebel’s sons, all of their inner circle, their loyal followers, and then all of the members of the religious cult of Baal to whom Ahab and Jezebel zealously ascribed.

For ancient political upstarts like Jehu this type of bloody takeover was nothing new or groundbreaking. There was a well-worn playbook for taking over and consolidating power, and Jehu’s actions were strictly takeover “by the book.” Even in The Godfather II they reference the ancient Roman Empire as blueprint for how they organized and carried out “business.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I thought the most important thing mentioned in today’s chapter was when it is reported that Jehu had wiped out the corruption and idolatry of Ahab and Jezebel, but then he continued to commit his own personal idolatry by worshipping the idols of golden calves. One idolatrous regime gives way to another. Jehu was happy to violently wipe-out his enemies and set up his own personal empire, but in the end he wasn’t that much different from his predecessors.

Which brings me back to today’s headlines, and my own thoughts in the quiet of the morning. The more things change, the more they stay the same. The reports out of cities controlled by Islamic State read like the ancient story of Jehu (and the Inquisition, as well). Even in our own “modern” and “enlightened” culture we have groups of people both left and right who have actively ascribed to violence, power, and intimidation to do away with those who disagree and subject others to their personal world views.

Maybe we’re not so civilized as we think we are.

I’m reminded this morning of Jesus’ words, “You have heard it said…, but I say….” As a follower of Jesus I am called to a different playbook that says if you want to gain power you have to let it go, if you want to lead you have to serve, if you want to ascend you must humbly bow. Jesus’ playbook begins with a change of heart that leads to a change in behavior and relationships. It grows organically by contagion.

The problem with Ahab, Jehu, Rome, the Corleones, Islamic State, the Alt-Right, and Antifa is that it’s all about external power to subject others to their will, but this only serves to sow seeds of hatred and rebellion in the hearts those subjected. Thousands of years of human history and we still haven’t learned the lesson. We’re still falling back to the old playbook. It often works, for a time.

I much prefer Jesus’ strategy. Start with changing the individual heart and then working outward using simple tactics of love, grace, forgiveness, and generosity. I’m not forcing anyone to follow this path, mind you, but I’m happy to buy you a cup of coffee or a pint and tell you about my own personal experience.

A Short Family Vaca (Including a Total Eclipse of the Sun)

We didn’t plan it this way. Earlier this year we planned to find a few days to spend together with our girls at the lake. It just so happened that the stars aligned in such a way that we would be driving to the lake during the sun’s total eclipse. The path of totality passed right across Columbia and Jefferson City, Missouri which are on our way to the lake.

So it was that we began our family vacation on Monday by pulling off the road just outside of Jefferson City to experience the eclipse. Taylor had scored some eclipse glasses for us. The process of the eclipse takes over an hour so we spent much of the early stages in our car staring through the sun roof. As totality neared we got out and experienced it together including watching the eery shadow bands on the ground and looking at the corona over the 2-3 minutes you can actually look at the eclipse without searing your eyeballs. It was a blast to experience the rare celestial event together.

Traffic was crazy after the eclipse as we made our way the rest of the way to the lake. It was a fun couple of days together as we haven’t had a family vacation like this for a long time. I kind of laughed as the four of us sat around the dining room in the mornings with our laptops working away. My, how times have changed.

Schools are already back in session, so the lake was blessedly quiet and the weather was picture perfect. We enjoyed grilling out, laying on the chill raft, hanging out at Bear Bottom (we were literally the only ones there), breakfast at Chances R, riding the wave runner, and (of course) watching movies together. You know we ate well. Wendy brought cheesecake!

Unfortunately, it was far too short. We headed back early Thursday and Madison is already on her way home to South Carolina. Nevertheless, we enjoyed making more memories together which will be added to all the special times we’ve been blessed to have at the lake together.

Jezebel’s Epic End

“Throw her down!” Jehu said. So they threw her down, and some of her blood spattered the wall and the horses as they trampled her underfoot.
2 Kings 9:33 (NIV)

I have long been a fan of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy for the epic story it tells across life and generations. Over the years, Wendy and I have enjoyed introducing friends to the original film over a feast of spaghetti and cannoli, complete with some good Italian red wine.

One of the things that makes a great story is when it is layered with truth and meaning. Epic stories are mines that yield new treasure each time you descend into them. With each telling they reveal something you hadn’t seen before. Yet, even with all of the layers of meaning the narratives of great stories are typically built on something quite simple.

The Godfather epic might be summed up with Jesus’ simple words to his disciple, Peter: “Put your sword back where it belongs. All who use swords are destroyed by swords.” It is a generational tale in which the characters give themselves to “the sword” with what they believe are the best of intentions to protect those they love dearest. Their course, however, only serves to destroy the very things they tried to protect.

This came to mind in the quiet this morning as I read today’s chapter in the handwritten text of The St. John’s Bible. The stories of the ancient kings of Israel and Judah are epic stories, though I find that I have to move beyond the scribe’s text and descend into the story before I begin to see the layers.

The story of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, belongs in the same genre of epic stories of those who live and die by the sword. Their tale is about lust for power, corruption, vengeance and blood.  Today’s chapter is the closing scene on their story. Ahab is dead and Jezebel feels her power slipping away as the leader of a coup d’état reaches her stronghold. Jezebel goes back to her tried and true playbook, putting on her make-up and doing her hair so as to seduce her way out of the corner where her own nefarious actions have placed her. But true to Jesus’ observation, the way of the sword ends badly for those who follow that path. The power of seduction fades and becomes impotent. Jezebel’s very own servants, no doubt weary of her wickedness, are only too willing to join the coup, chuck her out the window, and watch the dogs devour her dead flesh.

This morning I’m thinking about epic stories and the way they reveal truths about life and soul. This week at the lake Wendy and I enjoyed much conversation with our adult daughters. Along the meandering path of our discussions was the observation that we humans never seem content with “enough.” Vito Corleone and Jezebel followed the insatiable way of the sword, violently taking all they could for themselves believing that it would provide security of position and provision. They ignored the reality that when you violently take from others there will eventually be others who will violently take it from you.

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.