Tag Archives: Bible

How Little I Can Possibly Fathom

They have built the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal….”
Jeremiah 19:5 (NIV)

Let’s be real. There’s a smorgasbord of negativity out there. Media and a 24/7/365 news cycle continually bombards us with sensational cries of things for us to fear or be anxious about. The right cries for us to fear the left. The left cries for us to fear the right. Beyond politics there is a steady stream of anxiety stirring doom we’re told to perpetually fear from nuclear war, global warming, gun violence, terror attacks, product safety, GMOs, cancer, Zika virus, flu, vaccinations, poverty, earthquakes, floods, oil spills, pollution, asteroid hits, and etc, and etc, and etc.

A month or two ago Wendy and I read a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal by a Harvard professor. He attempted to provide some much needed perspective on our current life and times.

A few excerpts:

Globally, the 30-year scorecard also favors the present. In 1988, 23 wars raged, killing people at a rate of 3.4 per 100,000; today it’s 12 wars killing 1.2 per 100,000. The number of nuclear weapons has fallen from 60,780 to 10,325. In 1988, the world had just 45 democracies, embracing two billion people; today it has 103, embracing 4.1 billion. That year saw 46 oil spills; 2016, just five. And 37% of the population lived in extreme poverty, barely able to feed themselves, compared with 9.6% today. True, 2016 was a bad year for terrorism in Western Europe, with 238 deaths. But 1988 was even worse, with 440.

The world is about a hundred times wealthier today than it was two centuries ago, and the prosperity is becoming more evenly distributed across countries and people. Within the lifetimes of most readers, the rate of extreme poverty could approach zero. Catastrophic famine, never far away in the past, has vanished from all but the most remote and war-ravaged regions, and undernourishment is in steady decline.
A century ago, the richest countries devoted 1% of their wealth to children, the poor, the sick and the aged; today they spend almost a quarter of it. Most of their poor today are fed, clothed and sheltered and have luxuries like smartphones and air conditioning that used to be unavailable to anyone, rich or poor. Poverty among racial minorities has fallen, and poverty among the elderly has plunged.
During most of the history of nations and empires, war was the natural state of affairs, and peace a mere interlude between wars. Today war between countries is obsolescent, and war within countries is absent from five-sixths of the world. The proportion of people killed annually in wars is about a quarter of what it was in the mid-1980s, a sixth of what it was in the early 1970s, and a 16th of what it was in the early 1950s.

Please don’t read what I’m not writing. There is still no lack of very real and hard work to be done to make this world a better, more peaceful, and just place. What I increasingly have come to understand, however, is that it has become harder and harder for a person like me, living in the first-world of the 21st century, to understand how absolutely brutal life was in the days of the ancient prophets like Jeremiah. Reading through the writing of the ancient prophets can feel like a long slog. It’s whole lot of doom and gloom from a time and place that is very, very different than my reality.

I struggle with the harsh images and the violence in Jeremiah’s messages. But I also have to remember that I have no clue how harsh and violent daily life was in the middle east in 500 B.C.

Amidst today’s chapter, Jeremiah hints at what was happening, even within the walls of Solomon’s Temple, in his day. The God of Abraham, Moses, and David had been almost completely forgotten. Solomon’s Temple had become an open, free-market for the worship of local gods. In the case of Baal, people would sacrifice their own children and burn them alive as a form of worship. Just let the image of that sink in for a moment.

There’s a reason that God was angry. He commanded his people to love their children, to raise them up well. God commanded his people to teach their children and grandchildren His word, and to teach them to keep His commands about being honest, pure, just, content, and faithful. Now God’s people are worshiping local fertility gods with religious prostitution and drunken sex orgies. They are burning their own children alive as a sacrifice to Baal. And, when God raises up a prophet like Jeremiah to speak out against what is happening they tell him to shut-up and threaten to kill him.

This morning in the quiet I’m mulling these things over in my head. I’m not foolish enough to believe that things are perfect in this day and age, but I also don’t want to be equally foolish by denying the fact that I live in a world that is far better off than when my parents and grandparents were my age. I live in a world in which daily life is infinitely better off than it was for humans who lived centuries and millennia before. I can’t really imagine a day in the life of Jeremiah.

