Matters of Heart

He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, yet not with a true heart.
2 Chronicles 25:2 (NRSVCE)

In all my years as a follower of Jesus, I’ve observed that we as humans are far more comfortable with flesh than with Spirit. From our earliest years we’re taught to trust what our senses are telling us:

The stove coil is red and it’s radiating heat. Don’t touch it.

The meat smells funny. Don’t eat it.

Something in my knee just popped. Stop running.

I’m feeling light headed and nauseous. Better lie down.

Following Jesus, however, is a faith journey. God’s Message says that faith is “the assurance of what we hope for, evidence of that which we cannot see.” There’s no sight, smell, touch, taste, or hearing involved. Quite the opposite. Faith is beyond our physical senses. God continues to say over and over and over again that He judges not on what can be seen, but what is unseen; God looks at the heart.

When God was directing Samuel who he should anoint as king, He told the prophet: “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Yet I’ve observed continually that most followers of Jesus, and the institutions we create to organize ourselves, repeatedly revert back to our inherent human instinct to trust our base physical senses. We judge others on what we see in their appearance, what we observe in their behaviors, or we we hear about them from others. Our institutions create rules, both written and unwritten, about a person’s worth and standing before God based on how they look and/or behave. I’ve come to believe that we do this because it comes naturally, it is easy, and it gives us (both individually and as a group) comfort when others conform to the social, religious, and behavioral standards we stipulate and expect.

But that’s not how God operates. He says it quite plainly. “My thoughts are not your thoughts. Neither are your ways my ways.” (Isaiah 55:8) And, as the Bard so beautifully put it: “There’s the rub.”

Dealing with the unseen motives and intents of the heart, as God does, is messy. It requires discernment, wisdom, grace, and risk.

In today’s chapter, the Chronicler describes Judah’s King Amaziah as a person who did the right things, but not from a true heart. His actions were admirable, his behavior conformed to expectation, but his motivations were all in the wrong place. It brings to mind the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, of whom Jesus said:

“You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You keep meticulous account books, tithing on every nickel and dime you get, but on the meat of God’s Law, things like fairness and compassion and commitment—the absolute basics!—you carelessly take it or leave it. Careful bookkeeping is commendable, but the basics are required. Do you have any idea how silly you look, writing a life story that’s wrong from start to finish, nitpicking over commas and semicolons?

“You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You burnish the surface of your cups and bowls so they sparkle in the sun, while the insides are maggoty with your greed and gluttony. Stupid Pharisee! Scour the insides, and then the gleaming surface will mean something.

“You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You’re like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds.

“Snakes! Reptilian sneaks! Do you think you can worm your way out of this? Never have to pay the piper? It’s on account of people like you that I send prophets and wise guides and scholars generation after generation—and generation after generation you treat them like dirt, greeting them with lynch mobs, hounding them with abuse.”

The religious people of Jesus day were doing the same things I have observed in religious people of my day. Posturing, appearance, and propriety intended to prove righteousness from what can be physically seen and and audibly heard.

Jesus took a different approach. He gathered a motley crew of followers that included rough, uneducated fishermen, a pair of brothers with anger management issues, a sleazy tax collector, a thief, and a right wing terrorist. He taught them about faith. He exemplified the love he expected of them. He instilled in them compassion. They didn’t come close to measuring up to any kind of acceptable religious standard of their day. But that didn’t matter to God. “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” 

God’s standard is as simple as a Broadway tune: “You gotta have heart!”

This morning I find myself wanting desperately not to be an Amaziah or a Pharisee. Screw religious trappings and the litmus tests of the institutional church.

I want more heart. And I want to find the heart of others, not their conformity to the standards with which I’m personally comfortable.

Transition of Leadership

After the death of Jehoiada, the officials of Judah came and paid homage to the king, and he listened to them.They abandoned the temple of the Lord, the God of their ancestors, and worshiped Asherah poles and idols.
2 Chronicles 24:17-18 (NIV)

Along my life journey I’ve witnessed, or been part of, a number of leadership transitions. Churches, schools, civic organizations, business, clients, not to mention the transition of power our nation peacefully experiences every 2-4 years. Some transitions I’ve experienced have been positive experiences, some have not.

In today’s chapter the Chronicler relates some fascinating details about the reign of young King Joash of Judah. In the previous two chapters we learned that the entire royal family of David had been wiped out. Joash had been hidden away as an infant in the Temple of Solomon for seven years. Then the high priest, Jehoiada, let a coup and placed Joash on the throne.

