Tag Archives: Death

The Mystery of Uncertainty

Since we are approaching the end of all things, be intentional, purposeful, and self-controlled so that you can be given to prayer.
1 Peter 4:7 (TPT)

Wendy and I had the joy of hosting a houseful of her family this past weekend. It was fun to have Wendy’s grandmother over and to surround her with loved ones she doesn’t get to see very often. Grandma is in her nineties and still living independently here in town.

I remember my own grandfather who lived well into his nineties. I have observed that there’s a particular reality that people go through at that age. There’s a loneliness that sets in when most everyone they knew as contemporaries are gone. With it, there is a questioning of why they are still on this Earth.

As I was among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers yesterday morning I happened to note those who have gone through the agony of having children die.

Those who wonder why they are still here, and those who wonder why that had to bury a child before their young lives even got started. Welcome to the mystery.

In today’s chapter, Peter tells the followers of Jesus scattered and living in exile that the end of all things was near. This was something that the early believers wholeheartedly believed. Despite the fact that Jesus Himself said that no one knew when He would return, the early believers assumed it could be any minute, and urged Jesus’ followers to live as if it could be any minute.

Along my life journey, I have observed that believers of almost every generation I’ve lived with have been convinced that Jesus’ return and the end of all things were near. As an amateur historian, I’ve learned that believers throughout history have been convinced of the same.

Theologians call it “the imminent return of Christ.” In other words, it could happen at any moment, and I do believe that. I also believe that Jesus was right when He told His followers that the exact time of the end times would remain a mystery. That means that it is also very possible that those of my generation will be like Peter and those of every subsequent generation who was convinced they would live and die believing they’d see the events of John’s Revelation take place in person.

In the same way, I have also observed that this earthly journey is both fragile and mysterious. While the average person expects to live to the average age, every day the journey ends for individuals far sooner than anyone expected. This is also part of the mystery.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself coming to one spiritual conclusion from these mysteries of the unknown future: Let the uncertainty of tomorrow inform the way I approach today.

As Jesus put it:

“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.”

And so, I enter another day. Have a good one, my friend.
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The Important Thing

The Lord will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one Lord, and his name the only name.
Zechariah 14:9 (NIV)

On my podcast this past week, I began a conversation about time. One of the more profound and mysterious aspects of God’s Message is, of course, the prophetic. What I regularly refer to as “The Great Story” is the story arc from creation in Genesis to the end of the book of Revelation when history as we know it ends and there is a new beginning.

One of the things I’ve noted in God’s creation is the number of recurring themes present. The way we depict an atom looks just like a little solar system, which is replicated in the moon going around the earth, the earth going around the sun, the solar system spinning in the galaxy, and etc.

One of the other great themes is simply the cycle of life and death. Physicists tell us that matter is energy. Genesis says God made humans from the dust of the earth, and when we die it was prescribed that “to dust you will return” (Gen 3:19). There is a natural part of the life-cycle of creation in this. Our bodies die, return to the ground, decay, and then are recycled by creation to feed new life.

As mentioned in my podcast, I see this cycle replicated in the Great Story. I look at human history and see all of the life stages: infancy, toddler, child, teenager, and etc. There is a course of macro human development that I find is very much like the micro stages of an individual human life. And, we are reminded by the prophets, history like each of our lives will have an end.

In today’s chapter, Zechariah envisions the death throes of human history. His vision dovetails with John’s visions in Revelation 16:14-16 and again at the end of Revelation 19. A final battle between good and evil, when God sets up rule and reign over the Earth.

Of course, all of this can be terribly confusing and even frightening. A couple of thoughts as I mull these things over this morning.

First, prophecy is not a science and there is no iron-clad understanding. I have learned to approach the prophetic humbly, recognizing that the most learned and scholarly of God’s people completely misinterpreted the prophets understanding of the Messiah. Even Jesus’ own disciples expected Him to become what the scholars and teachers of their day expected Him to be. Therefore, I assume that the most gifted and emphatic of today’s teachers claiming they know the truth about end-times prophecy is likely wrong about most of it. The most common truth I’ve come to accept about prophecy is that, in hindsight, it doesn’t end up happening the way everyone said it would.

Second, I believe that the important message is not in the details but in the theme. History moves towards a death of the way things are just as each of our lives ends with the death of our earthly journey. This death comes complete with the struggle and “death throes” associated with the human fight against our physical death. And then?

This is the critical piece to the Jesus Story. At the climactic, dark moment there is a eucatastrophe. Death does not have the final word. Resurrection. Life springs out of the depths. The phoenix rises from the ashes. The old order passes away and a new order comes.

