Tag Archives: Choices

Living in Gray

When the king’s order and edict had been proclaimed, many young women were brought to the citadel of Susa and put under the care of Hegai. Esther also was taken to the king’s palace and entrusted to Hegai, who had charge of the harem.
Esther 2:8 (NIV)

Yesterday at the breakfast table Wendy and I were having breakfast and reading the news, as is our daily habit. Wendy happened upon a news piece that quite clearly divided the United States into two generalized racial groups. Implied in the article was the notion that in America you are either black or white. I find the distinction of choice ironic.

The simplistic divide does not account for the vast number of people of Hispanic, Asian, or Native American descent, nor does it account for the population of interracial couples and their children which, according to U.S. Census figures, has steadily grown since 1967 and continues to do so.

Our culture loves binary, either-or choices. I have observed this to be true of both institutional religion and mainstream news media who are critical one another. When dealing with a large population of people, simple binary choices are much easier to deal with. Here are some examples from both of them:

  • Black or White
  • Conservative or Liberal
  • Fox News or MSNBC
  • Capitalism or Socialism
  • Red State or Blue State
  • Progressive or Deplorable
  • Blue Collar or White Collar
  • Educated or Uneducated
  • Urban or Rural
  • Republican or Democrat
  • Protestant or Catholic
  • Sacred or Secular
  • Christian or Secular
  • Holy or Worldly
  • Evangelical or Mainline
  • Religious or Atheist

And yet, as I have traversed this earthly journey and spiritually followed in the footsteps of Jesus, I find most binary distinctions simplistic and inadequate for addressing complex circumstances and issues. The world and its people with whom I interact every day are an elaborate mosaic of DNA, thought, spirit, background, and experience. To put one complex person into one of two binary boxes for the sake of simple definition is foolishness.

One of the things that I love about the story of Esther is how God works through this young Jewish woman who appears to navigate the tremendously gray territory between binary choices of Jew or Gentile, Hebrew or Persian, and Moral or Immoral. She keeps her heritage and faith secret. Whereas Daniel refused to eat meat provided by his foreign captors, Esther has no such qualms. There is no indication that Esther balks at being part of the Persian harem system that would have instructed her how to pleasure the king sexually on demand.

The book of Esther has confounded binary thinkers for ages. One commentator wrote that Esther’s behavior would not pass any test of modern ethical theory. Her cultural compromises coupled with the pesky fact that God is never mentioned by name in the story led some editors in history to introduce prayers into the book that were never part of the original text along with commentary stating that Esther hated being married to a Gentile. I’ve observed that when the truth is too gray for our comfort zone, we like to shade it to fit our personal binary leanings.

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking about the value and importance of a story like Esther. She successfully navigates a very uncomfortable world of gray politically, culturally, religiously, and morally. From a position of powerlessness and critical compromise, she is used for God’s purposes in profound and powerful ways. In a time when our political, religious, cultural, and social systems seem perpetually intent on placing me in one of two simplistic boxes, I pray I can, like Esther, find a way to successfully navigate the territory of gray that lies in tension between simplistic, black-and-white definitions.

Freedom, Indulgence, Hard Knocks, and Wisdom

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Galatians 5:13-14 (NIV)

Among most of Wendy’s and my circle of close friends we happen to be the furthest down the path of life experience. As we enjoy being grandparents for the first time and watch our adult children embarking on their own adult journeys, most of our friends are somewhere between the stages of young children taxi service and sending children off to college for the first time. Just yesterday I was speaking with my friend who is experiencing the latter.

For young people who have lived in a secure home with engaged parents, going off to college is the first opportunity to experience real freedom. No one is looking over your shoulder. No one is reminding you of what you need to do. Plus, opportunities to experience the appetites of life in all their excesses tend to present themselves in abundance.

For many of us, the years of college and young adulthood are when we learn some crucial lessons on life’s road. Chief among them is answering the simple question: “What am I going to do with my freedom?” 

I don’t know a single individual who didn’t, at some point, use freedom to engage and indulge unhealthy appetites in one way or another during these years. Perhaps there are a few true saints out there. Most parents I know, however, like to conveniently white-wash their own young adult excesses as they place all sorts of appetite controls and lofty expectations on their children.

Along the journey I’ve come to the conclusion that each one of us must learn the hard lessons of how we’re going to use our freedom. It’s part of the journey. We all need to have our own wake-up moments like the Prodigal Son finding himself up to his knees in pig slop. We all need our personally induced wake-up calls when we find ourselves saying: “My own choices led me to this awful place. I think I need to make some changes.”

In today’s chapter of his letter to the believers of Galatia, Paul is addressing this same principle. Legalism is great for creating compulsory obedience to a defined set of rules, but it does nothing for helping us learn the crucial, spiritual maturity lessons of appetite control. It’s no coincidence that Paul’s list of behaviors that mark spiritual maturity include “self-control.”

