The Three Questions

The Three Questions (CaD Mk 5) Wayfarer

As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”
Mark 5:18-19 (NIV)

Tomorrow I celebrate another year on this earthly journey. The earth has made another trip around the sun. It’s my plan to take the day off and have a little personal time. We’ll see how that plays out.

Along the journey I’ve perpetually spent time in the quiet with God contemplating three questions:

  • Where have I been?
  • Where am I at?
  • Where am I going?

As a young man, the answers to the first two questions typically resonated with discontent. The third resonated with hubris.

A little further in the journey, the first two questions resonated with anger. The third resonated with confusion.

Yet further down the path the first question began resonating with gratitude. The second question began resonating with clarity for the first time. The third question began resonating with hopeful longing.

Some mornings as I read the chapter, I find myself meditating on a character in the story. There are so many people we meet in Jesus’ story, but I rarely give most of them more than a passing thought. They are two-dimensional bit-players who make a quick entrance, speak their line or two, and then exit to the Great Story’s Green Room.

When I trained as an actor, I was taught that even bit players have a story. I was trained to study each character that I embodied with equal depth and attention to detail whether I was in the lead role or a bit player. And so, I sometimes like doing a little character study of the bit players I come upon in the chapter. Today it was the man who had spent his life possessed by demons, living amongst the dead and rotting bodies in the local tombs. The locals continued to tie him up and shackle him with chains because he was so raving mad and out of control. Talk about an interesting answer to the introspective question “Where have I been?”

The answer to “Where am I at?” is radically different than it had ever been before. It’s suddenly “normal” like everyone else. The demons are gone. His chains are gone. His spirit and his mind are his own for the first time in how many years? He is a walking miracle. He’s still the one everyone is talking about, but in an entirely new way.

“Where am I going?” he asks himself. His life is suddenly open to endless possibilities. Why not follow this teacher who delivered him? Why not dedicate his life to going wherever Jesus goes, doing whatever Jesus says, and serving Jesus in life-long gratitude? He seeks out Jesus and begs to follow.

It was Jesus answer that resonated in my soul this morning. Jesus could have taken on another disciple. He could have sent this man on any mission to any land Jesus named to accomplish any task no matter how seemingly impossible, and the man would have gladly done it.

But, no. Jesus says, “Stay here, my friend. Stay here in this little village on the shores of Galilee that you call home. Go home to your family and your community. Channel your gratitude for me into loving and serving them well. Love, and be loved. Get a job and support these neighbors who have looked after you for so long. Get married, make love, have children, and experience the joy of a simple life. That’s my mission for you.”

As I heard Jesus saying this in the scene I envisioned in my imagination, one of my life verses came to mind:

Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.
1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 (NIV)

As I meditate on entering another year in the journey tomorrow, my heart meanders back, yet again, to the three questions. Amidst the Divine Dance I toss the questions out and open my spirit to the answers.

“Where have I been?” The answer resonates with gratitude more than ever before.

“Where am I at?” The answer has begun to resonate with contentment.

“Where am I going?” The answer is surprisingly soft and still compared to the chaotic resonance of hubris, anger, and longing I’ve known my entire life journey. Wait a minute…

Is that peace?

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Sow What?

Sow What? (CaD Mk 4) Wayfarer

Again [Jesus] said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”
Mark 4:30-32 (NIV)

It is spring in Iowa, arguably the best place to grow things in the world. Growing up, the stated used the tag line: “A place to grow.” I always found this a great tag line full of metaphorical layers. I’m sad it got buried under slogans like “You make me smile!” and “We do amazing things with corn.”

Spring brings my perennial desire to plant something and make it grow. I have to confess that when it comes to being a child of Iowa I’m a bit of a prodigal. Growing things has never come naturally to me. I’ve done okay with my rosebushes, but I think it’s because they do well on their own despite me. Last spring we planted some herbs on the patio. I even got to use them to make fresh seasoning a few times before they died.

It’s a beautiful thing about the cycles of life, isn’t it? It is perennial. Hope springs eternal with Easter. Every spring the Cubs have a chance to win the World Series and I have a chance to successfully grow something. It doesn’t matter that the odds are 1:108. There’s still a chance, and each spring the hope is intoxicating.

