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The Inflection Point

The Inflection Point (CaD Mk 8) Wayfarer

[Jesus] then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Mark 8:31-33 (NIV)

Inflection point has become a buzzword in business during my career. And, it’s often misunderstood. The inflection point is the point on a line where the line changes its sign. It’s when the curve of that line reveals a shift of direction. When it ultimately shifts direction, that’s called the “turning point.” The turning point happens later. The inflection point is the subtle shift that precedes the turning point. If you see the inflection point, you can predict the turning point.

When the moving line turns red, that’s the inflection point.

In today’s chapter, the narrative of Mark’s version of Jesus’ story hits an inflection point. The majority of the first eight chapters is an endless stream of miracles, wonders, and exorcisms seasoned with Jesus parables and teachings. It has been all about Jesus interacting with people’s lives in this world. He’s feeding hungry people, healing sick people, delivering possessed people, and teaching people spiritual principles of God’s kingdom in contrast to the human religious system controlling most of their lives.

Out of the blue, Jesus tells his followers quite plainly that He will be rejected by the religious power-brokers in Jerusalem, He will be killed, and then in three days He will rise from the dead. We’re just half-way through Mark’s biography of Jesus and Jesus let’s fly with the greatest spoiler of all time without once issuing his listeners a Spoiler Alert.

This event is a narrative inflection point. From this point forward, Mark’s version of events will drive towards the very events Jesus predicts.

What really resonated in my heart and mind this morning was Peter’s reaction. Upon hearing Jesus explain the end game of His mission on earth, Peter pulls the master aside and “rebukes” Him. In the quiet, I imagined what Peter’s rebuke might have been…

“You can’t die! We’re just getting started!”

“The twelve of us have left everything to follow you assuming this was a long-term gig! How are we going to retire if you leave us in the lurch?”

“Jesus, dude, you’ve got what it takes to ride this wave all the way to the throne. With your powers and the people behind you, there’s nothing that can stop you from ruling the world!”

“Look! Your parables and stories are confusing, but they’re great. People love them. The miracles and the free fish sandwiches, that’s what the people want. If you go off-message and start tweeting about your death like some crazy-man, it’s over. You’ll lose your momentum. These people will stop following you. Then where will we be?”

He’ll be right where the powerful men atop the human religious racket can arrest Him, usher Him through their kangaroo court, and leverage their local power to convince Rome to execute this threat to all that they care about.

He’ll be right where He just predicted He’d end up.

It struck me this morning that this is more than just an inflection point in the storyline. This is also a spiritual inflection point in Jesus’ teaching.

I am so focused on this life. I am so concerned with my immediate circumstances. Virtually every moment of my day is concentrated on my place in this world. My time, energy, and resources are spent trying to make this earthly life last as long as possible (even if it ends up being no Life at all). I do all that I can not to think about death, talk about death, or consider the undeniable truth that my body is going to die.

“You’re right, Tom,” Jesus says through the text of today’s chapter. “Thanks for being honest. Because that is what needs to change. That is the inflection point…

“Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?”
Mark 8:34-37 (MSG)

If I follow Jesus at this inflection point, then down the road a whole bunch of turning points in my words, decisions, actions, and relationships will reveal themselves. Consider Peter. It’s at Cornelius’ house in Acts 10 that the turning point is revealed.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself contemplating this spiritual inflection point at which Jesus asks me to consider God’s eternal Kingdom more real than this physical life, more important than the things of this world, more valuable than anything this life could afford.

This is also a point of tension. It doesn’t mean that I ignore this life, coast through this journey, live as if nothing on earth matters. It does! It matters enough for Jesus to come and do exactly as He predicted. The spiritual inflection point gets down to the motives at the core of my being.

What is it I want?

What is it I’m living for?

What does my head answer? What does my heart answer?

If there is ultimately no evidence of a turning point on my calendar, on my credit card statement, and on my task list, then the truth is that I missed the inflection point.