These thoughts lead me to look at Jeremiah’s writing differently. Rather than trying to layer Jeremiah’s poetic prophecies with my 21st century first-world understanding I want to let go of my preconceived notions. I want to cut Jeremiah some slack and try to see his world from his perspective. As a parent I addressed my daughters differently when they were five than I do when they are twenty-five, so it seems reasonable for me to conclude that God addressed humanity differently in the days of the Jeremiah than He does today.

I feel myself increasingly led to embrace the reality of just how little I can possibly fathom. Yet that doesn’t absolve me from responsibility. My job on this spiritual journey is to keep asking, seeking, and knocking on the door of understanding what God has been saying to humanity throughout the Great Story.  Perhaps that sounds hard to do given how different my life is compared to Jeremiah, but I also happen to live in a time and place where I have almost all of the research and resources in the entire world literally at my fingertips.

And that’s a daily reality I daresay Jeremiah couldn’t possibly fathom.

Tom’s Miscellaneous Messages on Audio and YouTube

Spiritual Diet

When your words came, I ate them;
    they were my joy and my heart’s delight,
for I bear your name,
    Lord God Almighty.
Jeremiah 15:16 (NIV)

I was a young man when I embarked on my spiritual journey following Jesus. One of the first things that I did was to start reading, really reading, the Bible. I had read passages here and there for Sunday School and confirmation class but I had never really read the Bible for myself. So I grabbed the green (seriously, it was the color of mold) hard back copy  of the Living Bible I’d been given for my confirmation and dove in. I was quickly amazed at how much I was learning.

It was less than a year later that my boss in an after-school job offered to do a study with me. The first assignment he gave me was to start memorizing verses, and the first one assigned was Joshua 1:8 (and I can write it from memory almost 40 years later):

This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success.

One of the foundational spiritual lessons I quickly learned as a youngling embarking on my spiritual journey was that there was a difference between reading God’s Message and ingesting it. Even Jesus riffed on this word picture when tempted in the wilderness: “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'” The parallel is clear. God’s Word is spiritual food, sustenance, and nourishment. There’s a difference between having a taste once in a while and sourcing it as part of a steady spiritual diet.

So began a process of reading, memorizing, studying on my own, studying with groups, studying academically, studying different interpretations, studying different translations and studying different paraphrases. And yes, devotedly reading and blogging a chapter-a-day.

In today’s chapter, Jeremiah continues his poetic conversation with God. Once again we see the metaphor of the Word as spiritual food (this word picture is sprinkled throughout God’s Message). Jeremiah reminds God that when God’s words came he ate and devoured them. They were a source of joy and delight. It’s quite possible that Jeremiah references the finding of the Book of Law during the reign of Josiah (see 2 Kings 22) after it had been lost and forgotten in Solomon’s Temple.

When I was a kid the big nutrition program in school reminded us continually that “you are what you eat.” As a young man I learned that this is true for the mind and spirit as much as it is for the body. This leads to all sorts of pertinent questions to ask myself. On what am I feeding my mind? Am I giving my spirit any nourishment with the media and conversation I ingest each day? Would a change of mental and spiritual diet be healthy for me?

Healthy questions for mind and spirit to mull over in the quiet this morning. And now, my body is calling for a little nourishment as well.

Have a great day, friends.

It’ll Pan Out in the End

The Lord will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one Lord, and his name the only name.

Then the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord Almighty, and to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles.
Zechariah 14:9, 16 (NIV)

One can’t journey through the totality of God’s Message without running into prophetic messages of the end of things as we know them, though it is important to note that the idea of there being an “end” is a misnomer because God consistently speaks of “new” beginnings. “Old things pass away, new things come” aptly describes one of God’s core message to us throughout the Great Story.

Even in creation of all that we know, the process of death and life is ever-present. Science tells us that the totality of this expanding, living universe is made up of energy that takes on different forms and phases. When solid matter dies and decays it is converted to a different kind of energy that, in turn, feeds other systems. We bury or burn a dead body, it decays, biodegrades or is consumed and the ecosystem uses the converted energy to feed the system in other ways.