Last year, Wendy and I bought actual herb plants. Undeterred by their premature death, I decided that this year we’re going to grow them from seeds. If I’m going to commit serial herbicide, I might as well make it more difficult. So, we got three grow-kits with pots, dirt, and seeds.

What struck me as I planted the seeds was how minuscule they were. Seriously, I felt like I was sprinkling dust particles in the dirt! I followed the instructions for watering and a week or so later Wendy and I went to the lake for a long weekend. When we got back, there were actual plants growing in two of the three pots. What did I do wrong with the third plant? I’m telling you: I can kill a plant before it even sprouts! When I contacted the grow-kit company I was told that sometimes you can get “bad seed.” I’m not sure what that means, but it felt like a pardon from the Governor. I sanded out a couple of notches off the handle of my garden trowel.

I thought about my little herb garden as I read today’s chapter. Jesus uses planting seeds as a word picture of God’s Kingdom. The seed can be as small as a speck of dust, but it can sprout and grow into something huge. Which is why earlier in the chapter Jesus told another story about a person who was sowing seed as they journeyed along. The seed was sown everywhere, which got me mulling this over.

Jesus told His followers that the seed is the Word. In the Great Story I learned that Jesus is the living Word and also incarnate Love. So, one way I sow the Word along my life journey is by sowing love that is joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, gentle, faithful, good, and self-controlled. In doing this, I’m scattering that hopeful possibility of spring that the seed might happen to fall upon a soul that it good soil for that seed to germinate and grow into something exponentially huge in relation to that little seed sown in a gentle word, a gesture of forgiveness, a random act of kindness, or a timely hug.

Of course, the Great Story also talks about bad seed that can equally be sown. The seeds of hatred, anger, malice, chaos, violence, rage, jealousy, envy, selfishness, dissension, and division. Bad seeds don’t grow much of anything.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself once again looking within and without. What am I sowing in my thoughts, words, actions, reactions, posts, tweets, replies, and comments? I look outward at the things I see in the media, on social media, and the people I “follow.” What is being sown? Good seed? Bad seed?

I don’t want to be judgmental, but I do want to be wise.

I can’t control others, but I can control myself.

I am embarking on yet another day. Day number 20,088 of my earthly journey.

It’s spring in Iowa. A place to grow.

What am I going to sow today?

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

A Different Playbook

A Different Playbook (CaD Mk 3) Wayfarer

Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.
Mark 3:6 (NIV)

As a student of history, I’ve observed that much of history is about those in power, how they came to power, how their power was threatened or taken away. It always makes for a good story, as Shakespeare well knew. The Bard mined a lot of historical leaders and events to write plays that are still being ceaselessly produced today.

One of the themes that runs through both history and our classic literature is that of holding on to power. I find it to be a very human thing. Once I have power, I don’t want to let go of it. This is not just true of politicians who rig the system to ensure they remain in control, or business leaders who cling to their corner office, but it’s also true of parenting. For almost two decades I am essentially ruler and lord with total authority over this child. Then I’m suddenly supposed to just “let go” of my power and authority and let her run her own life when she might make some crazy life decision? Yikes!

As I read today’s chapter, I couldn’t help but see the continued development of conflict that Mark is revealing in the text. Those representatives of the powerful religious institution who were indignant with Jesus’ teaching in yesterday’s chapter, are finding Jesus to be a growing threat to their power in today’s chapter.

Jesus’ popularity is rising off of the charts. His name is trending throughout the region, even in Jerusalem where the earthly powers of politics, commerce, and religion reign. Crowds are traveling to Galilee to see this rising star. And the people who are flocking to Him are the crowds, the masses, commoners, the sick, the poor, the simpletons in fly-over country, the deplorables.