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

Soil Samples

Soil Samples (CaD Mk 6) Wayfarer

…Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.
Mark 6:20 (NIV)

Here in Iowa, the science of agriculture is big business. Each autumn when harvest rolls around the crop yield is a make-it or break-it reality for farmers. Which is why I know friends whose livelihoods are spent studying soil and seeds to try and grow as much as the land can possibly yield. As I have often confessed, agriculture is not something about which I have vast knowledge. Just enough to appreciate a good parable.

As I’ve trekked my way through the Great Story again and again over the past forty years, I’ve learned that sometimes the lesson is not in microscopically mining the minutia of the text, but in stepping back and looking at the bigger picture.

Back in chapter four, Mark records Jesus parable of the sower, in which the Word falls like seed on different human hearts that each are like a different quality of soil. A quick recap:

  • Like seed fallen on a hardened footpath: A soon as this person hears it, the enemy snatches it away like a bird.
  • Like seed fallen on rocky ground: Life sprouts in them, but it doesn’t put down roots and can’t survive through difficult weather.
  • Like seed fallen among thornbushes: Sprout and grow, but the things of this world choke it and render it unfruitful.
  • Like seed fallen on good soil: Sprout, put down roots, grow, and bear fruit.

Starting in chapter Five and continuing in today’s chapter, Mark records stories of different people who rejected Jesus, His teaching, and His miracles.

Despite the fact that Jesus drove the demons from the heart of the man living among the tombs of the Gerasenes, the townspeople wanted nothing to do with Jesus. Their hearts are like the hardened footpath. It’s as if the demons snatched the Word from their hearts on their way from the man to the pigs.

In today’s chapter, Jesus goes home to Nazareth. The people of Nazareth listened to Jesus’ teaching, and some were amazed as if the Word was sprouting new life in them. But ultimately, nothing took root as their hearts couldn’t see past their prejudices: “How could Jesus Bar Joseph, the Carpenter’s boy who fixed my chair that one time, be a rabbi?”

Then we get to Herod Antipas, the local ruler of Galilee. Herod sits atop one of the “kingdoms of this world,” the descendant and co-heir of a ruthless tyrant who amassed wealth, political power, and all the luxuries it affords through corruption, deceit, and bloodshed. When Satan went “all-in” and offered Jesus with all the “Kingdoms of this World,” Herod’s kingdom was there in the pot, and Jesus knew it. Jesus grew up knowing all about Herod’s wealth, power, fortunes, women, and fame.

Mark then does something unusual compared to what we’ve read thus far in his biography of Jesus. Mark tells a story that is not about Jesus, but about Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. It gives us a picture of seed that falls among the world’s thorn bushes.

Some quick gossip from the tabloids at the checkout line at the Galilean grocery stores: There was a whole sex scandal in Herodian royal family, and Herod Antipas ends up marrying his brother’s wife. John the Baptist is a local religious figure who is extremely popular and extremely revered by all the deplorable religious types in Herod’s constituency. John publicly preaches against the immorality in the Herodian palace, and Herod can’t risk a drop in his approval rating so he has John arrested. He even has John brought before him (and his guests on occasion) to hear his religious rants. Mark tells us that Herod, “liked to listen to him.”

To Herod, John and his message are playthings. They are one more thing that wealth and power afford him. He has his own holy man at his beck-and-call. John is God’s little vine surviving amidst the entrenched hedge of Herod’s prickly power. Herod might have John preach for him and his party-guests. He might have John beheaded at the whim of his lust for his own step-daughter. It is of little consequence for him. He can always find another holy man: “I keep hearing about this Nazarene,” I can hear him say to his dinner guest after John’s head is carried out on a platter. “Maybe I should arrest him. John’s sermons were so entertaining. I’ll miss them.”

In the quiet this morning, I am reminded that Jesus had as many enemies, detractors, and people who dismissed His teaching as He had disciples. Perhaps 3 to 1 if the parable is any indication. My experience is that Jesus’ followers rarely think much about this reality.

And so I find myself thinking about the soil of my own heart.

Is my heart hard and unyielding?

Is my heart shallow and unwilling to put down spiritual roots?