The book of Revelation, which we often think of as describing “the end” because it reveals a chaotic time of pain and suffering. But the book actually ends with comfort, peace, joy, and  new life in a new beginning:

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.
Revelation 21:1 (NIV)

Today’s final chapter of Zechariah follows the exact same pattern. There is a period of intense conflict and suffering followed by a new reality under a sovereign God who calls everyone to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. The Jewish Feast of Tabernacles was an annual harvest feast. Think about it, harvest is that time of year when all that has been sown, cultivated, watered, tended, and pruned is finally harvested. In other words, as plants reach the end of their life-cycle we chop it down and gather it so that it, in turn, will feed everyone (its solid matter changed to a different kind of energy in our digestive systems) and perpetuate life.

Along my life journey I have studied many different theories on the mysterious prophetic texts of the Bible. One thing that I’ve come to learn about prophetic imagery is that it is easy to find in all the mysterious images and metaphors all kinds of things that spark endless theories and debates, which often turn into feuds, which separate people into various opposing camps. Reading today’s chapter I can understand how the Jewish scholars in Jesus’ day were looking for a Messiah to show up on the scene, wipe out the evil Romans, and usher them into global power. It’s what Zac seems to be describing in today’s chapter. However, the Messiah described in the previous chapters is gentle, riding on a donkey, suffering betrayal and death.

What a mysterious contradiction.

This morning in the quiet I’m mulling over some basic beliefs and world views about where our world is headed. Some contend that humanity is essentially good and, despite our penchant for focusing on all that is bad and negative, our world and humanity is slowly getting better and better and moving in designed progression towards the joy, peace, goodness and life described in the final chapter of Revelation among other visions of utopia. Others believe that humanity is essentially flawed and things are only going to get worse and worse until in the final depth of darkness and doom God will show up and save the day. I find it fascinating to observe that friends who occupy both schools of thought are given to doomsday thinking and dire doomsday proclamations depending on the circumstances they see around themselves and their belief (though not knowledge) of where it is leading.

As I make my way through this life journey I find myself increasingly and humbly relinquishing any sense of surety with regard to prophetic versions of the end times. I think of one Christian scholar who was confronted with an either-or question about the Book of Revelation regarding three major theories of the return of Christ. He was asked whether he believed in the pre-tribulation rapture, mid-tribulation rapture, or post-tribulation rapture. Realizing that the question was intended to pigeon-hole him for the questioner’s judgement, the scholar refused to be trapped into the either-or debate and responded, “I’m a pan-tribulationist. I believe it’s all going to pan out in the end.”

I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow or in that murky, vague period we see in the future and have dubbed the “end times.” I’m not sure even my speculation profits me or anyone else very much. I do know that we live in an intricately ordered  system that is perpetually converting things from one type of energy to another type of energy to perpetuate life. I know that the Bible describes a beginning, tells stories filled with beginnings and endings that lead to new beginnings, and then ends with mysterious visions of a large-scale ending and new beginning. I believe that Jesus was God incarnate who, interestingly enough, came to suffer, die, and then rose from the dead to usher in a whole new beginning of things. I see in Jesus’ teaching and resurrection the exact same paradigm revealed in creation, in today’s chapter, and in the Great Story as a whole.  I believe that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life” just as He claimed to be, and that’s why I follow.

And so, I will continue to follow Jesus and grow my faith. I will cultivate in my life and relationships the love, grace, and forgiveness that Jesus exemplified and to which He call me. I trust that this earthly journey will lead me to a time of natural harvest from my earthly body and existence. My body will be converted to different kind of energy for the time-being and my spirit (which science can’t produce, quantify, examine, or reproduce) will then be ushered into new beginnings of an eternal nature just as Jesus described. What will that all look like exactly?

I’d be happy to chat with you over coffee or a pint. We can talk about what the Bible says and what scholars and artists have speculated over time. We can talk about people who have seen things in near-death experiences. I’ll be happy to share with you what I’ve come to believe in my studying and reading and contemplation.

