Tag Archives: Death

Creation and Re-Creation

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
2 Corinthians 5:17 (NIV)

I got my first tattoo in the fall of 2005. It was an incredibly tumultuous time in my journey. It was the most tumultuous stretch of the journey I’ve yet experienced, in fact. I was recently divorced, a reality I’d never imagined for myself, with two teenage daughters trying to make sense of their own shattered realities. Wendy had also entered my life. This was another unexpected and unlooked for reality that I knew in my heart was of God’s doing, but it made the whole picture a hot mess.

So, why not get a tattoo?

The tat is a celtic cross on my back. In the circle at the crux of the cross is a reference to Revelation 21:5:

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

Wendy also got a tat that day. A butterfly with the same reference. It was a permanent reminder amidst temporary circumstances of the hope we had in Jesus. Wendy and I both knew by the faith that Paul writes about in today’s chapter that Jesus, the Creator, was in the process of picking up the shattered pieces of life and the mess that had been wrought by our respective human flaws and failings, and together was making something new out of it.

It was months later that I went to a weekend retreat for teens that our daughter Taylor was attending. She was going to speak to her peers and I had been invited to listen. It was hard. She spoke about her own pain amidst the divorce and remarriage and the tumultuous changes in her own experience and realities. “One of my dad’s favorite verses is Revelation 21:5,” she said before adding, “I don’t like that verse.” Ugh.

Our human failings create so much pain for the ones we love most.

Mea culpa.

Along my spiritual journey I’ve learned that God expresses themselves over and over and over again through the theme of creation and re-creation. It’s an integral theme in the divine dance. Old things pass, new things come. On the macro level consider the first chapter, Genesis 1, in which God creates the heavens and the earth. In the final two chapters of Revelation God creates a new heaven and a new Earth (Rev 21:1). On the cosmic level it happens at the cross and the empty tomb. Jesus refers to this creation and re-creation theme over and over again. “Unless a kernel dies and is buried in the ground,” He said, “It can’t spring to new life.”

I’ve also observed that many of my fellow followers of Jesus like to gloss over this theme with broad religious brush strokes of propriety. They like “old things pass away and new things come” to look pretty and proper with an emotionally moving musical score underneath. It’s so much easier to swallow when it’s neat and easy.

Maybe it is that way for some. I haven’t found it to be that way. Resurrection is proceeded by crucifixion. Crucifixion is a raw, naked, shameful, bloody mess. Just like my life back in 2005 when I got my first tat.

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that when Jesus called followers, He made it clear that things would change. Old things would pass away. New things would come. And, not necessarily in comfortable ways.

The Activating Ingredient

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
1 Corinthian 13:1 (NIV)

As I’ve mentioned in recent months, I’m making my way chronologically through all of Paul’s letters. This is in conjunction with a year-long study my local gathering of Jesus’ followers is conducting of the book of Acts.

One of the patterns that is repeated over and over again in the book of Acts is an action or event that is followed by an opportunity to teach, testify or pray. The action always precedes the teaching or testimony. “Do” then “Teach.”

I thought about this as I read Paul’s famous discourse on love. He begins by acknowledging that religious actions void of love are empty, impotent, and useless. Love is the action. Love is the activating ingredient. Love is the “Do” that opens the way for meaningful conversation, interaction, and Life-giving moments.

In the quiet this morning I’m looking back over my entire spiritual journey. As I put on my 20-20 hindsight goggles, I confess that I’ve gotten a lot of things wrong. Oh my, have I missed some things. Simple things. Basic things. Things I should have seen long ago.

I was taught, and embraced the notion, that moral and doctrinal purity were “the most excellent way.” I and my Protestant tribes have been so worried about avoiding a doctrinally errant “gospel of works” (i.e. you earn your salvation by doing good deeds) that I believe I elevated the importance of belief and right-thinking. In so doing I diminished the activating ingredient: Love. And, without the activating ingredient, my faith is….

I’m reminded of James’ letter to believers (a letter Martin Luther hated and wanted struck from the canon of scripture). James is echoing the same sentiment as Paul. He just says it in a different way. If I say I have faith and I believe all the right doctrines, but I don’t have the activating agent of love motivating me to “Do” unto others, love my enemies, forgive those who’ve sinned against me, welcome the outcast, take up my cross, go the extra mile, turn the other cheek, give my coat as well, and et cetera, then my faith is void of Life. And, that which is void of Life is dead. I and my right doctrine are dead on arrival.