Once again, I can’t help to see the layer of meaning. In the same way that I, as a follower of Jesus, believe that after death I will experience new life through the resurrected Jesus, so I believe that at the end of this Great Story of humanity there will be a death and a resurrection. As the end of Revelation envisions there is a new heaven, a new earth, a new Jerusalem, and a new order of creation. This is such a natural part of creation that I find the truth of it is hidden in plain sight. Here in Iowa the fields have yielded their harvest. The death throes have begun. I feel it in the chill as I got out of bed this morning. Death is coming when everything in this beautiful land will be dark, and cold, and colorless. But, a new year will come with new life, and warmth, and abundance, and vibrant color.

In the quiet this morning I find myself curious but scratching my head with regard to battles, and plagues, and rotting flesh, and earthquakes, and etc. What I find myself focused on is on the important conclusion: new life, safety, a flow of living water, and “The Lord will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one Lord, and his name the only name.

Have you missed previous chapter-a-day posts from 1 Peter? Click on the image above for quick access to all the links!

At Some Point, One Must Return Home

Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites—everyone whose heart God had moved—prepared to go up and build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem.
Ezra 1:5 (NIV)

When I was a young man I spent five years in pastoral ministry. Three of those years were spent in a very small town here in Iowa. During those years I officiated a lot of funerals. Not only were these funerals for members of my congregation, but the local Funeral Home Director also called me when there was a family who had no particular faith tradition or church home. As a result, I spent a generous amount of time with grieving families.

During these funerals, I began to observe families in all of their glorious dysfunctions. I noticed, in particular, that these sad occasions brought prodigal children home, and that in many cases the children had not been home for many years. This taught me a life lesson: “At some point, one has to return home.” (By the way, this became the inspiration for my play, Ham Buns and Potato Salad.)

For the past few months on this chapter-a-day journey, I’ve been going through books related to what’s known as the “exilic” period when the Hebrews were taken captive and lived in exile under the ancient Assyrian, Babylonian, Mede, and Persian empires. Today I begin walking through the two books (Ezra and Nehemiah) that tell the story of the exiles return to Jerusalem and their work to reconstruct Solomon’s Temple and the protective walls of the city.

For the exiled Hebrews, their return had been something they’d longed for. Right at the beginning of today’s chapter, it’s mentioned that they’d been clinging to the prophecy of Jeremiah that the Babylonian captivity would last 70 years (Jer 25:11-12). The time for return finally arrives. At some point, one has to return home.

Reading today’s chapter, it’s easy to assume that Cyrus felt some special affection toward the exiled Hebrews and their religion. However, the decree and subsequent provision of temple articles stolen by Nebuchadnezzar represented a shift in Empirical policy. Earlier empires had ruled with an iron hand, destroying native temples and demanding that captured peoples adopt the culture of the conquerors. Cyrus, however, realized that allowing captured peoples to return to their homes and rebuild their native temples and shrines was good policy. He did the same for other peoples, as well. The move created goodwill with the people of his empire. In the case of Judah, the move also provided him with allies and a friendly outpost between himself and the yet unconquered kingdom of Egypt.

This morning I find myself thinking about returning home. It can look so different for different individuals. It might be a joyous reunion for some. For others, it’s a necessary immersion back into messy family dysfunction. There are those for whom the return home is a long-awaited return from exile. In many cases, it’s an important and necessary step in addressing past wrongs, emotional injuries, and spiritual blocks so that one can progress in his or her life journey. In many cases, I’ve observed that one can’t move forward until he or she makes the trek and faces the past. I, myself, discovered it a necessary stretch of my own journey.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself whispering a quiet prayer for those who have yet to return, those who have returned, and those who find themselves amidst the struggle of returning home.

Refining and Revelation

At that time I, Daniel, mourned for three weeks. I ate no choice food; no meat or wine touched my lips; and I used no lotions at all until the three weeks were over.
Daniel 10:2-3 (NIV)

This past Sunday I had the privilege of giving the message among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. One of the things our team of teachers has been grappling with of late is a continued season in which we are experiencing an unusually high number of deaths. From young to old, from expected to unexpected, and from natural to painfully tragic, we have had almost two hundred families touched by death in two years. It has been a long season marked by grief that seems to continue. We are going through the very human experience of trying to process and find understanding within it.

The last half of the book of Daniel is a record of dreams and visions that he had. It’s easy to get caught up in the details of the strange images inside. It all seems as confusing as an acid trip for even learned readers. I find that most people bail on it quickly and move on.

