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Everyday Miracles and Deep Water Calling

The officer on whose arm the king was leaning said to the man of God, “Look, even if the Lord should open the floodgates of the heavens, could this happen?”

“You will see it with your own eyes,” answered Elisha, “but you will not eat any of it!”
2 Kings 7:2 (NIV)

I listened to a great podcast yesterday while I was in the car. Rob Bell was continuing his series on alternative wisdom and he unpacked an event in Jesus’ life when the religious leaders came and demanded a sign from him. This committee of theological high-brows seemed to want miracles on-demand from Jesus, but Jesus refused to play the game the self-important religious fundamentalists were trying to play. Jesus begins by pointing out that no matter what He did, no matter what signs He might come up with, they would never be satisfied. They didn’t want to believe, nor were they concerned with the bigger picture of why Jesus was there in the first place. Jesus then told the religious authorities they would receive no sign but “the sign of Jonah.”

With that Jesus referred to the ancient prophet who was swallowed by a fish and spent three days and nights buries at sea in the fish’s belly. With this Jesus was foreshadowing the real mission He came to perform, which had little do to with a magical miracle tour. Jesus would be called into the depths just like Jonah; He would descend into death for three days, and come out the other side.

As we make our way through 2 Kings we are reading about a lot of signs and miracles. Both Elijah and Elisha’s stories are littered with stories of the miraculous. There’s no doubt that the scribes and editors who put together this history of the ancient Kings are going to make sure to include these miraculous stories. They are great stories, and they are compelling reads. I have found, however, that it is easy for me to read this stream of miracle stories and forget Jesus’ admonishment to turn a blind eye to the penny-ante miracles for a moment and to consider the sign of Jonah.

I believe in the miraculous. I’ve experienced the miraculous and have  heard the testimony of miracles from others whom I know, trust, and believe. I have never felt comfortable, however, who seem to be in the miracle on-demand business. It seems to me that Jesus was always a bit dismissive of signs and miracles.

This is nothing,” Jesus said to Andrew of his knowing that Andrew was sitting under a tree. “You’ll see more impressive things than this.”

What I’m doing is small potatoes,” Jesus said to the disciples. “You’ll see the same and more by the time I’m done.”

You have no idea how really simple this all is, and what little faith is required for these miracles,” Jesus told his followers.

Jesus was so dismissive of the miraculous that He also was quick to shut down miraculous operations. Not only did He do it with the religious leaders, but He did it with the crowds as well. “You’re following me because I gave you free filet-o-fish sandwiches,” Jesus said to the crowds, “but you’re missing the point. If you want the real food I came to give you you’ll have to eat my flesh and drink my blood.”

In this morning’s chapter, Elisha performed another miracle. In announcing what would happen the King’s captain refused to believe. Elisha announced that the captain’s lack of faith would ensure that he’d see it happen but would miss out on the blessing.

What struck me this morning is that I think it’s quite possible to see and experience the miraculous and miss the point. Jesus performed many signs that the religious leaders witnessed, and yet they came back to him for more. They didn’t want to believe. The crowds followed Jesus fully believing that Jesus could multiply loaves and fish endlessly, but eventually they’d become jaded and demand a change of menu. The miracles were never the point. They are momentary blips on the infinite radar focused on temporal earthly things.

Jesus rolled His eyes and continued to tell us that the miracles were there to point us to deeper things. The real important stuff happens three days and nights buries in the depths. The point is in  torn, sacrificial flesh and spilled blood that accomplishes the miraculous on a cosmic, eternal scale.

I believe in miracles. I believe in shallow, everyday miracles on a small temporal scale and big, “deep water” miracles on the cosmic, eternal scale. I have also come to understand that what Jesus was saying is this:  Never trade the latter for the former.

 

Pre-Scribed Events and Reimagined Narratives

But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy.
2 Kings 5:11 (NIV)

I’ve always had a rather active imagination. As a kid I spent a lot of time in the land of make-believe. I can remember many scenes of war and espionage played out in my back yard and neighborhood. There were all sort of athletic miracles and Rudy-like moments that took place on the neighbor’s basketball court. I can even remember drawing colorful geometric shapes on notebook paper, taping them to the wall in a line and transforming my room in to the command deck of the Starship Enterprise. The final frontier alive and well in the limited space of my bedroom. I was that kid.

As I’ve continued on in my life journey, I’ve come to the realization that my active imagination has some unintended consequences. Because I have this unconscious ability to make up a narrative in my head, I sometimes find myself applying my imagination to real life. I just read the other day how, according to the author of the article, eye-witness testimony has become one of the least reliable forms of evidence in today’s justice system. People testify to what they honestly imagined they saw. I get that. Wendy sometimes corrects my retelling of events as my imagination makes changes and embellishments to the facts over time.