Is my heart choked, overshadowed, and/or overgrown by the things of this world?

Is my heart fruitful with the mixed-fruit of faith, hope, and love?

As I meditated on the metaphor again this morning, I found myself mulling over the fact that the seed among the thorns and the seed on the good soil both sprout, take root, and grow. The only difference Jesus described was that the good-soil plant was fruitful while the plant choked by the thorns of this world didn’t yield fruit.

I also find myself thinking about these chapter-a-day blog posts and podcasts that I scatter across the internet each weekday wondering where in the world they might land. Hard soil? Rocky soil? Thorn bushes? Good soil? I have learned that there is both grief and freedom in not knowing the answer. Such is the lot of the sower who must wait until harvest to know the yield.

I hope this lands well with you, my friend.

Have a great day.

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.”

“Some Other Mettle”

"Some Other Mettle" (CaD Ps 146) Wayfarer

Do not put your trust in princes,
    in human beings, who cannot save.

Psalm 146:3 (NIV)

Many years ago, our little town had a local Shakespeare Company that would produce a play each summer in the local park. Wendy and I were cast in Much Ado About Nothing, a comedy about a man and woman who despise one another and how this couple falls in love. Wendy was cast as the female lead, Beatrice, who in the beginning of the play waxes cynical about romance. When asked if she will every marry, she replies, “Not till God make men of some other mettle than earth.”

That line came to mind this morning as I meditated on today’s chapter, Psalm 146, in which the lyrics warn those listening to the song to avoid putting trust in human beings.

Along my life journey, I have observed that human systems almost always end up serving those who control them, unless those who control them have the rare quality of being both humble enough to eschew personal gain in order to serve everyone in the system and having the authority to ensure it stays that way.

Thus Beatrice waxes cynical to find a man who will serve her, honor her, and treat her as an equal partner rather than as a possession and chattel as human systems treated wives through most of human history.

Thus families become dysfunctional and unhealthy systems that end up hurting the ones they are supposed to protect and prepare for perpetuating healthy marriages and families for the next generation.

Thus organizations intended to serve the good of many become rackets that line the pride and pockets of the few in power at the top of the org chart.

Thus businesses established with eloquent vision and mission statements about valuing employees and exceptional service to customers end up cutting jobs and providing the least acceptable levels of service in order to eek out a few more pennies of dividend for shareholders.

Thus governments (of every type and “ism”) end up with those at the top offices rigging the system for themselves and their cronies while paying lip service to helping those living hand-to-mouth on a day-by-day basis.

I know this sounds cynical, yet I feel for where Beatrice is coming from. And, I have to confess that as a follower of Jesus I find myself in the quiet this morning hearing the words of Jesus and the teachings that call me to act against the grain of the systems of this world:

“Whoever wants to be ‘great’ and lead others but become the servant of all.”

“Husbands, love your wives sacrificially, even as Jesus showed us what love is by sacrificing Himself to save us.”

“Fathers, don’t exasperate your children.”

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone.”

Do you have individuals who work for you? Then treat them the way you want to be treated, the way that Jesus has treated you, and the way Jesus has called you to do. From a sincere heart, respect them, treat them honorably, and compensate them for the good they do.”

In find it fascinating that Jesus arguably never directly addressed those who were in control of systems of human power. The only one He did address was the Hebrew religious system who were supposed to recognize Him, but killed Him to protect their power, privilege, and profits. When given the opportunity to address the political powers of His day, King Herod and the Roman Empire, he largely kept His mouth shut.

In the quiet this morning, my mind wanders back to Beatrice and her mail foil, Benedict. Through the course of the play they have a change of heart, and you can guess where that leads. All good stories are a reflection of the Great Story, and therein I see a reflection of what Jesus was about. Jesus was not about creating or changing humans systems of power in order to, top-down, force God’s will over individuals. That’s nothing more than using the world’s playbook against itself, and I only have to look at the headlines to see how that’s working out. Jesus’ taught that the Kingdom of God paradigm is to change the hearts of individuals in order to motivate love and service to others, that in turn creates change within human systems of power from the bottom-up. It’s what He demonstrated on the cross, when the sacrifice of One served to effect change in the many, who effected change in many more.