I have learned along the way, however, that some of the great lessons I’ve discovered in my perpetual journey through God’s Message are not in the details but in the macro perspective when I step back and get a handle on what’s happening on the landscape of the chapter. Today is a great example.

Daniel’s strange visions are not unique to him during this period of history. Ezra and Ezekiel were other Hebrews in the same exile experience having eerily similar visions and visitations of a fantastical nature. They were all experiencing a particularly painful time of being captives far from home. They were all in mourning for their people, their home, their culture, and their faith in uncertain times and circumstances. They had spent a lifetime in exile and were eager for a sign or promise that their people would return home from captivity, that their Temple in Jerusalem would be rebuilt, and that restoration God promised through the prophets would actually happen (think 90-year-old Cubs fans prior to 2016). In today’s chapter, Daniel had been fasting, praying, and mourning for three weeks before the vision in today’s chapter was given to him.

My takeaway from this is that these dreams and visions were given to a specific group of mourning Hebrew exiles after a long period of suffering and in the midst of a time of intense personal struggle against doubt, despair, and grief.

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking back to particularly stressful and painful stretches of my own journey. It was in these dark valleys of the journey that very specific and important spiritual lessons and personal revelations came to light. Is there a connection? I believe that there is.

In my message on Sunday, I quoted from Peter’s letters to the suffering believers scattered around the known world. He compares the trials they are experiencing to the way fire refines gold (1 Peter 1:6-7). I have come to believe through experience that it is in the midst of suffering and trial that the non-essential trivialities with which we daily concern ourselves are burned away. When our hearts are broken and our spirits laid bare with suffering we are particularly open to what God described to the prophet Jeremiah (33:3) as “great and unsearchable things you do not know.”

[Note: Speaking of messages, I realized in writing the post this morning that it’s been a while since I updated my Messages page, which I subsequently did for anyone interested.]

The Fateful Knocking

For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
2 Timothy 4:6-7 (NIV)

He knew he was going to die. I don’t know how he knew. He had been struggling with his health for some time. Nevertheless, he knew. He heard fate knocking like the opening measure of Beethoven’s fifth. He asked his caregivers to call me, and I went to his bedside. He was restless, agitated, and there was fear in his eyes.

I had pleasant conversations with him and his wife before. They were very sweet people who lived in a little house on top of a hill with a gorgeous view. They were both humble individuals with gentle spirits. He loved to tell stories. They had no desire to talk about spiritual matters. So, we didn’t. I visited and we swapped stories. We talked about many other things and enjoyed the view together. It really was spectacular.

Now, things were different. He needed to get some things out. He needed to take care of some matters of Spirit. He’d always avoided this conversation so he had no idea how to have it. I took his hand and began to ask him questions. He wept. He talked. I listened. I gently asked more questions. At his request, I helped him pray. I believe it may well have been his first and only time.

When I left he was quiet and resting peacefully. He died a few hours later.

It was what many people call a “deathbed confession.” My experience is that when that phrase is used in conversation it has typically been uttered cynically or sarcastically as if a dying person is trying to rig the system. I liken it to taking on the mantel of the prodigal’s older brother who gets pissed that little brother squandered his life and partied like it’s 1999, and then dad just welcomes him home with feasting and homecoming gifts. Where’s the justice in that? Perhaps I should have told the man, “Too bad, old man. You had your chances and now it’s too late. Good luck. You might want to take a fan with you.”

Everyone has their own journey. Everyone has their own story. Who’s to say that his story wasn’t a great story? Who am I to judge? The fear in his eyes was genuine. The words, the tears, and the prayer were humble and sincere. I am honored to have played a bit part in his final chapter.

Speaking of chapters, today’s is the last surviving words that Paul wrote. He, too, hears fate knocking. His story is very different. He welcomes the journey’s end. He looks forward to what lies beyond. His earthly journey is a sojourn. He is the prodigal heading home and looking forward to being welcomed.

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking about life and death and resurrection. I’ve recently been walking with a friend whose father has heard the fateful knocking and, along with his family, is making preparations. It’s a strange time when it comes – however it comes.

Everyone has their own stories in both life and death. Paul’s journey had prepared him in mind and spirit for the journey’s end. My friend, who asked his caregivers to call me, had never allowed himself to think much about it. I certainly identify with Paul as we share a common faith and a common hope. I find myself saying a quiet prayer for those who, like my friend who made his deathbed confession, have not thought much about it – and have no one to call.

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.”