Lord, have mercy on me. I’ve still got so much to learn, and “Do.”

Destined for Tough Terrain

We sent Timothy,who is our brother and co-worker in God’s service in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. For you know quite well that we are destined for them.
1 Thessalonians 3:2-3 (NIV)

This past week was a bit of a whirlwind for Wendy and me. It began with the unexpected death of a friend. She and her husband had been in a small group with us during a particularly turbulent time of our lives, and her death rocked our world a bit. The morning of the funeral we received news that another friend had suffered a heart attack in the night and had been flown to Des Moines for a hastily performed cardiac procedure.

We visited our friend in the hospital and were encouraged to find him alive and well. In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that we knew he’d just been through a life-threatening trauma earlier that day, I’d have told you everything was perfectly normal.

As we spoke with our friend and his wife there in the CCU she shared about their life journey and the fact that the two of them had just entered a particularly enjoyable stretch. Retirement, time together, and the opportunity to enjoy large parts of each day in conversation and shared activity had been brining them both tremendous joy. She told us of her emotions and prayers the previous night as she faced the potential reality that it might be coming to a tragic end.

I thought about these two experiences, with two very different outcomes, as I read today’s chapter in Paul’s letter to believers in Thessalonica. Paul fled the city when his life was threatened. He knew that the fledgling believers he left behind continued to face opposition and persecution. Paul was worried about them, which was why he sent his protege, Timothy, to check on them, and why he was writing them this letter after Timothy’s return and report. Addressing the trials they were facing, Paul states quite bluntly: “You know quite well we are destined for them.”

Along my faith journey I’ve observed many who seem to have approached their life and/or faith journey with the expectation that it should always be a cake walk. In the quiet this morning I’m pondering the various reasons we might come to that conclusion. Is it somehow that the “prosperity gospel” that falsely teaches God wants us all to be “healthy, wealthy, and wise” has permeated our culture more than we care to admit? Is it somehow, for those of us living in America, some kind of bleeding over of the American Dream into our faith? Why is it that I am shocked and feel somehow cheated when life’s road unexpectedly becomes rough terrain?

My journey through God’s Message has taught me that I should expect rough terrain on life’s road. All of the early father’s of the faith said so. Here’s just a small sample of reminders:

Jesus:
“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (Mt 10:16)

Paul:
We glory in our sufferings.” (Rom 3:5)

James:
Consider it pure joy when you encounter various trials….” (Jam 1:2)

Peter:
“…rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.” (1 Pet 1:6)

I find myself looking back this morning at Wendy’s and my journey over the past 13 years. Like our friend we visited in the hospital we’ve recently been experiencing a sense that we’re coming out of a valley and into a stretch of smoother terrain. It’s a good feeling, and we’re enjoying the lift. Nevertheless, this past week has been a reminder that I can never know what’s waiting for us up ahead.

As I start this week I’m reminded that with each warning of trouble, suffering, trials, and grief, Jesus and the early followers connected the inevitable hard stretches of life’s journey to heart, overcoming, glory, joy, and rejoicing. This journey will include both good times and unexpected bad times. It’s a natural part of the journey. Paul told the Thessalonians believers “we’re destined for them.” I shouldn’t be thrown for a loop when they happen as though I hadn’t been warned that they will come, or like I hadn’t observed that everyone I know experiences tough stretches along the way. There’s always purpose in the pain.

It’s the trials and the overcoming that make our favorite stories “epic.”

Have a great week my friend.

One of the Things We Continually Get Wrong

Then Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”
Acts 21:13 (NIV)

I have a notebook in which I keep thoughts, notes, and ideas that come to me at odd times. In this notebook I have a series of messages I’d like to give someday. The working title of the series is The Things We Continually Get Wrong. It’s about the common thoughts and beliefs I observe followers of Jesus continually embrace (and, I confess, that I sometimes catch myself embracing) despite what God’s Message teaches and two millenia of examples provide.