Reading between the lines on the Chronicler’s papyrus, we see there may have been a bit of an ebb and flow to the relationship between Jehoiada and young King Joash, between monarch and priest, between politics and religion. Jehoiada was, no doubt, a powerful figure. He was the one who hid the infant and protected him. He was the one who plotted and carried out the coup. He was the one who put Joash on the throne. Jehoiada was the power behind the child king, and he even oversaw who Joash would marry and with whom the king would have children.

The king grows up and gives orders for a tax to be collected to repair Solomon’s Temple, but the King’s wishes are not immediately carried out. Jehoiada was the power behind the throne, and the Levites knew to take their orders from the high priest, not the king. Joash summons Jehoiada before him. Joash had always taken his commands from Jehoiada, now the young king was testing and exerting his own power and authority over Jehoiada. The high priest submits, but we as readers are left wondering just how these two powerful men managed their relationship with one another.

The Chronicler then tells us about another transition of leadership. The powerful religious leader, Jehoiada, dies. There is now a vacuum of religious leadership. Immediately, the “officials” of Judah (leaders of clans, businessmen, state officials. and etc.) swoop into that power vacuum and pay a visit to King Joash. They convince the King to loosen Jehoiada’s powerful stranglehold on local religion and support the resurgence of the local Canaanite gods. Joash does so despite many prophetic warnings. The Chronicler makes it clear that this doesn’t end well.

This morning I’m thinking about transitions of leadership and of power. Jehoiada saw to it that Joash was placed on the throne, but the Chronicler’s account leaves me believing that he may have looked upon the young monarch as a puppet to be controlled rather than a protegé to be mentored. The difference is monumental and the fact that there was no successor to Jehoiada with the authority to command respect of the King and his “officials” says that the high priest had equally not done an adequate job preparing for his successor and ensuring that the legacy of his leadership would continue.

I have been blessed and privileged to be in many different leadership positions in my lifetime. In the quiet this morning I’m taking stock of how I have handled the transition of power and leadership to others. The results, I confess, are mixed. In some cases I feel that I’ve done well, and in others I realize that, like Jehoiada, I’ve missed the opportunity to bless my successor and those under my leadership with a wisely planned transition. I can’t change the past, but I can ensure that I handle future opportunities with greater wisdom and grace. I pray I do so.

Have a great week, my friends!

 

Time is Not My Enemy. She’s My Dance Partner.

In the seventh year Jehoiada showed his strength.
2 Chronicles 23:1 (NIV)

When I was a young man, Time was my constant enemy. I’m sure that being the youngest of four spurred the animosity with both clock and calendar. Being “too young” and “not old enough” drove me to quiet madness. I envied my older siblings and was convinced that I was perfectly capable of doing the same things they could do, but I was constantly rebuffed by being told “you’re not old enough.”  I became increasingly anxious to press whatever fast forward buttons life afforded me, take whatever shortcuts were available (or I could create) to quickly reach whatever life’s road held for me over the next horizon. I attacked and advanced on my enemy, Time, whenever and wherever could.

Looking back across my life journey I see ways in which my eagerness to speed up Time afforded both blessing and tragedy into my story. However, it took a tremendous amount of tragedy before I began to appreciate the alliance between Time and Providence that God wove into the DNA of creation. I discovered that Time was not my enemy. Time is a fellow participant in the divine dance. Once I was given the grace to embrace this truth, I experienced a certain new flow in life.

Yesterday’s chapter ended in a dark, bloody period of political chaos, spiritual defeat, and national despair for the people of ancient Judah. As mentioned, there was a foreshadowing of hope in a child, a lone heir to David’s throne, being hidden away within Solomon’s Temple while his murderous grandmother solidified her hold on power. In today’s chapter we fast forward seven years. Seven years of Athaliah’s evil reign. Seven years of the ascendance of Baal worship in God’s city. Seven years of despair for God’s faithful followers.

In the Great Story, seven is the number of completion.

I’ve come to embrace that even dark chapters of life must work themselves out to completion. Time must be afforded room to perform her dance and move the appropriate people and events and circumstances into place for eucatastrophe to occur.

It takes seven years before “the time is right.” The priest Jehoiada seizes the opportunity. He organizes a coup, ensures the protection and safety of the young heir, Joash, and plots the end of Athaliah’s reign. It works.

This morning in the quiet I’m thinking about my enemy turned dance partner: Time. I confess that I’ve not become perfect in my contentment. I still have a tendency to step on her toes when I want her to move things along, but I’ve definitely learned a step or two. There is a choreographed flow and Time’s dance requires that certain chapters of the journey must work themselves out to completion no matter how badly I want to skip to the end. The harder I fight against that fact the more my life’s dance resembles the drunk, idiot cousin at a wedding reception.

Slow down,” I’ve learned to tell myself. “Listen to the music. Feel the flow. This is not a race. It’s a dance.”

One-two-three. One-two-three. One-two-three.