Just know that at the end of our conversation, after I have told you what I think about prophecies and end times and heaven and resurrected bodies and eternity, I will shrug my shoulders and tell you, “It will all pan out in the end…right before the next beginning.

 

Letters, Numbers, Part and Whole

“On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.”

“Awake, sword, against my shepherd,
    against the man who is close to me!”
    declares the Lord Almighty.
“Strike the shepherd,
    and the sheep will be scattered,
    and I will turn my hand against the little ones.”
Zechariah 13:1, 7 (NIV)

I am currently leading a team of teachers among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers as we share messages from Paul’s first letter to the believers in Corinth. [My kick-off message in the series on YouTube if you’re interested]

One of the first things that I did was to take the text of 1 Corinthians, strip it of all headings, footnotes, text notes, cross references, along with chapter and verse numbers. Then I put the text in a hand written font and handed it out to my team. “Here is Paul’s letter to the believers in Corinth,” I told them. “Put yourself in the shoes of a member of the Corinthian believers and read it as if you just got it out of your mailbox.” The process has been transformational.

It’s amazing how the simple act of separating original, ancient texts into chapters and verses can alter our reading and understanding. I’m sure there are some readers who don’t even stop and consider that the Bible wasn’t originally written with all those numbers. They were added by scribes centuries later, and in doing so they sometimes detract from the writers’ original works.

Take today’s chapter for example. In yesterday’s chapter I mentioned Zechariah’s word from God  in which God speaks of the people looking upon Him, “the one they have pierced“, and mourn as mourning for the firstborn son. It’s a prophetic foreshadowing of Jesus on the cross, pierced by the Roman soldier’s spear, as they sky darkens, the earth shakes, and His followers look on in disbelief. Then I got to the end of chapter 12 on this chapter-a-day journey and stopped reading.

Today I picked up with chapter 13 as if it’s a completely new section or thought and read the first verse:

“On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.”

This verse is a continuation of yesterday’s vision that foreshadows Jesus’ death, but in my one chapter a day habit it’s easy to think of this verse in my daily time capsule existence independent of yesterday’s chapter. But it was all one vision, one thought, one piece of writing. The death and piercing and mourning were all about God cleansing the people of sin and impurity. If I don’t connect the two chapters as one text I miss a crucial understanding of the whole thing in the same way that reading a hand-written letter as a bunch of independent verses and chapters loses its original intent as a personal letter from Paul to his friends in Greece.

Zac’s amazing prophetic roll continues today, describing the “shepherd” who is “struck” and the flock is scattered. Two-thirds are decimated and one-third survives but is “refined” by the process. Once again I find an uncanny description of the events of Jesus and  His followers in the first century. After Jesus’ death His followers scatter in fear for their lives, but instead of snuffing out the movement Jesus started it actually gains momentum. This momentum eventually sparks terrible persecution from the religious and Roman establishment. Jesus’ followers are hunted down, fed to lions in the Roman circus, stoned to death, impaled on pikes and burned alive to light Caesar’s garden. Many of them were wiped out just as Zechariah’s vision describes but it did not destroy the faith of those who survived. It refined their faith and made it stronger. Eventually, a few hundred years later, even Caesar becomes a believer.

This morning I find myself once again mulling over parts and whole. The first verse of today’s chapter doesn’t make sense apart from the previous chapter. Jesus’ death and the events of believers in the first century are made more meaningful and poignant when seen in light of Zechariah’s prophetic words penned 500 years earlier. In the same way people across the centuries have taken individual verses from the text of the Bible both to make inspirational Pinterest graphics and to justify all sorts of horrific acts of judgement, prejudice, violence, hatred, and persecution.

Some verses have incredible meaning in and of themselves, but I’ve come to understand that meaning should never be separated from the context of the author’s work and the Great Story that God is revealing across time, space, history and creation.

Line Gisters and Line Nazis

Balak said to Balaam, “What have you done to me? I brought you to curse my enemies, but you have done nothing but bless them!”

He answered, “Must I not speak what the Lord puts in my mouth?”
Numbers 23:11-12 (NIV)

I have found among actors that there is a rarely discussed spectrum. It parallels the ongoing legal debate about our Constitution here in America, between those who interpret the Constitution as a “living document” versus those who interpret it in context of its “original intent” as written.