One of the things on my list of The Things We Continually Get Wrong is the notion that God’s will is for all of us is to be healthy, wealthy and wise in the temporal and material sense. There are plenty of teachers and preachers willing to tell us that (usually as they ask people to give them money), yet those who follow in the footsteps of Jesus often find a very different reality.

As I read today’s chapter I thought about Paul’s resolute decision to travel to Jerusalem, despite being told by both God and prophetic believers that it would not end well for him. Paul is on a mission, and as Luke describes the events I couldn’t help but think of how Luke also described Jesus’ in Luke 9:51: As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem[emphasis added]

Now, Paul is following in Jesus’ footsteps, and he knows it.

This morning I’m again reminded of our human desire to cling to this life and avoid death [see yesterday’s post]. It’s a natural desire, but it’s another thing I find that we continually get wrong as believers. If I truly believe what Jesus taught, what Jesus exemplified, and what I see Paul doing in today’s chapter, then I must embrace the notion taught in the old timey spiritual:  This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through. Paul, like Jesus before him, is pressing the events that will lead to his death. This isn’t some act of suicidal desperation, but an act of obedience and sacrifice knowing that the events which will transpire will provide the platform for Paul to share the Message in unparalleled ways with people he would otherwise never reach.

Jesus said, “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, while those willing to lose their lives will find it.”

Life, Death, Sacrifice, & the Multiverse

However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.
Acts 20:24 (NIV)

Over this past week Wendy and I watched the third season of the Amazon Prime original, The Man in the High Castle. Most every television or movie drama hinges on some kind of threat to life. Someone’s life is in danger. Someone is trying to escape those who seek to end his or her life. Someone’s life had been taken and the protagonist must find out who did it before more people die. In The Man in the High Castle the writers throw in the twist of the multi-verse, the theory that parallel realities exist and people known as “travelers” can slip between them. Nevertheless, seeking to stay alive and striving to avoid the threat of death don’t change. They are always the common themes.

As I read today’s chapter, the themes of death and life are just as prevalent as they weave themselves through Paul’s story. The Jews plan another attempt to assassinate Paul, so he changes his travel arrangements. A boy falls from a third-story window and dies, but Paul miraculously brings the boy back to life. Paul then declares to the elders of the believers at Ephesus that he will not see them again on this earthly journey. Even though Holy Spirit has continually revealed that prison and persecution await, Paul is ready to face it: “I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me.”

Here we have yet a different twist on the theme of life and death: the willingness to sacrifice one’s life for a higher purpose. Paul has faithfully followed the footsteps of Jesus. Self-sacrifice is the way of Jesus:

  • “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”
  • “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
  • [Jesus] said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
  • “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

In the quiet this morning I find myself wrestling with the themes of life, death, and self-sacrifice. In a relatively safe midwest American existence the threat of death is incredibly low. The odds for a long and relatively easy life are incredibly high. So, what does the way of Jesus, the way of self-sacrifice mean for me on this journey? In a culture that values a “better life” as defined by the acquisition of things and the accumulation of bucket list experiences, what does it mean to deny myself, take up my cross, and follow? I live in a completely different reality that Paul, Luke, and the Ephesus elders. I know what self-sacrifice looked like for Paul, but what about me in this place, in this century, in this reality?

Monday morning. More questions than answers. I’m gonna keep wrestling with this one.

Have a good week my friend.

Time, Distance, and Perspective

[King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon] took into exile in Babylon those who had escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and to his sons until the establishment of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had made up for its sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept sabbath, to fulfill seventy years.
2 Chronicles 36:20-21 (NRSVCE)

Struggle, discouragement, loss, conflict, death, and divorce. Along my Life journey I’ve experienced both events and seasons I didn’t understand in the moment. I had no good answers to the “why” questions. From my vantage point on the road of life, the dark clouds surrounding me had no silver lining. Daily life became a slog through confusion, anxiety, grief, and even despair.

I know my experience is not the exception, but the rule. While the exact events and seasons may differ from person to person, I don’t know a single person who has not experienced at least a few “mountain top” moments in life, nor is there a person I know who hasn’t walked through what the Psalmist aptly describes as “the valley of the shadow of death.” Even Jesus in His earthly journey had His mountain top transfiguration contrasted with His guttural cry of despair: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

In today’s chapter we finish the book of 2 Chronicles. It’s a Cliff Notes version of the final Kings of Judah who become puppets of both the Eyptian and Babylonian empires. The season of Judah as an independent kingdom is over.