The stakes have grown. The power brokers and their minions are no longer just watching, they are plotting:

“Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus…” (vs. 2)

Once again, Jesus thwarts their monopolistic, religious control by healing someone on the Sabbath. The crowds are cheering. This Nazarene upstart could turn the crowds against them. Mobs, protests, and violence in the streets could be the result, and that’s a threat to our power. Something must be done, and Mark tells us that something interesting happens:

“Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.” (vs. 6)

The Pharisees were religious power brokers who publicly condemned the Roman Empire who was in control of the region. The Herodians (followers of local King Herod) were local political power brokers who did business with Rome in order to get lucrative Roman contracts and Roman authority to wield local political control. These two groups publicly hated one another, and in the media they had nothing good to say about one another. However, history reveals time and time again that in the playbook of the Kingdoms of this World “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Welcome to the smoke-filled back room. Have a seat. We’re just getting started. What are we to do with this “Jesus problem?”

Jesus, meanwhile, has other problems. The crowds are pressing in to the point of almost being out of control. The line of people wanting to be healed is endless. They’re coming from all over. Where are all these people going to stay? What are they going to eat? The locals are complaining about their quiet little towns being overrun with foreigners. The markets are sold out of everything!

And then Jesus’ own mother and brothers show up. They’re scared. Jesus is making powerful enemies. They are feeling the pressure themselves. Is it possible that an elder from the local synagogue was urged by higher-ups to pay Mary a friendly visit? I can imagine it…

“Mary, this isn’t good. Your boy has a good heart. I know he means well, but he’s going to get himself in big trouble with the Sanhedrin, with Herodians, and you don’t want the Romans to get involved. This could look really bad for your family. You’re a widow. Jesus is your oldest boy. He’s responsible to take care of you and instead he’s running around creating trouble for you and your family. We think it best that you talk to him. Be a good mother. Talk some sense into your boy.”

When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” (vs. 21)

Next comes the spin campaign, and those in power know how to spin a narrative. It doesn’t have to be true. It just has to come from a seemingly “reliable” and authoritative source. It has be sensational, it has to be easily repeatable, and it has to create fear and doubt in the minds of the public.

 And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.” (vs. 22)

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking that the more things change, the more they stay the same in the Kingdoms of this World and their playbook.

And Jesus’ response to all this? He sticks to His core message: “The Kingdom of God is here, and it’s not like the Kingdoms of this world”. He continues to heal, He feeds, He tells stories, and He escapes the crowds to be alone for periods of time. He refuses to bow to pressure from the envoys of worldly power. He even refuses to bow to pressure from his own mother.

Poor Mary. It’s hard to let go of authority of your adult child when He can make crazy life decisions that affect the whole family. I think it’s lovely that as Jesus hung on the cross one of the last things He did was to see to it that His friend John would care for His earthly mother.

The further I get on my own life journey, I find myself seeing the Kingdoms of this World with greater clarity on all levels. As that happens, I hear the Spirit calling me to understand that being an Ambassador of the Kingdom of God on earth means living in the World, but following a different playbook.

The Great Conflict

The Great Conflict (CaD Mk 2) Wayfarer

Then [Jesus] said to [the Pharisees], “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
Mark 2:27-28 (NIV)

The Great Story, on the macro level, is a story of good and evil. It’s a grand conflict over humanity and creation. Along my journey, I’ve observed that it’s easy to lose sight of this. In my inescapable, fallen human nature I like to make everything, especially the things of God, all about me. Jesus’ taught that I have to crucify that notion.

This doesn’t mean that I, and my life, are insignificant by any means. Jesus made that clear in His teachings as well. The numbers of hair on my head are intimately known, as are the number of my days on this earthly journey, as are my anxieties and cares. It’s such a mind-blowing thing to discover; The Great Story is both/and epic and personal, macro and micro, eternal and momentary.

A few weeks ago I delivered the Good Friday message among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. In that message I laid out how Jesus six trials and crucifixion were a spiritual conflict between the Kingdom of God and the Prince of this World and his Kingdoms of this World representing their three pillars of power: politics, commerce, and religion.