This morning I find myself praying for our own adult children and our grandchild. The truth I’ve discovered is that the lessons of managing our appetites and developing mature self-control are ongoing throughout our life journeys. So, I’m praying for them in their own respective waypoints on this life journey.

I’m also saying prayers for our friends who are in the stages of raising willful children, teenagers testing their boundaries, and young adults experiencing freedom for the first time. I’m praying wisdom for all those parental decisions about rules, consequences, clamping down, and letting go. I’m also praying for the grace and wisdom of the Prodigal’s father, who knew that his Prodigal had to learn his own crucial lessons and experience the awful places we find ourselves when we use our freedom to indulge our appetites. The father didn’t track his son down. He didn’t send a rescue party. He didn’t deny his son life’s required coursework from the school of hard-knocks. The father sat patiently on the front-porch, said his prayers, kept his eye on the road out front, and waited for a much wiser son to come home.

The Freedom That Leads to Slavery

They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity—for “people are slaves to whatever has mastered them.”
2 Peter 2:19 (NIV)

I grew up in a very different time. Parents weren’t as protective and overbearing with children as they are today. They couldn’t. The technology didn’t exist as it does now. As a kid I had quite a bit of freedom. I roamed our neighborhood with other kids. My Schwinn Sting-Ray five speed bicycle expanded the reach of adventure. I rode my bike to the bowling alley, to the pool, or to the wooded areas at the end of Madison and by the Des Moines River. All of this without cell phones or my parents having any idea where I was or what I was doing most of the time.

Of course, this freedom afforded plenty of opportunity to get in trouble. I can think of kids in my neighborhood who used their own freedom to push the limits of acceptable behavior. Often, I was invited and encouraged to join them. Occasionally, I did follow friends into doing what I knew was wrong, but I had a healthy conscience that usually (not always) kept me from repeating those behaviors. As I look back and remember some of those moments when I was encouraged by friends to misbehave, one of the regular arguments provided was that I would be breaking the shackles of parental or societal rules and experiencing freedom of doing whatever I wanted.

I’ve observed along my journey that “freedom” is regularly mentioned by those who propose marginal behavior. I grew up on the tail end of the “free love” generation which was supposed to free people from relational repressions but I never saw it creating healthier, happier individuals. I remember a friend from college who was fighting his own battle with drug addiction. He’d been encouraged to take LSD to “free his mind” but the story he told me was not one of freedom.

In today’s chapter, Peter was writing his letter to early Jesus followers to address a very similar issue. Men had joined with followers of Jesus and then told them all sorts of stories about how people were free to engage in all the marginal behaviors practiced by the pagan religions around them. Con artists were stealing money from the local gatherings of believers and leading people astray in their promises that people were free to do whatever they wanted as Jesus’ forgiveness gave them carte blanche grace and forgiveness. Peter warns the fledgling followers that the “freedom” these heretics were promising would only end in a different kind of enslavement.

This morning I’m thinking about freedom. Jesus said, If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” It’s one of those quotes of Jesus that I’ve observed gets only partially quoted. People love to quote the last part, but leave off the first part. I learned long ago that when I use my freedom to do whatever I want, it doesn’t lead to pleasant places. In fact, the so called “freedom” that many people espouse only leads to a different kind of enslavement.

Christ set me free, not to do what I want, but to do what I ought.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

“But today I am freeing you from the chains on your wrists. Come with me to Babylon, if you like, and I will look after you; but if you do not want to, then don’t come. Look, the whole country lies before you; go wherever you please.”
Jeremiah 40:4 (NIV)

Some time ago a potential opportunity presented itself to me. It was unexpected, and ultimately not meant to be. However, for a few weeks Wendy and I grappled with the notion of picking up the tent pegs of the life we’ve established and moving on. It does seem, at times, as if the grass is always greener, the possibilities broader, and the road easier “in a new place.” Present reality and circumstance always feels like such a slog. It’s easy for my imagination to conjure how easy it must be in a different place with different circumstances.

Today’s chapter of Jeremiah’s story continues to unfold the events after the City of Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians. The Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar, had left Jeremiah in the custody of the Captain of the guard. When the time came for the Captain to return to Babylon he releases Jeremiah from his chains and gives Jeremiah a choice. Go back to Babylon with the Captain and all the exiles, or stay in Judah with the remnant of people left to work the land (the poorest, oldest, and sickest of the population). Jeremiah, who is now advanced in years himself, chooses to stay.

Should I stay or should I go?

