Tag Archives: Contemplation

When the Opening Hints of Doom

Now Jehoshaphat had great wealth and honor, and he allied himself with Ahab by marriage.
2 Chronicles 18:1 (NIV)

When you study the art of film, one of the things you learn is that the opening scene of a movie is very important, and a good writer and/or director is going to put a lot of thought into it. A good opening shot sets the stage and tone for the entire film and establishes the movie’s theme. Writers will use an opening line much the same way, and playwrights will do the same with their opening scene or Chorus.

In today’s chapter, the ancient Chronicler uses his opening sentence to set up the reader for the story to follow. I think most modern readers miss it the same way many film-goers miss the importance of the opening scene as they settle into their seat with the popcorn.

First, he references King Jehoshaphat’s “wealth and honor” which ties this part of the story back to the previous chapter which detailed Jehoshaphat’s wealth and honor. The Chronicler also made it clear that the said wealth and honor was linked to Jehoshaphat’s commitment and obedience to God. The next thing he tells us in the opening sentence is that Jehoshaphat made a marriage alliance with a man named Ahab.

Marriage alliances were common practice of royals throughout history. If you were King of one nation, Kings from neighboring nations would give you their daughters in marriage (or arrange a marriage between your respective children) as a way of assuring peace between nations as you’re not likely to attack your wife’s own father and destroy your wife’s family and tribe. This is why all the royal families of Europe are, to this day, a dizzying mash-up of intertwining family connections:

The fact that Jehoshaphat made a marriage alliance is not surprising, but the Chronicler is telling his readers that Jehoshaphat made the alliance with Ahab. All of the Chroniclers contemporary leaders would know Ahab. It’s like a contemporary writer referencing a name like Gates, Buffet, Clinton, or Trump. Everyone knows who you’re talking about.

Ahab was king of Israel (the 10 tribes who split from Solomon’s son and created their own nation). Israel and Judah had been more or less in a state of on-and-off civil war for years. Israel’s monarchy and tribes had abandoned the worship of God. Ahab’s wife was the infamous Queen Jezebel. Together Ahab and Jezebel were one of the most detestable royal couples in the history of Israel. Jehoshaphat made a marriage alliance with them.

Since I’m on the theme of movies, let me reference the Godfather’s famous leadership principle: “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” It might be hopeful to think that Jehoshaphat was that cunning, but that would be wishful thinking. What the Chronicler is doing with his establishing sentence is setting his readers up for the fact that this is not going to end well. Especially given the fact that the Chronicler has already established a theme of immediate retribution throughout his stories: Do good by God and good things immediately happen. Do wrong by God and bad things immediately happen. We as readers should know by now that Jehoshaphat getting involved with the idolatrous and murderous Ahab and Jezebel is a foreshadowing of bad things to come.

This morning I’m thinking about the very simple life lesson of being careful who I align myself with. Jesus specifically prayed to God the Father that He would not take his followers “out of the world.” He wanted us in the world so as to influence it and bring His Kingdom’s love, grace, and power to all, especially those who need it most. So, I don’t think being careful with my “alignment” is about staying in my holy huddle and avoiding “those people” all together. There are certain individuals, however, for whom it would be unwise of me to align myself in a close relationship, a business partnership, a marriage, a contract, an obligation or a similar intertwining of life or business.

Even if it looks good on paper, the establishing shot hints at problems to come.

2018 Half-Way Through

The first half of 2018 has flown by. For Wendy and me it has continued to be a year of transitions. We’re transitioning into some new paradigms with work. We’ve transitioned out of our involvement in Community Theatre. Most importantly, we’ve transitioned into be grandparents. We went on a cruise. We took a quick trip to California (part business, part pleasure). We’ve been finishing some long overdue tasks around Vander Well Manor that have been on the honey-do list since we moved in over three years ago.

After our cruise, Wendy and I were talking about vacations and rest. We spend a lot of time at our place on the lake in the summer months, but because we both home office and can work from anywhere, we typically work while we are the lake. This is a tremendous blessing and it’s the reason we can be there as much as we are. However, we asked ourselves when was the last time we went to the lake and didn’t work. I couldn’t come up with it.

So, this summer we’re trying to make sure we unplug at least a couple of times while we’re at the lake. Last week was one of those weeks. It was a lot of fun. We managed to get quite a bit of sun. We sat on the dock and read. We watched fireworks. We took the Waverunner to Bear Bottom a couple of times to sit in the pool and sip cold drinks. We watched the entire second season of Jessica Jones on Netflix. I finished a book. I putzed at some projects.