On one end of the on-stage spectrum are those who memorize their part of the script and present the general gist of a line. They call it good. Let’s call them the “Line Gisters.” At the other end of the spectrum are those we will lovingly refer to as “Line Nazis.” Line Nazis are rabid defenders of the script, word-for-word, as written.

The playwright wrote these words for a reason,” a Line Nazi will passionately admonish his/her fellow actors. The Line Nazi then explains that changing a word or two here or there can change the entire interpretation of a line (and thus the play itself, and the intent of the playwright).  In my experience it’s at this point that the “Line Gisters” proceed to roll their eyes, the Line Nazis grumble in frustration, and the rehearsal continues.

I’ll confess to you that I have spent most of my theatre journey at the Line Gister end of the spectrum. Then, I actually wrote a couple of plays and had the privilege of watching them being produced. For the first time I began to feel personally what my Line Nazi brethren had been preaching to me all along. I was suddenly on the other side of the spectrum seeing things from a different perspective. Line Gisters would memorize and deliver a loose version of the words that I had written. Sometimes it wasn’t a big deal, but other times I had specifically crafted that line for a reason! Just getting the “gist” of it didn’t cut the mustard.

In today’s chapter, the mysterious seer Balaam continues his cameo role in the story of the Hebrews wilderness wanderings. King Balak of Moab hires Balaam to curse the Hebrew hoard camping on his borders. Multiple times Balaam speaks the words God gives him, and each time it is not what Balak paid Balaam to say. Rather than cursing the Hebrews, Balaam blesses them.

Must I not speak what the Lord puts in my mouth?” Balaam asks his prophetic patron.

Balaam understood that it was important to deliver the line as written.

God’s Message is just like the Constitution or any playwright’s script. Words can be interpreted in context or out of context. Lines can be quoted verbatim or butchered in an effort to communicate the gist. The words end up in the hands of the expositor and out of the control of the originator and/or author.

As a reformed Line Gister I confess that my years on that end of the spectrum were rooted in a generous portion of laziness and a general lack of discipline. This morning I find myself appreciating Balaam’s fidelity to deliver the words as given to him by God, heedless of the reaction of his patron. I find it honorable. I’m not sure you can call me a full-fledged Line Nazi (still working on that laziness and self-discipline), but it is a character trait I increasingly desire to exemplify in my own life, both on stage and off.

(Line Nazis Unite!)

My Eternal Mystery, My Forever Friend

Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the temple of the Lord.” He gave it to Shaphan, who read it.
2 Kings 22:8 (NIV)

Occasionally I have had people ask me how my “chapter-a-day” journey began. It goes much further back than blogging. The roots of it go all the way back to early 1980s. I was in high school and had only recently struck out on my path following Jesus. I had an after school job, and my boss was also a follower. He invited me to join him in studying God’s Message together, and the first thing he asked of me was to memorize Joshua 1:8:

This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success.

I did memorize the verse,  and I took it to heart. As I meditated on the verse during the memorization process, I came to mull over the word “meditate.” It struck me in those early stages of my journey that God’s Message was to be more than something I give a nod to on Sunday morning when the pastor refers to it. It was supposed to be more than a routine duty that I check off my daily task list of religious self-righteousness. God’s Message was the guide. It was the constant companion and the mystery to be endlessly understood. It was something to ingest and digest on a continual basis. It was something to dive into, excavate, mull over, and apply to my every day circumstances. Success in the spiritual journey came through the conduit of meditating on the Message.

Thus, what became this chapter-a-day blog began in a young man wearing Forenza parachute pants and sporting a righteous mullet. I’ll let that imagery sink in while I transition back to today. 🙂

The setting of this morning’s chapter is Solomon’s Temple. It is the Temple of the Lord built to the exact specifications prescribed in God’s Message through Moses and by plans developed by David. It was built to be the worship center of YHWH whose first command was “don’t have any other gods before me.”