I hear Wendy in the kitchen making my blueberry spinach smoothie, and it’s time to wrap-up my time of quiet this morning. As I do, I find myself taking a personal inventory of life and spirit. As a husband, as a father, as a grandfather, as an employer, and as a organizational leader in my community, am I reflecting the character of humility, servant-heartedness, honor, respect, and generosity to which Jesus has called me? Immediately, things come to mind to which I need to add to my task list. I better get started.

Have a great day, my friend.

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


About Knowing

About Knowing (CaD Ps 141) Wayfarer

But my eyes are fixed on you, Sovereign Lord…
Psalm 141:8a (NIV)

When I was a child, I went through all of the religious rituals associated with the church to which my family were members. My parents had me baptized as an infant. I attended Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. I sang in the children’s choir. I participated in, and volunteered to help with, social activities hosted by the church (including the annual “Christmas bazaar” which I remember being a really big deal in my little kid perception). When I was thirteen, I attended confirmation classes and learned what the church believed. I took the test, agreed to accept the terms of membership, and then received my certificate and my own personal box of offering envelopes.

What I came to realize a year or two later was that all of the ritual, participation, knowledge and cognitive assent to a belief statement had relatively little effect on my motives, my thoughts, my words, or my actions. Knowing about Jesus was not the same as knowing Jesus and being in relationship.

That contrast came to heart and mind in the quiet this morning as I meditated on the text of today’s chapter, Psalm 141. There is little doubt that the editors who compiled the anthology of ancient Hebrew song lyrics, that we know as the book of Psalms, were deliberate in putting Psalms 140 and 141 next to each other. They bookend each other well. Both are ascribed to David and both of them feature a lot of physiological metaphors. The biggest contrast is that Psalm 140 uses the physiological metaphors to describe an unrighteous person:

  • stir up war in their hearts
  • sharpen their tongues
  • poison on their lips
  • hands of the wicked

Psalm 141, uses physiological metaphors to describe a righteous person:

  • a heart that refuses evil
  • hands lifted in worship
  • a guard on one’s mouth
  • a door on the lips
  • a head that receives accountability
  • eyes fixed on God

As I mulled over the contrasting descriptions, it reminded me of being a young man and realizing that having a membership certificate to my local church, knowledge of basic beliefs, and dutifully participating in ritual had not translated into making a difference in my self-centeredness, my selfish behavior, my relationships with others, my actions, or my words. I was a egotistical, selfish little prick much of the time. I knew that I could play a good game, but I was also really self-aware enough to know that there were ugly things at the core which needed to change. I knew about the things Psalm 141 describes, but an honest self-examination and moral inventory revealed a person more like what Psalm 140 describes.

So, about that time I stopped just knowing about Jesus, and I decided to seek to know and follow Jesus in a very different way. It’s definitely been a forty-year process and spiritual journey. In the quiet this morning I find myself mulling over the person I would be today had I not made that decision. I can only imagine a grown-up version of the young man with ugly things at the core. An arrogant, egocentric big prick with a sharp tongue, and a heart in turmoil.

I’m not perfect by any means, and I could point you to a person or two who I suspect might tell you I’m still an arrogant, egocentric prick. I have my ugly moments. But oh, how worse it would be had I not discovered the contrast between knowing about Jesus and knowing Him.

Ruminating

Ruminating (CaD Ps 140) Wayfarer

Sovereign Lord, my strong deliverer,
    you shield my head in the day of battle.

Psalm 140:5 (NIV)

Ever since I was a kid, I have been one to excessively ruminate on conflict or personal problems that I encounter along life’s road. When this happens, I can’t stop thinking about it, mulling it over, replaying things again and again in my head. When it’s really bad, my ceaseless ruminations can steal my sleep and paralyze me from effectively managing other important things in life.