There were also some things that Wendy and I needed to feel, and to talk about. We didn’t know it when the week began. Our rest gave opportunity for emotions to surface which gave opportunity to contemplate, and process, and grieve. That’s what happens at the lake when you allow yourself to rest. It’s a good thing.

I’m looking forward to more unplugging this summer. And some rides on the wave runner!

Everyone Welcome (…or not)

Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.
Hebrews 13:2 (NIV)

When I was young, my parents continually told me and my siblings “Your friends are always welcome in our house.” They meant it. I can remember nights when entire groups of my brothers’ friends would show up. My brothers weren’t home, but their friends would sit around the living room with my parents for long chats. As the youngest sibling, I observed the warmth of my parents hospitality and the effect on those high schoolers.

As I got older, I never hesitated to offer to have an impromptu social at our house with entire throngs of my friends. Wendy has convinced me, in retrospect, that it would have been more respectful if I had actually called my parents to ask permission or to give them a little warning. My parents, nevertheless, always laughed and rolled with it. I even told college friends to call my parents if they needed a place to crash on their drive home to the west coast. That happened, and my parents still enjoy telling the story.

I endeavored to have the same hospitality that I witnessed in my parents. I want our home to be a place of welcome, warmth, conversation, and love. I never want visitors to feel like a burden.

Along my life journey I’ve come to realize that hospitality is not a strong suit of my culture. I’ve attended predominantly black churches and received warm welcome that I knew would not be equally reciprocated if they came to my church on Sunday. I grieve this truth.

When I travelled in the middle east I regularly encountered the unbelievable hospitality of Muslims whom I expected to treat me like an enemy. Our daughters have experienced the same in their travels and missions overseas. I will never forget our daughter’s observation that the most Christ-like people she’d encountered were not her missions team, but a Muslim shopkeeper and his wife who invited her to dinner. Once again, we know in our hearts that our foreign hosts would likely not receive an equally hospitable welcome in our community. I grieve this truth.

This morning I’m thinking about my own posture towards hospitality. It’s easy to be hospitable to people of my choosing, with whom I am comfortable. I am reminded of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. In Jesus’ estimation, the one who truly loved his neighbor was the one who showed sacrificial hospitality to a perfect stranger in need who didn’t look like him, come from the same community as him, or believe the same things. I confess this morning that if you measure my hospitality by Jesus’ definition, I am found wanting.

Lord, have mercy on me.

I have some work to do.

Swimming, Speedos, and Spiritual Progress

…let us throw off everything that hinders…and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.
Hebrews 12:1-2 (NIV)

I was a competitive swimmer growing up. I started around the age of eight and swam nearly year-round until after my freshman year in high school. Life’s road led me in different directions at that point. I hung up my Speedo.

Like all competitive racing, the difference between winning a swimming race and not even making it to the medal stand can be hundredths of a second. When you’re young you can shave entire seconds off your time with small improvements of technique and strength training. As you get older and faster the smallest of details take on greater and greater importance. Swimmers learn to eliminate anything that might “drag” you in the water. That’s the reason for ultra-tight lycra suits, slippery skull caps, and shaved heads (the reason shaving my head bald to play Daddy Warbucks wasn’t a huge deal for me is that I’d done it before, shaving my head bald for conference and district meets). If the race is between two equally competitive simmers, one guy in a Speedo and the other guy wearing cut-off jean shorts, the guy in the Speedo has a huge advantage.

That’s the word picture the author of Hebrews is getting at in this morning’s chapter. No matter where I am on my spiritual journey, I have to recognize that there are any number of things which can create drag on my spiritual progress:

  • Relationships with crazy makers who keep me in chaos
  • Compulsive and addictive behaviors that distract me and weigh me down
  • Misguided priorities that take up my time, energy, and resources chasing empty things down dead-end paths
  • Filling my life with objects rather than relationships
  • Keeping myself so busy that I have no time for personal reflection and contemplation

This morning I’m reminded that no matter where I am in this spiritual journey, whether striking out on the dusty trail as a spiritual seeker or climbing the sheer cliffs of spiritual maturity, there are always things that weigh me down and hinder my progress. I just read yesterday of an experienced rock climber who dropped his cell phone from a thousand feet up a sheer cliff wall. Only then did he realize how much of a distraction it had been to him. and how it freed him to be the unhindered mentor and guide he needed to be for his fellow climbers.

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking about the things that might be hindering my spiritual progress. I’m once again committing myself to the never-ending process of identifying and throwing off those things that I identify as weighing me down.

Don’t worry. I promise you’ll never have to see me in a Speedo 😉

Pondering and Plodding On

source: leshaines via Flickr
source: leshaines via Flickr

There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless.
Ecclesiastes 8:14 (NIV)

Life isn’t fair.