This morning I’m thinking about that question which I have grappled with on different occasions in my life journey. I’ve also walked beside friends and family members who have been presented with that question in their own respective journeys. The answer, I have found, is rarely clear or easy.

What I have found, however, is that sometimes there is no clear choice, and really no wrong choice. I choose to stay, or to go, and God weaves my choice into the tapestry of my story and journey. Other times I have found clarity for the right choice through prayer, contemplation, and conversation with my closest of confidants. The more I pray and ponder the more peace I feel with one choice or the other, and pursuing the Spirit’s flow to the path of peace is always a wise choice. Still other times I have found that God makes it very clear through a direct spiritual word, a sign, or the word of a prophet. I have stories I could tell, but I’ll save those for other posts.

This morning I’m thinking about Jeremiah and the choice given him. Was it hard for him? Did God give him clear direction what to do? Or did staying in the rubble of Jerusalem just seem easier for an old man than the long journey to a foreign land? Today’s chapter doesn’t say, but I can imagine his thoughts and questions.

As for me, I’m grateful for where my journey has led me. I’m thankful to be in this place, in this reality, with this people, even when the present circumstances feel like a slog (and they often do). I’m have peace. Last night Wendy and I sat on our back patio and stared out at the back yard which spread out like a huge, thick carpet on a beautiful spring evening in Iowa.

The green grass I’m standing on right here, right now, is just fine.

Grab Your Bug-Out Bag!

“Gather up your bundle from the ground,
    O you who live under siege!
For thus says the Lord:
I am going to sling out the inhabitants of the land
    at this time….”
Jeremiah 10:17-18 (NRSVCE)

Among the sub-culture of the “wild-at-heart” man’s man is a thing known as a bug-out bag. There was a lot of buzz about it among some of the guys in my circles a few years back. The bug-out bag is a single duffle or backpack (you have to be able to carry it) that contains what you need to survive should nuclear war, EMP grid blackout, Zombie apocalypse, or other kind of Mad Max or Hunger Games type dystopia become a sudden reality. The bug-out bag contains things you need to survive like water, food, and the means to create shelter. Oh, and a weapon to kill Zombies or hunt down your next meal is always a wise choice. For the record, I don’t have a bug-out bag so I guess Wendy and I are screwed should any of the aforementioned events transpire.

Life in Jeremiah’s day was infinitely more precarious that the one we live in today. As a human being you’d be fortunate to survive infancy, and if you did survive into your teens you could expect the average life-span to be around 30 years. Disease, famine, and local wars were a constant threat. At that time in history local city-states and tribal kingdoms were being swallowed up by rapidly growing regional empires who had begun to perfect their tactics of military aggression, siege warfare, and political assimilation. The Assyrian and Babylonian empires were chief among them.

Jeremiah’s broken-record prophesies were not really that crazy to the people of his day. The Assyrians and Babylonians had a reputation for ruthlessness that was well-known and well deserved. Assyria had already destroyed their cousins in the northern kingdom of Israel (Jerusalem was part of the southern kingdom of Judah). The prevailing tactic of regional Empires was to take over the city, plunder anything valuable, kill the leaders and take the best and brightest hostage (FYI: Daniel was one of these). So, when Jeremiah wrote in today’s chapter that the people of Jerusalem should grab their bug-out bags, they knew what he was talking about (and it wasn’t a Zombie apocalypse).

For those reading along with this chapter-a-day journey, it should also be noted that Jerusalem had been attacked just a generation before by the Assyrians. In that day the Jerusalem was miraculously spared as the enemy army was mysteriously wiped out overnight (2 Kings 19). This, of course, made Jeremiah’s prophetic task more difficult. The people of Jeremiah’s day believed that God would miraculously save them just as He had done before.

This morning I’m thinking about all the doomsday predictions I’ve heard across my lifetime. From Christian teachers and their mesmerizing interpretations of Revelation to economists warning of global monetary collapse to environmentalists warning of a coming ice age (that was the prediction I heard in elementary school) or global warming meltdown. With the proliferation of voices via the internet there is no lack of fear-inducing doomsday predictions to go around. It’s easy to fall down the rabbit-hole of fear.

When confronted with doomsday predictions I find myself trying to be discerning. I can’t do anything about the timing of events in Revelation so I might as well focus each day on loving others as Jesus calls me to do and not worry about that which I can’t control. I believe God calls us to care for the Earth, so Wendy and I try to be good stewards of natural resources, recycle, and make wise choices for the sake of the environment whenever we can. Yet, once again, there is only so much I can do on a personal level and what will be is out of my control. It seems a waste of mental and emotional energy to live in perpetual fear of that which I don’t know and can’t control.

I confess, however, that the notion of having a bug-out bag (with a compass and one of those giant Rambo-like survival knives) does stir my manly spirit. “Arrrggghh!”