Mark’s biography of Jesus introduces this epic story right away in chapter one as Jesus’ earthly ministry begins. Jesus is sent by Holy Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the “Prince of this World” just as he tempted Adam and Eve and started the whole grand conflict. The Prince of this World offers Jesus the Kingdoms of this World, which are his to give, if only Jesus will bow down and worship him. Jesus could have it all: human governments from the United States to Russia and China, with the United Nations thrown it to boot. Jesus could have the Dow Jones 100, Amazon, Apple, and the athletic franchises that rack up billions. He could have the media and the power to manipulate the masses. He could have all of human religion from atheism to the Vatican with which to dictate His will and desires with top-down authority.

Jesus passes on the offer. The epic story continues.

In today’s chapter, the conflict continues as the Prince of this World begins to position his pieces on the chess board. Mark gives us four episodes in Jesus’ early ministry. In all four, there is a conflict between Jesus’ actions/teaching, and representatives of the institutional religion that had taken over God’s people.

Jesus forgave a man’s sins.

The religious institution said only God could forgive sins. Institutions of this world like to control all power, even the spiritual power of forgiveness.

Jesus hangs out with tax collectors like Matthew and his sinful friends.

This antagonizes the religious institution who carefully control their adherents with strict moral codes and rules about who is “in” and who is “out.” To break these rules threatens their hold over people.

Jesus and his followers choose not to observe certain religious staples like fasting.

Traditions, especially traditional religious rituals, are yet another essential part of determining a religious pecking order. Both the institutional religious power brokers, and faithful adherents like John’s disciples, are confused. Jesus is not following the playbook of tradition.

Jesus and His disciples appear to blatantly break one of God’s Top-Ten rules given through Moses. They “work” on the Sabbath day of rest by picking some heads of grain to snack on as they walk through a field.

The leaders of religious institution are appalled. The institutions of religion tend to make rules to codify previous rules which were put in place by earlier generations to ensure the original rule is followed. This is how a convenient pecking order of religious and righteous is maintained.

As I read the chapter this morning, I see that on the macro level, Mark is telling us that the pieces are quickly moving into place on the chess board. The middle game and end game are already determined for those who have eyes to see it. Jesus will continue to teach about a kingdom that is not of this world in which individuals are forgiven and spiritually free from the shackles of this world’s pillars of power. Jesus will teach of an eternal kingdom in which any individual, having experienced the love and forgiveness of God’s Kingdom, will be motivated by that love spread eternal love and forgiveness wherever they go. Having failed to tempt Jesus into the sweet deal of earthly power, the Prince of this World will use all of the institutions of this world he controls, starting with the institution of religion, to make the Son of God suffer the ultimate earthly penalty Himself: death.

In the quiet, I find myself contemplating my own personal relationship with Jesus in light of the Great Story on the macro level. I’m thinking about Jesus’ call to be an ambassador of His kingdom on earth. I find my heart and mind doing a self-evaluation based on Jesus’ example in the first two chapters of Mark:

  • Am I choosing to pass on what the world feeds me, offers me, and tells me is valuable and worthwhile? Or am I living like the world tells me and dressing it up with a religious costume?
  • Am I forgiving others as I have been forgiven, or am I holding grudges, prejudices, and judgment because of the power it makes me feel?
  • Am I seeking out spiritual disciplines that help me be more like Jesus, or am I mindlessly following religious rituals because it’s expected of me by a religious authority or institution?
  • Am I choosing to live in the spiritual freedom Jesus taught and exemplified, or am I choosing religious rule-keeping of my local religious institutions’ brand of self-righteous pecking order?

Lord, help me live out my citizenship of your eternal kingdom on this earth today by fully living the the former on each of these four questions.

Have a great week, my friend.

Mark (Apr/May 2021)

Each photo below corresponds to the chapter-a-day post for the book of Mark published by Tom Vander Well in April and May of 2021. Click on the photo linked to each chapter to read the post.

Mark 1: Source, not Compensation

Mark 2: The Great Conflict

Mark 3: A Different Playbook

Mark 4: Sow What?