I have also found that I like the stories I tell myself. In fact, if I’m honest, I often like my own imaginative narratives better than the one God seems to be dictating in my current “real life” and present circumstances.

So it was that I found myself uncomfortably identifying with Namaan in today’s chapter. The worldly rich and power leper came to the prophet Elisha for healing. He also came with an imaginative narrative already written in his head how the events of his healing would unfold. Perhaps he’d heard others’ stories, or perhaps someone planted ideas in his head of what Elisha would experience (here I go again, imagining what might have happened). What we do read in this morning’s chapter is that when circumstances didn’t live up to the imagined narrative Namaan had prescribed for himself he became disappointed, frustrated, angry, and finally was utterly dismissive of the instructions Elisha prescribed for healing.

Namaan almost missed out on being healed of his leprosy because it didn’t match the events as he’d imagined them and pre-scribed (think of the word pre-scribed, literally: “scripted ahead of time“) them in his head!

In the quiet of this beautiful summer morning I’m glancing back into the past and honestly taking stock of ways that I have attempted to pre-scribe life along my own journey. I’m also doing my best to genuinely search for ways I may have imaginatively reimagined past events to place myself in a better role, give myself better lines, and alter others’ perceptions of events to place myself in a more favorable light within the scene.

I confess that I do these things more than I’d like to imagine.

[sigh]

Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

 

Time to Wake Up

Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.
1 Thessalonians 4:13 (NIV)

One of my all-time favorite memories took place during the visitation of my Grandma Golly’s funeral. It had been a long evening of meeting family and friends at the funeral home. Grandma’s lifeless body lay in the open casket in the large room. The crowd had thinned out some, but there was still the din of hushed conversation throughout the room.

Suddenly I caught a blur out of the corner of my eye as my four-year-old nephew, Solomon, came tearing around the perimeter of the room. He came to an abrupt stop right in front of the casket. In a sweeping gesture he looked at the toy watch on his wrist.

Okay, everybody!” Solomon shouted at the top of his lungs, “It’s time for grandma to WAKE UP!”

My nephew Solomon

Many years ago I spent five years employed in pastoral ministry. I happened to serve in a rural area of Iowa where the demographic tilted towards the older side of the spectrum. For this reason, I officiated a lot of funerals. I got to know the local funeral directors so well that they began calling me whenever they had a family of the deceased with no ties to a local church. This meant that I officiated even more funerals. (My experiences with the mixture of rural Iowa, family relationships, and death became the inspiration for my play Ham Buns and Potato Salad.)

Officiating so many funerals allowed me to witness a broad range of families in their grieving. I saw families in total chaos, families in conflict, and families whose genuine love and affection for their deceased loved one and one another were obvious. I watched family members conniving for their share of the estate, family members actively avoiding one another, as well as family members enjoying the opportunity to be reunited with loved ones after long years apart. It is fascinating to observe.

Perhaps its because of my experience with so many funerals that death doesn’t phase me like I observe it does for many others. Yes, the emotions and stages of grief associated with the loss of a loved one are common to all. Even Jesus cried at the tomb of Lazarus before He called him back to life. Nevertheless, if I truly believe what I profess to believe, then it should ultimately impact the way I think and feel about death. Jesus’ story is essentially about life through death. Death is a part of the eternal equation Jesus presented. As a follower of Jesus I believe I’m called to embrace death as a passage to Life rather than mourn it as some kind of dead end.

Jesus said… I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” John 11:25-26 (NIV) [emphasis added]

Yes, I do. Which is another reason why I have always loved young Solomon for his innocent outburst before Grandma Golly’s casket. Thanks for the laugh, little man. My faith in Jesus tells me that Grandma is more awake than you or I can possibly imagine. The person who needs to be continually reminded to “wake up” to that fact is me.

“Labor” of Love

We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Thessalonians 1:3 (NIV)

Just this week our daughter Taylor publicly announced that she is pregnant with Wendy’s and my first grandchild. Her former husband, Clayton, is the father. We’ve known for several weeks, and have been eagerly engaged with her in processing this unlooked for curve in her life journey. When she showed up to tell us it came as a bit of a shock…well, a giant shock, to be honest. We had no idea that she and Clayton had seen each other while he was home from Africa. Taylor’s well-worded Facebook post nailed it: “Well, life is full of the hard, messy and unexpected. And yet experiencing all of that can also be full of goodness, beauty and purpose.”