What fascinated me as I read the Chronicler’s final chapter is how he left the story. It’s very different than the scribe who wrote a parallel history in the book of 2 Kings. The scribe of Kings was writing at the time of the Babylonian exile. The story simply comes to an end with the fall of the Kingdom to Babylon. He is writing in the dark cloud of defeat. He has no vantage point of time and distance. He has no answers to the “why” questions. He is struggling to make sense out of the circumstances.

The Chronicler, however, is writing post-exile. He’s is further down the road of life and history. Cyrus, King of Persia, has allowed the Hebrew exiles to return to Jerusalem and has made allowance for wall of Jerusalem and the Temple to be rebuilt. There is a new beginning. There is hope. The Chronicler looks back at the exile and sees prophetic fulfillment. He sees that the exile has allowed his homeland to experience sabbath in preparation for a new season, the planting of new seeds, and the anticipation of new life and possibility of a fruitful future.

This morning I’m thinking about the ebb and flow of our respective journeys and our stories. There will be mountain top moments. There will be deep valleys and despair. I won’t always have “why” answers in the moment. In fact, I come to accept that I may never have certain “why” answers that satisfy my heart this side of eternity. If I keep pressing on, however, I may be able to look back with much needed perspective. Like the Chronicler, I may see in retrospect that to which I was blind in the moment.

At the end of every valley is another rise, and that which lies beyond. I won’t see it until I get there.

Possibility. Anticipation. Hope.

The Epitaph Being Written Today

“He passed away, to no one’s regret….”
2 Chronicles 21:20 (NIV)

Earlier in my life journey I spent a few years in pastoral ministry. I served in a rural community with many aging citizens. I found myself performing an unexpected number of funerals which led to my befriending the local funeral director. As a result, I found myself doing even more funerals as my friend would often call me when the deceased or the deceased’s family had no connection with a local pastor or church.

I encountered an amazingly diverse number of experiences in those few years. I observed beautifully warm family gatherings honoring individuals who left a legacy of love. I observed fractured families who refused to be in the same room with their family members. Factions would take turns paying their last respects to the deceased. I officiated services for individuals who, at the end of their lives, were completely alone and virtually no one came to pay their respects. And, I presided over funerals for individuals who appeared to be universally despised, those in attendance at the funeral sharing with me that they were there to say “Good riddance.”

After several chapters in which the Chronicler shares a rather expansive story of King Jehoshaphat, today’s chapter succinctly describes the brief reign of Jehoshaphat’s son, Jehoram. It was eight years of division and chaos rooted in Jehoshaphat’s ill-fated decision to make a marriage alliance with the evil King Ahab of Israel which set off a chain-reaction of tragedy.

Jehoram married a daughter of Ahab and Jezebel. By the Chronicler’s account, Jehoram was sucked into the dysfunctional family and religious system of his in-laws. This couldn’t have made him popular with his brothers who had been given some regional authority by their father (which made them potential rivals to Jehoram). Jehoram kills off all of his brothers to solidify his hold on the throne. Neighboring enemies, observing the internal political chaos, choose to attack Judah and take advantage of this moment of weakness. It works. Jehoram’s reign ends after eight short, bloody years marked by internal strife, fraternal murder, and failure in almost every respect.

The Chronicler’s epitaph: “He passed away to no one’s regret.”

What a sobering reality to mull over in my hotel room this morning. What kind of epitaph have I been writing over my life journey? What adjectives have attached themselves to my legacy? Love? Anger? Kindness? Pride? Faithfulness? Selfishness? Generosity? Greed? Failure? Redemption?

In the quiet I’m thinking about the opportunity I have this day and every day, in every relationship, in every interaction to make a positive difference. Even a life journey littered with tragic failure can chart a new waypoint each day. It’s never too late. That’s what the word “repentance” literally means: to turn and move in the opposite direction. In my experience, positive life change rarely happens in a moment. Rather, it begins with one willful decision to make a change of direction.

I’m thinking about some of those individuals from years ago with whom I only became acquainted as a body in a casket. What would have been different had I known them, had a chance to interact with them before their journeys end? I don’t know.

But it’s not too late for the people with whom I will interact today.