Mark 5: The Three Questions

Mark 6: Soil Samples

Mark 7: The Contrast

Mark 8: The Inflection Point

Mark 9: “Ins” and “Outs”

Mark 10: Life on the Fast-Track

Mark 11: By-Products

Mark 12: The Crowd

Mark 13: Of Riches and Rubble

Mark 14: Mary and the Dudes

Mark 15: Success

Mark 16: Endings and Invitations

Source, not Compensation

Source, not Compensation (CaD Mk 1) Wayfarer

And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Mark 1:11 (NIV)

Looking back on my life journey, it’s obvious to me that my early thirties were an important stretch of road. My late teens and early twenties were a period of being cocksure of myself. Entering marriage, fatherhood, and adulthood in my early twenties was, for me, a heavy dose of reality. The side-effects of that reality dosage led to a period of intense personal chaos which eventually led to intense introspection, and this eventually led to a more healthy sense of what psychologists would call my individuation. In the parlance of our times, as the Dude would say, I grew up. I became my own person.

As I trekked through that time of life, I began to inspect my family of origin with a critical eye. As with any human system, there were shortcomings which I had to honestly acknowledge, address, and forgive. But I also discovered strengths which had to be equally acknowledged, addressed, and appreciated.

It was during this time of life that I began to witness a common soul wound that effected a number of my male friends. They had never experienced a father’s love. Never had their ears heard the words “I love you” uttered by their dad. Never had they received a word of affirmation, encouragement, or paternal pride. “The old man” had simply been a stoic source of silence, or constant criticism, or unattainable expectations. The result was a seemingly adult male who was, in reality, the walking wounded endlessly striving to earn a blessing that was hopelessly beyond price.

It was this observation that gave me a much needed contrast in my own process of individuation. Every day of my childhood ended with a hug and kiss from my parents and an “I love you.” My father, as well as my mother, was present, loving, affectionate, proud, and trusting. So much so, in fact, that I was blind to it. I took it for granted. I had no idea how priceless of a gift it was.

With today’s chapter, my chapter-a-day journey embarks on Mark’s biography of Jesus. It is the shortest of the four Jesus Stories contained in the Great Story. It is believed to be the earliest to have been written. Mark, also known as John Mark, was a colleague and assistant to both Peter and Paul. Mark’s mother was one of the circle of women who followed and supported Jesus’ ministry. The early believers met in her home. It is believed that Mark’s biography is his compilation of the stories Peter told as they traveled and taught others in the first century.

It is also believed that a curious side note of Mark’s biography of Jesus was, well, autobiographical. It’s found in his description of Jesus’ arrest:

A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.

This somewhat comical detail stands out, in part, because Mark’s biography of Jesus is short on details compared to Matthew, John, and Luke. It is a condensed compilation of stories, especially in the early chapters. A dramatization of today’s chapter would contain eight different scenes. That’s a lot of material to chew on in one quiet time.

What resonated most with me this morning was the scene of Jesus’ baptism in which all members of the Trinity are present. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit mark the beginning of Jesus earthly ministry and the Father’s voice from heaven declares His love and pleasure with His Son, Jesus. What always stands out to me is that Jesus hasn’t done anything yet.

He hasn’t successfully faced temptation.
He hasn’t hasn’t preached his first sermon.
He has no disciples.
He hasn’t healed anyone.

Jesus has been ritually dunked by His cousin, John. That’s it.

“That’s m’boy,” says the Father. “Man, I love Him. Couldn’t be more proud. It’s such pleasure to be this kid’s Dad!”

Years ago I made this same point during a message I was giving among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. One listener accosted me after the service to take issue with this.

“He was thirty years old,” this person exclaimed. “He’d done stuff!”

This individuals insistence quickly made clear to just how wounded their soul was. They could not fathom parental love, pride, or pleasure that had not been demanded, earned, and merited. I have observed along my life journey that much of religious Christianity suffers from this wound. Churches talk about grace (literally, unmerited favor) while demanding that members faithfully earn the system’s social acceptability by carefully being obedient to the silent rules of dress, speech, relationships, and public behavior. In a meritocracy, love, pride and pleasure are a carrot dangled as motivation. They are to be dearly earned through strict obedience.