I thought of this momentous new change in life this morning as I read the opening of Paul’s letter to Jesus’ followers in the bustling Greek seaport of Thessalonica. Paul begins his letter by expressing a trinity of goodness he and his companions observed in the Thessalonian believers:

  • work produced by faith
  • labor prompted by love
  • endurance inspired by hope

If the three motivators sound familiar, it’s because they anchor Paul’s famous discourse on love in his first letter to the believers in Corinth when he wrote, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

What really struck me however, was the fact that two synonyms were used in the triad. “Work” and “labor” can be defined in English as the same thing. So, I did a little digging into the original Greek words Paul used in this sentence. The Greek word translated as “work” (ergou) refers to more of a routine job. Think of it as daily chore on your task list that simply has to be done. The Greek word translated as “labor” (kopou) is more specifically defined as “laborious toil.”

Thus I find myself contemplating both work and labor this morning. I will “work” today analyzing a client’s phone calls, filling out an expense report, and attending a corporate Board meeting. I am doing the routine “work” of writing this blog post. I will “work” to carry out the tasks Wendy has for me on my trip to Des Moines. All of these are part of my journey of faith, doing what I need to do on the path I believe God has called me to tread on a day-by-day basis.

Both our adult daughters are out of the house and have been on their own for some time. The “work” of providing for them, making sure they’re up, making meals, doing laundry, driving them to activities, and et cetera are long over. These routine daily tasks were simple acts of faith, believing that we were raising capable young people who would be mature adults who would successfully follow the respective paths God would lead each of them. Mission accomplished.

But the labor never ends.

Last evening I happened to have conversations with both Taylor and Madison by phone. The work of parenting continues. It’s no longer the grunt work of daily provision. It’s different. It’s the loving labor of watching helplessly from a distance as they make their own decisions, choices, and occasional blunders. It’s the emotions that come from caring so deeply about lives you cannot (and should not) control. It’s the struggle of the protector in me wishing I could spare them the pains of “the hard, messy, and unexpected,” but knowing that it is that very hard, unexpected mess that teaches us the most important life lessons that lead to maturity. And so, I mostly labor from a distance as counselor, confidant, advocate, sage, comforter, cheerleader, and friend.

This morning in the quiet I’m thinking of the “work” ahead of me today and this weekend. I’m also contemplating the continued “labor” of love in the weeks and months ahead as father, and now as grandfather. I am so excited. I’ve learned along this life journey that the “hard, messy, and unexpected” usually produces life’s deepest, richest, most meaningful blessings.

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 😉

Walking Backwards Into the Future

Remember those earlier days…
…So do not throw away your confidence.
Hebrews 10:32,35a (NIV)

Just yesterday, in a Facebook post, I was reminded of my college days and my dear group of friends from Judson Theatre. It’s funny how one thought leads to another. I went to bed thinking about my friends and my college days. Perhaps that’s why this morning I was reminded in my  quiet time of a word picture one of my profs shared in a chapel service. It’s a word picture I’ve never truly forgotten, though I have to dust it off once in a while on a day like today.

Picture a person walking across the platform facing backward, but with his/her hand stretched out behind their back as if being led. This, my prof argued, was what God continually asks us to do. Hold out our hand to be led by Him, but perpetually face backward. Look back across the journey and remember all of the ways God proved faithful: providing needs, guiding, leading, fulfilling promises, healing, restoring, and filling.

This is what the Hebrews did. This is why their exodus from slavery in Egypt is referenced time and time again. It’s referenced by the prophets Haggai, Micah, Amos, Hosea, Daniel, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah. It’s referenced again and again throughout the Psalms. As they progressed on their journey through history they have continually looked backwards and remembered all that God has done to faithfully guide, lead, and preserve.

Why? Because remembering all that God has done before reminds me that I can have faith and be confident that God will see me through whatever I might be going through today.

This all came to mind while reading today’s chapter. The author of Hebrews perpetuates the walking backwards word picture by urging his/her readers “Remember those earlier days…” and references a particular period in which the early Christians were persecuted severely. God had brought them faithfully through the persecution. The author then ends the paragraph with “So do not throw away your confidence.” There it is. Turn backwards. Remember. Then have faith. Press on confidently with your hand outstretched to be led.

This morning I’m thinking about the road lying before me on this life journey. I have many questions about where the path is leading. I also confess to more than occasional bouts with fear, doubt and anxiety.  I’ve been reminded this morning by a memory and a word picture from college. I’m taking a little time in the quiet to glance backward instead of ahead. I’ve been following Jesus on this life journey for over 36 years. I’ve experienced many things from God’s miraculous power to God’s presence and peace amidst tough times to God’s quiet faithfulness in the everyday mundane. In the remembering I’m reminded that I can trust God’s power, presence, peace and faithfulness for the road ahead, as well.

Hand outstretched, I’m going to keep walking backwards…confidently.

Featured photo courtesy of Mandee Johnson via Flickr