As I read Solomon’s astute observation, pasted above, I was taken back to watching 12 Years a Slave with Wendy earlier this year. It is the true story of a talented, educated and free African-American man kidnapped from his family by slave traders and taken south to be sold into slavery. It is a gut wrenching story much like the story of Schindler’s List or The Hiding Place. History is chalk full of such things, and most every companion I’ve known on life’s road can share a story or two of less horrific yet intensely personal experiences with life’s unfair qualities.

I really appreciate Solomon’s honesty as I read through it again. The further I get in my life journey the more willing I am to accept that the sojourn is fraught with mysteries that I may ponder endlessly without ever reaching complete understanding. I don’t know why the righteous sometimes suffer what the wicked deserve and the wicked seemingly enjoy the rewards befitting the righteous.

I do realize, however, that when I’ve suffered life’s injustices I have emerged with a measure of wisdom and maturity that could only have been acquired through the suffering. I know those who seemingly have it so much easier than me, but then I discover that they are suffering an internal kind of personal, relational, and/or spiritual hell. I have also met those who seemingly have far less than me, whose road seems infinitely more difficult than mine, but then I find that they experience a personal, relational and spiritual peace and joy that appears incongruent to their life’s difficulty.

I may not understand all of life’s mysteries, but I feel quite confident in my daily task:
to seek God wholeheartedly,
to faithfully walk the path set before me with joy,
to be wise in my decisions and patient as I plod,
to leverage self-control in order to do good in thought, word, and act,
to be gentle with myself and with those entrusted to my care and provision,
to live peacefully others and treat both companions and strangers with love, kindness, respect, and forgiveness.

Chapter-a-Day Numbers 9

source: Flickr & aaron geller

Moses said, “Give me some time; I’ll find out what God says in your circumstances.” Numbers 9:8 (MSG)

My wife hates making decisions. Even on small, seemingly insignificant choices she can brood and meditate for long periods of time. When it comes to major decisions her contemplative hesitation can, at times, feel like paralysis to me. I am aware, however, that God often uses our spouse’s contrasting personality to teach us lessons we need for our own journey.

In a market driven, consumerist culture I find myself constantly having things pushed at me. Between television, e-mail, internet, smartphones, and iPads it’s easy to get swept up in every fad and trend. The latest, greatest, newest, and most improved products and services that appeal to every individual appetite are at our fingertips 24/7/365 and if I’m not careful I can make foolish decisions on a whim with a tap on my touchpad.

Observing Wendy think through her choices has taught me the wisdom of patience. Often, she will put off a purchase and discovers that she really didn’t need it in the first place. Other times, I’ve watched her methodically think through all of the positives and negatives only to unearth a negative that would have ultimately disappointed her.

I was struck by Moses’ response to the people in today’s chapter. “Give me some time.” It reminded me that even Jesus made a habit of going off to a mountain to spend long periods of time in prayer and contemplation. Today, I’m reminded that taking time to make decisions is a good thing. Seeking guidance through prayer leads to wise choices. I can give you a long list of snap decisions I’ve made which didn’t end up so well.

Chapter-a-Day Numbers 1

Prologue of Samuel Johnson's Irene' by Samuel ...
Image via Wikipedia

“The People of Israel did everything that God commanded Moses. They did it all.” Numbers 1:54 (MSG)

I was listening to a critically acclaimed author being interviewed on the radio yesterday. When asked what she had learned in her experience at the University of Iowa’s famed Writer’s Workshop, she mentioned that she gained an appreciation for reading well and the importance of a prologue and an epilogue.

Many people skip the brief sections at the beginning and end of a novel. Prologues set the scene and they give you a foreshadow of what follows. Epilogues tie things together and contemplate the story at its conclusion.

As I read today’s chapter, I remembered the author’s words because I felt like I was reading the prologue to the Book of Numbers. The scene is being set. Around two million former slaves are living in tents in the wilderness of the Sinai peninsula. In two years and two months time they’ve been organized into their twelve tribes and taken a good census to know who they have and how many are present. Through Moses a rule of law has been established along with a religious system revolving around a large tent sancturary which can be torn down to travel with them.

This prologue to the book of Numbers ends with the statatement that the people had done everything God asked of them. In other words, they were off to a good start.

Starting well is not an issue for most of us. We can start most anything. Each New Year’s we can pen a prologue about the good start on our diet, exercise, weight loss, organization, debt reduction, savings, project, etc., etc., and etc. Getting off to a good start is the easy part. Most people start life with cute baby pictures tucked in sweet baby books filled with cuddly memories and loads of promise.

The real question is this: when my body is laying in a casket and the final chapter of my life story has been written, what will be said in the epilogue?

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