The word “ruminate” has only been a common part of the English language since the 1500s. It derives from a Latin word that refers to animals, specifically cows, who can dredge up already chewed and partially digested food from their stomachs in order to chew it again. This is commonly referred to as a cow “chewing the cud.” I realize that’s a rather gross word, picture. But, it is an apt word picture for the thing my mind does with problems and conflicts.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 140, is another song ascribed to King David. Like other songs of David, he is lamenting unnamed enemies who are bent on his personal and political destruction. What is interesting about the lyrics of this song is the multiple physiological metaphors David uses:

  • stir up war in their hearts
  • sharpen their tongues
  • poison on their lips
  • hands of the wicked
  • trip my feet

As is common with ancient Hebrew songwriting, the central stanza of today’s chapter provides the main theme for the song. And I couldn’t help but notice that David asks God to “shield my head” in the day of battle. Of course, head injuries in human battle can easily be fatal, but as I read it I immediately thought about the conflicts, problems, and relational battles I’ve encountered along life’s road and my seemingly endless ruminating when they occur. I have found that me regurgitating an issue and chewing it over, and over, and over can be as much a spiritual and emotional threat to my well-being as a warrior going into fire-fight without their helmet.

I love that David asks God to shield his head. It’s my own brain that so easily works against me in times of trouble. I also love that David poured out his heart, his conflicts, and his problems in musical and lyrical prayers. I have to believe it was a healthy form of expression that helped him get things out so that they wouldn’t be bottled up inside where rumination can easily lead to unhealthy places.

In the quiet this morning, I’ve thinking back on circumstances that have led to ruminating in the last year or two. I have gotten better at recognizing when I’m doing it and addressing it sooner. I’ve gotten better at getting it out in conversations with the inner circle of confidants I’m blessed to have in my life. I’ve also learned that expressing things in handwritten prayers in my morning pages can be a really good antidote for ruminating.

Along life’s road I’ve observed that my natural temperament, personality, and bents lead me to certain patterns of reaction to negative stimuli I encounter along the way. Some of these natural reactions are both unhealthy and unproductive. Being a follower of Jesus, my relationship has motivated and challenged me to actively address some of my less than stellar traits, like my ruminating. By choosing to get out my ruminations, I make room for my heart and mind to meditate on the things with which Jesus asks me to fill them.

Of Rubble and Restoration

Of Rubble and Restoration (CaD Ps 126) Wayfarer

Those who sow with tears
    will reap with songs of joy.

Psalm 126:5 (NIV)

I had a great conversation recently with a gentleman who shared with me some of his life story. It read like a roller coaster of ups and downs in business from the luxuries of being at the helm of successful corporate ventures to the bitter pill of his own companies that failed terribly and lost him everything. As he reaches the twilight of his vocational journey, I observed a deep joy within him for all that he’d experienced and also deep wisdom sourced in the lessons of both successes and failures.

As I mulled over what he told me, it reminded me of my own dad who I observed navigating his own vocational highs and lows as I was growing up. There is so much I observed in my parents that I never fully appreciated until I was a husband and father trying to provide for my family and make my own way through vocational peaks and valleys. It’s in adulthood that I finally appreciated all of the joys of vocational success, all the anxieties of job changes, and all the pain of business failures.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 126, isn’t fully understood outside of the context of history. In 586 B.C. the Hebrew people had their own “lost everything” moment. Their nation was plundered, their capital city destroyed, and their temple was desecrated and reduced to rubble. Most of the people were taken into captivity and exile. For a generation, they were forced to make a new life for themselves in a foreign land left to wonder if they would ever return to their own land and rebuild their home. Those not taken into captivity were left to try and survive amidst the rubble and the carnage. Some were reduced to cannibalism just to survive.

One of those left behind was the prophet, Jeremiah. The book we call Lamentations is his poetic expression of grief at the devastation he witnessed when Jerusalem was destroyed:

“This is why I weep
    and my eyes overflow with tears.
No one is near to comfort me,
    no one to restore my spirit.
My children are destitute
    because the enemy has prevailed.”