Ancient Paths

Thus says the Lord:
Stand at the crossroads, and look,
    and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way lies; and walk in it,
    and find rest for your souls.
Jeremiah 6:16 (NRSVCE)

Along life’s journey one encounters a number of crossroads. Take the easy route, or the road less traveled. Follow the crowd, or strike out on one’s own. Often I have found that divergent paths lead in seemingly opposite directions, yet there is no clear direction where each will lead and precious little guidance with which to make a choice. It is a faith journey, after all. I choose, and I live with both my choice and my path’s destination.

I find myself at times weary of living in a culture running hell-bent and headlong towards any and every new horizon. The whole world seems to chase after that which is trending. I find it easy to become addicted to the breaking news of the moment and the latest buzz getting pushed, tweeted, and incessantly notified on any number of devices. It’s so easy to begin fearing that I’ll miss out on the latest, the most recent innovation, the next great thing.

My soul is increasingly weary of keeping up. The next thing is always replaced by the next, and the next, and the….

I hear my soul whispering at each new crossroads to look, and to seek ancient paths. Rather than chasing after that which is new I find myself more and more compelled to seek and discover that which has been forgotten. What great wisdom has been cast off as worthless ballast in order to speed us on our way in pursuit of the endless and unsubstantiated promises of technology and fortune?

In today’s chapter the prophet Jeremiah called on his generation to look back, to seek the ancient ways, and to seek the restful fulfillment of soul over the insatiable, momentary fulfillment of the senses. His generation chose differently as will mine, I expect.

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded of Jesus’ words:

“…small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

Nevertheless, I think I’ll endeavor to head that way with each new crossroads. It may seem lonely at times, but at least I can count on there not being any traffic jams.

“Yes, And”

I told them, “If you think it best, give me my pay; but if not, keep it.” So they paid me thirty pieces of silver.

And the Lord said to me, “Throw it to the potter”—the handsome price at which they valued me! So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them to the potter at the house of the Lord.
Zechariah 11:12-13 (NIV)

Reading scholarly commentary on today’s chapter, one is confronted with two contrasting interpretations of Zechariah’s prophecy. One sees the text as a conclusion of the previous chapter and a judgement on the neighboring nations who pose an obstacle to the reestablishment of Jerusalem. Others see it as prescient judgement on the rejection of God’s Messiah Shepherd.

What struck me as I read the presentation of contrasting interpretations is that I felt as though I must make up my mind as to which one is right; Which I agreed with and which I would reject. I have been programmed by my culture and tradition to approach interpretation in a dualistic, either-or manner. When I was younger my teachers regularly presented various arguments on different interpretations of a text then argued passionately for the interpretation that the teacher was convinced was the right one. Over time I felt the subtle but pervasive expectation to align myself to groups with whom I agreed on all the right interpretations.

I felt the expectation in the arena of institutional Christianity in which I was to align loyally with the particular denomination with whom I was convinced was right (and of course all other denominations were wrong and not to be trusted). Once aligned with a denomination I found myself pressured to associate with sub-groups of thought within the denomination on hot-button issues of doctrine or scriptural interpretation; Camps who would separate at denominational meetings like the parting of the Red Sea.

This was also true of politics, especially true here in the States where everything is divided into primarily two camps at ever and increasingly estranged viewpoints moving further and further apart.

This is also true socially where one social group separates themselves from another social groups and holds the other at an arm’s length of ignorant suspicion: Blacks and whites, academics and business, science and religion, jocks and artists, preppies and burn-outs, nerds and popular kids.

Along this life journey I have found myself consistently moving toward the gray spaces between the separate camps of dualistic thought, which sometimes raises suspicions of both. I have served and worshipped among many different denominations. I have found myself socializing in starkly contrasting social groups. I find myself increasingly rejecting the polarizing extremes of both of my country’s red and blue camps.

This morning I find myself mulling over the dualistic interpretations of Zechariah’s prophecy and whispering to myself, “yes, and.” So it is with the prophetic which can be layered with meaning and revealed by a God who is consistently beyond confinement of human thought or understanding. Even Jesus, whom I believe was the incarnate Immanuel (“God with us”) was consistently found at the tension between dualistic extremes. So much so, in fact, that those of Jesus’ own religion considered Him so threatening to their entrenched, right religious interpretations that they were willing to pay to get rid of Him.

And so they paid one of Jesus’ own followers thirty pieces of silver. When Judas felt the shamed of what he had done to Jesus he threw the silver back at the priests who used the money to buy a Potter’s field to be used to bury poor dead blokes who couldn’t afford a grave.

That’s one prophecy that scholars in either interpretive camp of today’s chapter can agree is eerily present in the text that Zac wrote nearly 500 years before the events occurred.