Not Jesus’ family system. Love, pride and pleasure are the source of the motivation. The divine love and relational intimacy of the mysterious One-is-Three and Three-is-One is what fueled Jesus’ ministry, His mission, His service, and His sacrifice.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself grateful to my father and mother for modeling love. It has mades it easier for me to understand this essential truth about Jesus’ message: Love is the source not the compensation. It is there. It’s right there. All I have to do is believe, receive, and make room. “We love because He first loved us.”

Perhaps the single-most important lesson of my life journey, thus far, was the realization that God’s eternal love, complete forgiveness, and total acceptance was not the result of my “doing stuff” or not “doing stuff.” It is a gift to be simply received. The realization of just how priceless that gift is has been the greatest motivation of my life and has led me to “do stuff” for forty years, like writing this post.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Just Breathe

Just Breathe (CaD Ps 150) Wayfarer

Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
Psalm 150:6 (NIV)

With today’s chapter, Psalm 150, this chapter-a-day journey through all 150 chapters of the anthology of ancient Hebrew song lyrics is complete. The editors of the compilation chose a short, powerful song of praise for the final refrain. Some scholars believe that it may have been composed for this purpose. In the original Hebrew language, “Praise the LORD” is “Hallelu Ya.” Thus, we end the journey with a shout of “Hallelujah!” and a call for “everything that has breath” to join in the chorus.

Among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers we have a very active team of people who are committed to the spiritual discipline of prayer. They do a great job of teaching others, myself included, in ways to develop our spiritual muscle in this essential practice.

A few years ago, I learned from our prayer team a simple technique that transforms my natural rhythm of breathing into a repeated prayer. One phrase is repeated with every inhale, and another phrase is repeated on every exhale. I have personally found this helpful when I am trying to quiet myself from stress or anxiety and when I am preparing my heart to enter into corporate worship.

As for the specific phrases used, the options are endless, but I have found that certain familiar lines from Jesus teaching and the Great Story that I have particularly helpful…

Inhale: “Come to me you who are weary”
Exhale: “I will give your soul rest.”

Inhale: “Cast all my anxieties on Him.”
Exhale: “He cares for me.”

Inhale: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty”
Exhale: “Who was, and is, and is to come. The whole earth is full of His glory
(This one helps me breathe deeply! 🙂 )

Inhale: “Let everything that has breath”
Exhale: “Praise the LORD.”

In the quiet this morning, I find myself reflecting on my spiritual journey. As a child I was taught religion, in which empty rituals were carried out as part of a transactional process. I did the religious things in an effort to counter-balance my human failures with religious duties in the hope of earning God’s favor. After entering into a relationship with Jesus, I came to learn that the Spirit connects and holds all things together. It made all the empty religious ritual even more impotent while, at the same time, a whole knew world of possibility opened up to me. I discovered that connection with the God of creation is as simple and profound as breathing.

Just breathe.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Bookends of Praise

Bookends of Praise (CaD Ps 149) Wayfarer

Praise the Lord.
Psalm 149:1a (NIV)
Praise the Lord.
Psalm 149:9c (NIV)

One of the thieves of my sleep is the never-ending task list. As my sleep ebbs and flows in the darkness from deep sleep to semi-consciousness, my brain tends to use the relative wakefulness of semi-consciousness (typically around 3:30 a.m.) to begin spinning on all the tasks I didn’t accomplish the day before along with the ones that I are on the list for the following day. There are mornings that I can’t shut my brain off and return to some restful log sawing. Hello insomnia, my old friend.

In today’s chapter, Psalm 149, I noticed one of the recurring thematic devices used by the lyricists of these ancient Hebrew songs we call psalms. I’d call it the “bookends of praise.” The song begins and ends with what is essentially a tag: “Praise the LORD.”

As I sat contemplating this device, I was reminded of a line from the lyrics of Psalm 113 (which is also bookended with praise):

From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets,
    the name of the Lord is to be praised.

I can certainly interpret this familiar line as telling me that my day should be filled with perpetual praise, and there’s nothing wrong with that. As I meditated on it this morning, I thought of it as the perpetuation of the metaphor of this device. As the song is bookended in praise, beginning and end, so my day should be bookended in praise, when I arise and when I lie down. I should begin my day by offering God praise, and end each day offering God praise.