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The Story is NOT Over. The Story WILL Go On.

He remained hidden with them at the temple of God for six years while Athaliah ruled the land.
2 Chronicles 22:12 (NIV)

I am convinced that there are stretches along every person’s life journey in which the road descends into chaos. Things we trusted to remain solid fall apart. Tragedy strikes suddenly and without warning. Just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse, another bomb drops. The compass we’ve always trusted to point true north spins out of control. We lose our personal bearing. Nothing seems safe. It is as if nothing will ever be “okay” again.

Ever.

For the people of ancient Judah, their unshakable faith in God’s promise to King David had provided them with a sense of peace. The Davidic line would remain as a trustworthy sense of stability. The throne would pass from father to son, from generation to generation. You can count on it.

Until things descended into chaos.

Jehoshaphat marries his eldest son, Jehoram, to Athaliah the daughter of Ahab and Jezebel. Jehoram kills all of his brothers in a bloodbath intended to solidify his control. His reign implodes as enemies invade and kill his entire family with the exception of his youngest son, Ahaziah. The only viable heir of David, the young Ahaziah is placed on the throne. His one-year reign is a disastrous chain-reaction of events ending in his assassination. Ahaziah’s power-hungry mother, Athaliah, kills off the rest of the royal family to consolidate her own power over the nation of Judah.

The Davidic line wiped out. That which was trusted is lost.

The people of Judah had to be reeling in the valley of chaos. They trusted the Davidic royal line would be forever. A member of the reviled and evil house of Ahab and Jezebel is on the throne of their nation. The compass they always trusted to point true north is spinning out of control. Nothing seems safe. It’s as if nothing will ever be “okay” again.

Ever.

But, the story isn’t over. While the circumstantial events in the valley of Judah’s chaos seem eternal and inescapable, the perspective of history allows us to see that this is simply a dark chapter in the Great Story.

There is a woman. There is a baby.

(How often can we quote that line in the Great Story?)

The woman is a daughter of the king. She is the wife of the priest.  She has the courage to risk her life for what is right.

The baby is the son of the king.

In the moment, no one knows it. In the chaos they cannot see it.

The story is not over. The story will go on.

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking of the valleys of chaos into which I’ve descended. I’m remembering my own feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. And, I’m looking back from a waypoint further down Life’s road that provides me with a much needed perspective.

The story is not over. The story will go on.

The Epitaph Being Written Today

“He passed away, to no one’s regret….”
2 Chronicles 21:20 (NIV)

Earlier in my life journey I spent a few years in pastoral ministry. I served in a rural community with many aging citizens. I found myself performing an unexpected number of funerals which led to my befriending the local funeral director. As a result, I found myself doing even more funerals as my friend would often call me when the deceased or the deceased’s family had no connection with a local pastor or church.

I encountered an amazingly diverse number of experiences in those few years. I observed beautifully warm family gatherings honoring individuals who left a legacy of love. I observed fractured families who refused to be in the same room with their family members. Factions would take turns paying their last respects to the deceased. I officiated services for individuals who, at the end of their lives, were completely alone and virtually no one came to pay their respects. And, I presided over funerals for individuals who appeared to be universally despised, those in attendance at the funeral sharing with me that they were there to say “Good riddance.”

After several chapters in which the Chronicler shares a rather expansive story of King Jehoshaphat, today’s chapter succinctly describes the brief reign of Jehoshaphat’s son, Jehoram. It was eight years of division and chaos rooted in Jehoshaphat’s ill-fated decision to make a marriage alliance with the evil King Ahab of Israel which set off a chain-reaction of tragedy.

Jehoram married a daughter of Ahab and Jezebel. By the Chronicler’s account, Jehoram was sucked into the dysfunctional family and religious system of his in-laws. This couldn’t have made him popular with his brothers who had been given some regional authority by their father (which made them potential rivals to Jehoram). Jehoram kills off all of his brothers to solidify his hold on the throne. Neighboring enemies, observing the internal political chaos, choose to attack Judah and take advantage of this moment of weakness. It works. Jehoram’s reign ends after eight short, bloody years marked by internal strife, fraternal murder, and failure in almost every respect.

The Chronicler’s epitaph: “He passed away to no one’s regret.”

What a sobering reality to mull over in my hotel room this morning. What kind of epitaph have I been writing over my life journey? What adjectives have attached themselves to my legacy? Love? Anger? Kindness? Pride? Faithfulness? Selfishness? Generosity? Greed? Failure? Redemption?

In the quiet I’m thinking about the opportunity I have this day and every day, in every relationship, in every interaction to make a positive difference. Even a life journey littered with tragic failure can chart a new waypoint each day. It’s never too late. That’s what the word “repentance” literally means: to turn and move in the opposite direction. In my experience, positive life change rarely happens in a moment. Rather, it begins with one willful decision to make a change of direction.