At the same time, it was at this rock-bottom, lost-everything moment when Jeremiah’s faith was activated and he discovered this thing called hope:

Yet this I call to mind
    and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
    therefore I will wait for him.”

In 538 B.C. the first wave of exiles were allowed to return and begin rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple and for the next 100 years the restoration continued as more and more exiles returned.

Today’s chapter was a song likely written from the pinnacle of Jerusalem’s restoration and the realization of Jeremiah’s hope. As I go back and reread the lyrics, I imagine being the descendant of Jeremiah singing those lyrics on my pilgrimage to the Passover festival knowing that I was experiencing the realization of what the prophet could only dream.

As I meditated on this, I thought of my grandparents being newlyweds and starting a family during the Great Depression. I know their stories. They shared with me how little they had, how hard they struggled, and I got to observe them en-joy-ing the goodness they experienced in their later years, long after those tragic times. It strikes me that my generation is probably the last generation to have known that generation and to have personally heard their stories.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself reflecting on the highs and lows of this life journey. There’s so much joy, faith, and hope to be found in life’s dark valleys if I choose to seek it. Wisdom is there if I open my heart to hear her speak to me. There is also so much to celebrate when the road of life winds its way up the next mountain and that dark valley is a distant memory and life lesson. That’s the waypoint from which the lyrics of Psalm 126 spring.

The Tension

The Tension (CaD Ps 119) Wayfarer

I have strayed like a lost sheep.
    Seek your servant,
    for I have not forgotten your commands.

Psalm 119:176 (NIV)

Like Psalm 117, the chapter from two days ago, Psalm 119 is also widely known as a trivial pursuit question. Coming in a mere two verses, Psalm 117 is the shortest psalm and shortest chapter of the Bible. The 176 verses of Psalm 119 make it the longest psalm and longest chapter in the Bible. If you actually read today’s chapter then you should pat yourself on the back for the accomplishment.

What makes this epic Hebrew lay even more fascinating is that the entire thing is about one central theme: The Great Story. The lyricist used eight different Hebrew words which get translated into English as law, word, commands, precepts, statutes, promises, and decrees. What’s also lost in the translation to English is that each stanza of the song begins with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet and every line of that stanza begins with the same letter. Psalm 119 is really an ancient work of art.

As I read through the lyrics, I couldn’t help but think about my own journey of reading, studying, meditating on, and memorizing the Great Story. It has been pretty much a daily part of my life for forty years. As I read it this morning, there were so many pieces of the psalm with which I identified with the lyrics. I have no regrets about my devotion to studying the Great Story. It has made me a better person and taught me so much wisdom.

Having said that, I also freely admit that it has not made me a perfect person. And that is one of the things I love about the writer of Psalm 119. Despite his almost fanatical dedication, the songwriter freely confesses on several occasions to his shortcomings, mistakes, and failures. The entire thing ends with the author admitting to being a “lost sheep” and asking the Great Shepherd to “seek your servant.” I couldn’t help but think of Jesus’ words:

By this time a lot of men and women of questionable reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.” Their grumbling triggered this story.

“Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and lost one. Wouldn’t you leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until you found it? When found, you can be sure you would put it across your shoulders, rejoicing, and when you got home call in your friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me! I’ve found my lost sheep!’ Count on it—there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner’s rescued life than over ninety-nine good people in no need of rescue.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself holding the tension of both my spiritual pursuit and my personal journey. As I sit here and type, I stare over the top of my laptop at a shelf of Bibles lined up together. They are the Bibles that I have read, studied, and marked up over forty years. There’s the puke-green Living Bible my parents gave me when I was a kid. There’s the cheap faux leather version held together by red duct tape, and the paperback that’s covered with personal photos and ephemera. There are resource versions used for specific purposes across the years. And then there’s the beautiful seven-volume copy of the illuminated St. John’s Bible that I’ve collected.