And this is where I have a confession to make. As a morning person, I’ve developed a discipline of spending time with God in the quiet each morning. I’ve got the “rising of the sun” part of the praise bookends down pat. It’s the “place where it sets” part that I’m realizing falls woefully short. Wendy will tell you that it’s not uncommon for me to be in a deep sleep before she has a chance to finish her bedtime routine.

Somehow the childhood discipline my parents instilled in me of “saying my prayers” before bed got lost somewhere in my daily routine. I might do it once in a while, but its honestly few and far between. Have I unconsciously decided that my morning quiet time has got all the spiritual bases covered?

Then I thought about actual bookends. What happens when I’m missing one bookend on the shelf? The books spill out of that end. Is it possible that without bookending my day in the “place where it sets” with praise and a moment of conversation with God, that I’m allowing all of the tasks and pressures of my day to spill out into the night like thieves to rob me of my sleep? If I build a discipline of offering up praise for all the good things in my day, and I offer up my tasks and stresses to be entrusted to the God who cares for me, might it be a spiritual bookend that will help guard my heart and mind from being robbed of slumber?

I’m guessing I know the answer.

Some mornings, the action step from my time of quiet is crystal clear.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Strength in Praise

Strength in Praise (CaD Ps 148) Wayfarer

And he has raised up for his people a horn,
    the praise of all his faithful servants…
Psalm 148: 14 (NIV)

There is a story in the book of Acts in which Paul and Silas were imprisoned the dungeon of a town called Philippi. About midnight the two of them were singing praises and hymns as they prayed. Suddenly an earthquake struck, loosening their chains and breaking open the prison doors. Talk about dramatic. Sometimes our praise has a miraculous, dramatic effect.

In his book, The Philippian Fragment, Calvin Miller tells the fictional story of a first-century pastor in the same town of Philippi who happened be imprisoned in the same cell along with one of his elders. The pastor sees, scratched on the dungeon wall, the names “Paul and Silas.”

Remembering how Paul and Silas sang at midnight as God sent an earthquake to open the doors of the jail, we took courage. “Do it again, God!” cried Coriolanus near midnight. He began to sing a hymn in monotone, and I joined in. We praised God at full volume with some of the great songs of the faith. Ever and anon we stopped to see if we could hear even the faintest rumblings of a quake. By three in the morning we still had not raised a tremor and decided to give it up. There seemed so little to rejoice about.

Suddenly a jailor who had heard us singing sprang into the cell.

“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” he asked.

We told him in great joy.

“I can’t do that,” he said. “It’s too risky.”

As he left, he yelled over his shoulder, “Would you cut out the noise. It’s three in the morning.”

Still, I felt better for simply having praised Him. Praise clears the heart and dusts the mind of selfishness. It lifts the spirit and transforms the prison to an altar where we may behold the buoyant love of Christ.

It is not jailors who make convicts. It is the self-pitying mind that makes a man a captive.Praise frees us. The jail cannot contain the heart that turns itself to attend the excellency of Christ. “Gloria in excelsis!” deals with stone walls and iron bars in its own way. When morning finally came, I was elated. I found a flint rock in the cell and scratched our own names above the etching of Paul and Silas: “Eusebius and Coriolanus—We sang at midnight and felt much better the next morning.”

Today’s chapter, Psalm 148, is at the center of the final five songs of praise in the anthology of ancient Hebrew song lyrics known as the Psalms. As we’ve discovered on this chapter-a-day journey, ancient Hebrew songs often put the central theme of the song smack-dab in the middle. The central theme was in the center holding the core. When the editors of the compilation put the last five songs of praise together, they placed today’s song smack-dab in the middle. It holds the core of the final theme of praise.

Praise is a central theme throughout the Great Story. When rebuked by the religious leaders for His followers shouting His praise, Jesus replied that even if they were silent the rocks would “cry out.” Today’s psalm speaks of all creation praising God, and in fact all matter does continually resonate at frequencies we can’t hear. The universe itself perpetually resonates at 432hz. When John was given a vision of heaven’s Throne Room in his Revelation, he describes it as a scene of endless praise.

