Tag Archives: Death

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.

Final Words

The words of Jeremiah end here.
Jeremiah 51:64 (NIV)

Along my journey I’ve had the privilege of officiating a  host of funerals. Some of them have been family members with whom I’ve had a life-long relationship. Many have been complete strangers to me. No matter the case, I’ve always approached these meaningful events with a desire to honor the person, her/her family, and to comfort those loved ones by telling the person’s story well.

I usually start by simply meeting with the family and asking them questions. As I listen, a story begins to emerge about the deceased, what the person did with his/her life, how he/she impacted the people around them, and what his/her journey was really about. I’ve got to be honest, sometimes the story is heart-warming, and other times it is painfully tragic. Either way, there is always a story to tell.

One of the things I’ve most appreciated about this long slog through Jeremiah’s prophetic anthology is the realization that we have a fairly thorough retrospective of Jeremiah’s 40 years of prophetic works from beginning to end. Jeremiah had a very specific message to convey throughout his career: Babylon was going to destroy his city of Jerusalem and take his people into exile. Then, Babylon would eventually suffer the same fate. When the former happens as prophesied, Jeremiah sends the latter message with a servant headed to Babylon. With that act, the editors tell us that they are Jeremiah’s final words (though the story ends with tomorrow’s final chapter).

Jeremiah’s words were never popular. He was threatened, attacked, imprisoned, left to die, and yet he always remained “on message.” He stuck doggedly to the message God gave him. When the Babylonians showed him unusual mercy for his prophetic “support” of their invasion, Jeremiah didn’t hesitate to tell them that their turn was coming. He never backed down. He completed the job. He stuck to the mission.

This morning I’m thinking about the end of Jeremiah’s words, and it’s prompting thoughts about my own life, and my own story. Someday the responsibility will likely fall on someone to listen to my family members and to sum up my story in just a few minutes of oratory. With each day of my journey I slowly pen that story. I hope it’s not unlike Jeremiah’s: sticking to the mission, completing the course set before me. More than anything, I hope the theme of the story is love.

Death, Life, Surrender

 Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine or plague. But whoever goes out and surrenders to the Babylonians who are besieging you will live; they will escape with their lives.
Jeremiah 21:9 (NIV)

Along my life journey there have been a number of dreaded moments. Those days when the seeds of fear that have silently been cultivated in your heart and mind finally come to fruition. The unexpected phone call with tragic news of the death of a loved one. The final surrender to years of marital struggle. The company’s largest client who unexpectedly and completely walks away from a 25 year relationship, and with the departure nearly half of your income disappears. The ultrasound image of an empty womb.

In today’s chapter, the day of dread which Jeremiah has long prophesied finally comes to fruition. This is the predicted reality everyone around Jeremiah had mocked, ignored, laughed at, and denied. It finally happened. Nebuchadnezzar and the mighty Babylonian army have surrounded and laid siege to the city of Jerusalem.

Now the King of Judah and the priests of the Temple, representatives of the institutions who have long ignored Jeremiah, dismissed his warnings, threatened his life, and thrown him into the stocks, come begging the brooding prophet for help. It’s now obvious to them that Jeremiah’s hotline to God was real. Perhaps they can throw up a Hail Mary prayer through the prophet and escape the terror of a siege. After all, it worked for King Hezekiah decades earlier when the Assyrians came besieging.

Jeremiah’s response: “Not this time.” The city will be destroyed, all inside the city will suffer unspeakable horror, and likely be killed. There is only once chance a person had to keep his or her life: surrender.

This morning in the quiet of my hotel room as I ponder these things, I am struck by two thoughts;

First, God has woven the paradigm of death and life into the very fabric of creation. “If you want to really live,” Jesus said, “first you have to die.” When I really meditate on this simple teaching, I come to the conclusion that this notion is not some mystical, ethereal thought. At its core this is simple grounded reality of creation. “Ashes to ashes, Dust to dust.” Place the spiritual aside for a moment and think only of the physical and material. Our dead bodies don’t disappear. They are converted to a different kind of energy that, in turn, feed more life in the system. Death feeds life.

God’s language is metaphor, and in the very fabric of creation Jesus tell us that He has layered the material, physical ecosystem with a spiritual reality: life comes through death. Then He surrendered Himself to give us the ultimate word picture of that truth. If you want to experience resurrection, you have to take up the cross.