And yet, like the lyricist of Psalm 119, my life has been dotted with foolish choices, acts of gross disobedience, and personal failures. You can accuse me of being a hypocrite, and I won’t deny it. In our current world of cancel culture, there are plenty of past mistakes that the mob of political and moral busybodies could use to summarily dismiss me and write me off. C’est la vie. Making the Great Story a part of my daily life hasn’t made me perfect or pure, but the Great Shepherd has always used it to find this lost sheep and call me back to the fold. My perpetual journey through the Great Story has helped me to slowly, steadily, sometimes haltingly, grow into becoming my true self. I hate to imagine the person I would be today without it.

Of Voices & Family

Of Voices and Family (CaD Ps 117) Wayfarer

Praise the Lord, all you nations;
    extol him, all you peoples.

Psalm 117:1 (NIV)

Wendy and I read a fascinating interview in the last week of an expert in race and culture. In the loud cacophony of voices lecturing about race and culture with stark in-group and out-group labels and distinctions, this academic stands as a proverbial “voice in the wilderness.” He has been studying trends for 50 years and pointed out facts that no one else is talking about or acknowledging.

The number of bi-racial and bi-cultural couples getting married and having children has increased significantly in the last 50 years and continues to rise. Both Wendy’s and my family are classic examples. Between our siblings, nieces, nephews, their spouses and children, we have the following races and cultures represented in just two generations: Dutch-American, Anglo-American, African-American, Korean-American, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, and Mexican.

In other words, the simple, binary labels on the census list are increasingly obsolete. For this, I am increasingly joyful.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 117, is most known for being the answer to trivial pursuit questions. As just two verses long, it is the shortest psalm and the shortest chapter in the Bible. (If anyone is starting this chapter-a-day journey with me today, you’re getting off to an easy start. Just a warning, the longest psalm is just two chapters away, so you might want to get a head-start! 🙂

In its brief content, however, this ancient Hebrew song of praise has a significant purpose in the Great Story. This short song, traditionally sung each year as part of the Hebrew Passover, calls all nations and all peoples to worship and praise. This fits in context with the calling of Abraham, father of the Hebrew people when God promises Abraham that through his descendants all nations and peoples will be blessed.

If we fast forward to the Jesus story, we find Jesus breaking down the racial and cultural walls that His tribe had erected to keep those they considered spiritual and racial riff-raff out. Jesus followers went even further to take the message of Jesus to the Greek, African, and Roman worlds and beyond. This created upheaval and conflict among Jesus followers of strictly Hebrew descent. It was Paul (who called himself “a Hebrew of Hebrews”) who used today’s “trivial” psalm when writing to the followers of Jesus in Rome to argue that from the very beginning the Great Story has been about all nations, all races, all cultures, and all peoples.

When John was given a glimpse of heaven’s throne room, this is what he saw and heard:

And when [the Lamb who had been slain] had taken [the scroll], the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. And they sang a new song, saying:

“You are worthy to take the scroll
    and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
    and with your blood you purchased for God
    persons from every tribe and language and people and nation
.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.”

Revelation 5:8-10 (NIV) emphasis added

In the quiet this morning, I am reminded of texting our daughters of Suzanna’s engagement to Chino in Mexico a couple of years ago. The response to the news was, “Yay for more beautiful brown babies in the family!” (by the way, the first of those arrives this summer and we can’t wait to meet our newest nephew).

Along my life journey, I have observed that we humans like to reduce very complex questions into simple binary boxes and choices. As a follower of Jesus, I found that the journey seemingly began that way. I could choose to follow, or not (though my theologian friends will be happy to turn that into a very complex question for you). After that, things get exponentially personal and complex. Just yesterday, I gave a message among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers and I made the same argument about the season of Lent. Religious institutions want to make things top-down prescriptive when Jesus was always about things being intimately and spiritually bottom-up personal.

I find myself this morning meditating on the contrast between the voices of culture and the experiences of family. There are such complex questions we face today of race, gender, and culture. I don’t want to diminish or dismiss them. At the same time, I find myself encouraged by a profound truth simply stated in today’s chapter.

Praise the Lord, all you nations;
    extol him, all you peoples.