I’m thinking about some of those individuals from years ago with whom I only became acquainted as a body in a casket. What would have been different had I known them, had a chance to interact with them before their journeys end? I don’t know.

But it’s not too late for the people with whom I will interact today.

The Implosion of Evil

The Ammonites and Moabites rose up against the men from Mount Seir to destroy and annihilate them. After they finished slaughtering the men from Seir, they helped to destroy one another. When the men of Judah came to the place that overlooks the desert and looked toward the vast army, they saw only dead bodies lying on the ground; no one had escaped.
2 Chronicles 20:23-34 (NIV)

In our modern, twenty-first century enlightened world we rarely talk about the nature of evil. I find that, even among those who are followers of Jesus, there is a reticence to even think of the concept of evil. Jesus quite regularly referenced evil. The word or variation is used seven times in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

Over the years Wendy and I have noticed a theme among epic stories regarding the nature of evil: evil eventually destroys itself from within. Sometimes, left to itself, evil naturally implodes. Tolkien used this device multiple times in his stories and it came to mind this morning as I read today’s chapter. As Merry and Pippin are captives of the Orcs it is an internal fight between factions of Orcs and Grishnakh’s lust that ultimately allow for their escape. Likewise, as Frodo and Sam attempt steal their way into Mordor through the stronghold of Cirith Ungol, a massive fight between two companies of Orcs destroy one another and allow the Hobbits to escape.

In today’s chapter we find a similar story from Judah’s history. A coalition of enemy armies are gathered to march against Judah and Jerusalem. King Jehoshaphat assembles all the people to seek the Lord. They pray, they fast, they humble themselves. God speaks through the prophet that the battle belongs to God and He will deliver. The people respond in praise. The coalition of enemy armies turn on each other and destroy one another so that when the army of Judah arrives, they find a field of dead bodies.

This morning in the quiet as I mull these things over I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis’ admonishment about the two mistakes one can make about the exploration of evil. One, he said, is to ignore it. The second is to get too deep and take it too seriously. The people of Judah didn’t ignore the threat facing them but focused their energies on seeking after God, trusting, and following. Before the threat could become a battle, the evil had imploded within. I never want to be naive, ignorant, or blind to the reality of evil that exists in our world. Neither do I want to give into fear or be overwhelmed by it:

This is what the Lord says to you: ‘Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God’s.

Overturning the Scales on the Spiritual Economy

There is, however, some good in you.
2 Chronicles 19:3 (NIV)

In the past few months my past has resurfaced. It happens once in a while. My many failures are a matter of public record. I have spoken openly about them. For certain individuals my record makes me questionable, and every so often the questions come around again.

I find spiritual economics to be a fascinating thing; The way in which we determine, quantify, and respond to the “good” and “bad” (or “righteousness” and “sin”) within ourselves and others. The way we use key indicators within our spiritual economy to determine our view of everyone and everything around us.

The Chronicler and his ancient world had a very ordered system. He dictates for us whether Kings were winners and losers in the spiritual economy. The good and bad are spelled out in black and white terms. In the previous chapter Jehoshaphat made an alliance with Ahab, so in today’s chapter the Seer Jehu calls him out for his “bad,” but then declares “There is, however, some good in you.” The rest of the chapter goes on to describe Jehoshaphat’s exemplary efforts to promote and improve domestic justice in his kingdom. We the readers feel the scales on the spiritual economy tipping back and forth.

It’s no wonder that to this day we perpetuate variations on this system of weighing and judging people on our personal, spiritual economic scales. It’s a very human thing to do. Yet, one of the radical things that Jesus brought to the table was a radically new spiritual economy. He turned the system upside down. In Jesus’ spiritual economy there was no one who measured up on their own. No personal righteousness was enough to tip the scales to the “good.” Every person was in need of grace and mercy. As James 2:10 says “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” So the “righteous” religious people who were “good” in the standard spiritual economic system incurred Jesus’ wrath, while He made a habit of hanging out and showing kindness, love, grace, forgiveness, and mercy to the “bad,” the sinful, the marginal, and the questionable.

This morning I’m once again looking back across my journey. I don’t think I would have fared particularly well in the Chronicler’s spiritual economic scale. I don’t fare particularly well in the spiritual economic scales of some of my fellow believers.

Two things come to mind as I mull these things over in my heart.

One is a passage I memorized long ago. I like how The Message puts it:

Now God has us where he wants us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus. Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving. He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing.
Ephesians 2:7-10

The other is these lyrics from Bob Dylan:

I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea.
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there.
Other times it’s only me.
I’m hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow fallen.
Like every grain of sand.