But, over time the temple had become a multi-cultural interfaith religious center filled with the worship of all sorts of local dieties, some of whom practiced all sorts of nasty things we can scarcely imagine today. The scroll of God’s Message had been so long forgotten that the High Priest didn’t even know where it was nor remember what it said. When the scroll is discovered during some Temple renovations, it is a major find. When King Josiah tells the priest to “Inquire of the Lord for me concerning this book,” the priest has to scour the city to find a lone prophetess named Hulda who was “keeper of the wardrobe.” [Note: I’ve learned in theatre to always trust the costumers. They make a lifetime of keeping track of things long forgotten by others!]

The Message had been packed away, put aside, and forgotten. The words that were to be the guide for the journey weren’t even known and barely remembered. Without the guidebook, the people naturally wandered until they found themselves spiritually lost.

This morning I’m reminded of the simple principle that came out of meditating on a verse that I was asked to memorize as a kid:

If I’m going to be successful in this journey of following after God then I have to do my best to do what God’s Message says. If I’m going to do what God’s Message says then I have to constantly discover what that is and what it means. The Message has to become my source material, my constant companion, my eternal mystery, my forever friend.

Meditations on Song of Solomon

In the 11 years I’ve been writing my blog and posting my chapter-a-day meditations, I’ve not spent a ton of time worrying about whether posts are popular. I haven’t actively tried to either please or cater to a particular audience. That’s never really been the point for me. I simply post what’s on my heart and mind each weekday morning and scatter it like seed along my humble little path here in the blogosphere.

I have, however, casually noticed that my daily meditations on the Song of Solomon (aka Song of Songs), have seemed to  maintain a certain level of popularity (I use that word very loosely in the context of my subscribers and page views) that is unusual for my typical posts. It totally makes sense to me. Song of Songs is the one poetic book in all of God’s Message that focuses on man, woman, relationship, love, romance, and sex. We are ever trying to understand the mystery, aren’t we?

So, for what it’s worth, here is a compilation of my meditations from Song of Solomon, originally posted in October of 2013. Cheers!

 

 

Song of Solomon Chapter 1
A Hint of Paradise

God, the artist, created us male and female. He created us naked. He told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply. Love, intimacy and sex between husband and wife was part of the original ideal….

 

 

 

Song of Solomon Chapter 2
With Nobody Else but Me

Be mindful and wary of misplaced and competing affections and appetites.

 

 

 

Song of Solomon Chapter 3
Meeting the Parents

Today, I am pondering this dance of courtship that men and women have been doing since the beginning of civilization.

 

 

 

 

Song of Solomon Chapter 4
Sensually Good

Jesus said he came to give us abundant life. This includes a healthy appreciation for the breadth of senses God gave us to properly experience the full range of creation in its sensual glory.

Song of Solomon Chapter 5
The Art and Progression of Sexual Intimacy

My experience is that sexual intimacy does not become a breathtaking original work of art unless there are two people learning to create something together over time, learning to work together, make mistakes, erase errors, try something new, explore, play, complement one another’s individual style, and develop their own unique style as a couple over time together.

 

 

 

 

Song of Solomon Chapter 6
Browsing Among the Lilies

God created us male and female. He created us as sexual beings with hormones and sexual desires. He created a natural order in which people grow, develop, desire one another and have sexual relations through which new life is created. He called it “good.”

 

 

 

 

Song of Solomon Chapter 7
A Case for Delayed Gratification

In contrast to where our culture seems to be heading, I hear in Song of Solomon the wisdom, art, and beauty of love that takes time, effort, and creativity to develop. I am reminded that delayed gratification makes the climactic sensual feast deeper, more meaningful and ultimately more pleasurable.

Song of Solomon Chapter 8
Signed, Sealed, Delivered

God’s Message has scant descriptors of marriage. It does not prescribe a particular method or ceremony for marriage, but seems to allow room for cultures and history to develop a veritable plethora of customs around the marriage ceremony. What God’s Message does simply say is that a man and woman leave their respective parents, unite themselves, and become “one flesh.”


Tom Vander Well has been writing his blog, Wayfarer, since 2006. He lives in Pella, Iowa with his wife Wendy.