Along my life journey, I have learned that praise sincerely offered whether in word, song, or thought is a spiritual activator. To the ancients, a “horn” was a metaphor of strength, and the lyricist of today’s song made clear that there is strength in praise. When I choose to offer up heart-felt praise from the prison of my own circumstances, there is a shift that occurs. It might be a miraculous shift in the tectonic plates of life as Paul and Silas experienced. It might be simply a shift in my faith and spirit as Eusebius and Coriolanus experienced. I’ve learned not to worry about the results and to simply let my praise hold the core in the moment. Whenever I sing praises in the darkness, I always end up feeling “much better in the morning.”

Exile and Return

Exile and Return (CaD Ps 147) Wayfarer

The Lord builds up Jerusalem;
    he gathers the exiles of Israel.

Psalm 147:2 (NIV)

Yesterday morning I had the honor of giving the message among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. As I was studying for the message, I came to this verse from Mark’s biography of Jesus:

At once the [Holy] Spirit sent [Jesus] out into the wilderness…
Mark 1:12 (NIV)

One of the things that I love about my forty-year, perpetual journey through the Great Story is that I am always discovering and rediscovering things from a different place on my life journey. The same verse that I may have passed by without a thought six years ago has a potent spiritual impact on me today.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been spiritually chewing on the the theme of exile as it is woven throughout the Great Story. For the Hebrew people, there were two defining moments in their history: their exodus from slavery in Egypt and establishment as a nation (told in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua), and their captivity, exile, and eventual return from Babylon (the back story of Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, along with prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel).

Along this chapter-a-day journey I have often observed that wilderness is not only a theme throughout the Great Story, but it is a theme and archetype throughout human epics. A story is simply not a good story if the hero doesn’t have to face trials, struggles, and challenges, and those things often happen when the hero finds himself/herself far from home in a wilderness, an exile.

What struck me about the verse from Mark was that it was Holy Spirit who sent (the Greek word ekballo means to “drive out” or “expel” much as Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden) Jesus into the wilderness for 40 days (as the Hebrews were in the wilderness 40 years) to be challenged by the enemy.

Themes like exile resonate deeply in our spirits because they resonate with my own human experience. I don’t know a single human being who has not experienced their own personal wilderness. Call it what you will: wilderness, exile, times of testing, falls from grace, and the valley of the shadow of death. This is part of the journey. What’s perhaps most ironic is the way in which I am shocked whenever I find myself in the wilderness, my denial of what’s happening, my anger to think God would allow it, my blaming God for doing so (just as Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent), my bargaining prayers to try and find a shortcut out of it, my depression when no shortcut appears, my testing of various realistic responses, and finally my acceptance of what has been, what is, and my need to move forward.

I observe that my wilderness experiences serve the purpose of growing me up spiritually. The “defining moments” of my own spiritual development on this earthly journey were predicated on moments and periods of wilderness. I look in the rearview mirror and see them all: break-up, addictive behavior, shame, failure, adultery, separation, loss, divorce, infertility, and the list goes on.

But there is another theme that is often lost and forgotten while I journey through my personal wilderness. Perhaps I am simply blind to it in the moment. On the other side of wilderness lies return, redemption, and restoration. These are every bit a part of the story as the wilderness exile.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 147, is a song of praise and Thanksgiving that was most likely written for worship in the Temple of Jerusalem after both the city and the Temple were restored and rebuilt by those who had returned from exile in Babylon.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself feeling gratitude for all the wilderness experiences of my life. I’m glad they are over, and I’m glad that I don’t have to go through them again. Perhaps there are still periods of wilderness on the road ahead. C’est la vie. My past experiences have equipped me to endure any future wilderness with greater context, deeper wisdom, and assured hope.

After exile comes return.
After fall comes redemption.
After death comes resurrection.

After the work week comes the weekend. On this Monday morning I’m banking on hope on both the macro and micro level!

Have a great day, my friend.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.