I’ve learned along my journey the wisdom of the Teacher of Ecclesiastes (props to the Byrds for giving it a tune). “There is a time and a season for everything. A time to be born, and a time to die.” Sometimes things need to die in order for new life to come. A lost client makes way for new ways of looking at business. The end of a relationship leads to a different chapter in life. The death of a loved one makes room in time, energy and resources to be invested in new loved ones joining the family. Yes, Jerusalem would be destroyed, Jeremiah says, but a new Jerusalem would eventually be built. In fact, God says this process will be repeated: Revelation ends with yet another new Jerusalem, and new heaven, and a new earth. Old things pass away, new things come.

The second thought I’m pondering this morning is that the lifeline Jeremiah gave to the people of Jerusalem was to surrender. And so I’ve come to believe along my journey that sometimes the harder I fight and deny death and endings the harder my journey becomes. Learning the process of surrendering to God’s natural order of death-to-life, old-to-new, passing-and-coming flow has led me to deeper, fuller, more vibrant, and more peaceful life experiences on the journey.

Finally, I have to mention that U2’s Bad (which is good!) flowed through my spirit as I pondered these things this morning:

If you twist and turn away
If you tear yourself in two again
If I could, yes I would
If I could, I would
Let it go
Surrender
Dislocate
If I could throw this lifeless lifeline to the wind
Leave this heart of clay
See you walk, walk away
Into the night
And through the rain
Into the half-light
And through the flame
If I could through myself
Set your spirit free, I’d lead your heart away
See you break, break away
Into the light
And to the day
Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh
Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh
To let it go
And so to fade away
To let it go
And so, fade away
Wide awake
I’m wide awake
Wide awake
I’m not sleeping
Oh, no, no, no

 

Seed in the Chaff

“I will scatter you like chaff
    driven by the desert wind.
This is your lot,
    the portion I have decreed for you,”
Jeremiah 13:24-25a (NIV)

The community where Wendy and I live, and our local gathering of Jesus’ followers, is experiencing a season of acute grief. This past week a young man, the youngest son of our senior pastor and his wife, passed away unexpectedly. He should have been experiencing the prime of his life. It is unnerving when tragedy strikes like this. There are so many unanswerable questions.

In Sunday morning’s message the teacher gave us a word picture of a man who initiated a controlled burn of his lawn. The teacher watched as the fire spread across the grass turning the lawn into a field of scorched and blackened death. Confused, the teacher stopped and spoke to the man. “I don’t understand,” he said. “You’re killing your lawn.

Oh no,” said the man. “The seed’s already in the ground. Come back in a few months and you will see how lush and green it is with new life.”

I couldn’t help but think of that parable as I read Jeremiah’s prophetic poem this morning. He foresaw that God’s people would experience unspeakable tragedy. They would be conquered. Their city and their Temple would be destroyed. They would be “scattered like chaff driven by the desert wind.” This was their lot in life.

Why me? Why him? Why us? Why now?

So many unanswerable questions.

Then in the quiet this morning I pictured and watched the chaff driven and scattered by the wind. What Jeremiah did not see in his vision is that there is seed mixed in with the chaff. Jeremiah does not see Daniel raised to a position of unbelievable authority and honor within the Babylonian palace. Jeremiah does not see Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego standing with God in the flames of the fiery furnace without getting one hair of their head singed. Jeremiah does not see the repentance of Nebuchadnezzar, doesn’t read the handwriting on Beltshazzar’s wall, does not hear the beautiful lyrics of the psalmists’ lament from exile, and does not see the incredible ministry and visions the prophet Ezekiel will have in that land. Jeremiah does not see the return of the remnant under Nehemiah or the miraculous work of his people rebuilding the Temple and the walls of the city. The prophet’s does not foresee Jesus entering the walls of rebuilt Jerusalem, God’s Son sacrificed for sin once for all, and then resurrected to new and eternal Life.

We all experience tragedy along our our life journeys; We all will have times when we are shaken to the core of our souls. In such times our eyes become intensely focused on our lot in life and we ask unanswerable questions. In the moment, Jeremiah just sees himself, his people, and their lot in life; Their lot in life that cannot be changed any more than a leopard can change his spots. He stands and looks out and all he can see is dry chaff scattered on the scorching desert wind.

Look more closely.

There’s seed in that chaff.

The Sower is not finished with the Story.