Tag Archives: Devotional

Encouragement Needed

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Now hear these words, ‘Let your hands be strong so that the temple may be built.’
Zechariah 8:9a (NIV)

In just a month or so, Wendy and I will be celebrating three years that we’ve lived in the house we built here in Pella. This morning I was thinking back to those months between August 2014, when we broke ground, and the end of February when we moved in. It seemed like an eternity. I was not prepared for all of the decisions that had to be made and the endless fussing and fretting over the most seemingly insignificant decisions.

The process did seem long and endless at the time, but the truth of the matter is that the building of a complex, multi-level, multi-room structure in six months would be nothing short of miraculous to those Zechariah was addressing when he wrote today’s chapter sometime around 500 BC. The “remnant” of exiles who returned to rebuild Jerusalem with its crumbled walls and broken down Temple were looking at not months, but long years – even decades of painstaking, back-breaking toil.

The rebuilding of Solomon’s Temple began in 536 BC but was abandoned two years later. It was picked up again fourteen years later and went on for another five years before it was eventually rededicated. The rebuilding of Jerusalem would continue for another 70 years.

Today’s chapter reads like a message of encouragement to the people facing the arduous task of continuing the work while in the depths of frustration at the rebuilding process. Through Zechariah, God encourages the people to imagine how great it will be when the work is completed and families of all generations are filling the city streets from children playing freeze-tag to old people leaning on their canes and reminiscing about the “old days.”

The truth is that whether we’re ancient Hebrews facing years of toil to rebuild our capitol city or a modern day couple standing in Lowe’s wondering if the project will ever be completed, we all sometime need encouragement to keep pressing on. The Apostle Paul consistently told the followers of Jesus, to whom he wrote the letters making up most of the New Testament, that he was writing to encourage them. He told them to encourage one another and reminded them  that their love, prayers and gifts were a tremendous encouragement to him. Paul was carrying out the task of building the church, not a building made of wood and stone, but a much messier task of building a living, breathing organization of diverse, flesh-and-blood people into a cohesive whole.

This morning I’m reminded that we all need encouragement on this life journey. It’s an important ingredient to any project, relationship, or process. Even God knew that the people of Jerusalem needed a shot in the arm, and today’s chapter is a record of the encouragement He sent through His prophet, Zechariah.

From time-to-time we all need others to encourage us and we, in turn, need to be on the lookout for those who could use a dose themselves. Encouragement is simple gift to give: a kind word, a postcard that takes you five minutes to write, a thank you note, a prayer, or a hug and sincere “Hang in there.”

Need a little encouragement today? Consider your reading of this post a divine appointment. Hang in there, my friend. Press on. Keep going. I know it may suck right now but I believe that your faith and grit are leading to good things ahead.

Hats, Fasting, and a Couple of Important Questions

“Ask all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted?”
Zechariah 7: 5 (NIV)

Yesterday I had the privilege of leading our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. I was kicking off a series of messages on Paul’s letter to the believers in Corinth. And so, I’ve been mired in studying the letter and the situation in Corinth around 55 A.D.  One of the themes that bubbles to the surface over and over again are instructions that Paul gave which are rooted in contemporary Corinthian culture. Other instructions are universal to human culture in all times.

I find myself asking, “What instructions were for the Corinthian believers at that time (that don’t fit our current realities)? What instructions may speak to me in 2018 (that the Corinthians couldn’t fathom almost 2000 years ago)? What instruction are ours (they apply to anyone, at any time, in any culture)?”

For example, one set of instructions is about covering your head. In first century Corinth there were layers of meaning in the cultural and religious aspects of whether you covered your head and when. Some of it came from Jewish law and tradition (which the Greek believers probably thought silly) and some of it was the practical differentiation of woman broadcasting in publicly that she was not one of Aphrodite’s temple priestess-prostitutes.

The truth of the matter is that until a generation or so ago, the tradition of women covering their heads in church and men removing their caps/hats was still a big thing culturally. The local Costume Shop has hundreds and hundreds of gorgeous women’s hats with cute little veils that locals have donated over the years (see featured photo). There was a time just a few decades ago when a woman would not go to church without a hat on. Today, in our culture, if a woman does so it’s simply a fashionable novelty.

Likewise, my dad and I have a good-natured, on-going feud when we’re gathered for family meals and it’s time to pray and eat. My dad gives me grief if I have a cap on. I have never been able to discern a good reason for having to remove my hat when the family is  informally ordering a pizza and watching the game. I joke with my dad that it’s actually more sanitary if I keep my cap on. He always wins the argument on his authority and my respect, but I’ve still never heard a good reason.

The bottom-line question is: “Why (or why not) are we doing this?”

That was the exact question God had for the prophet Zechariah. Zechariah and company inquired of the Lord whether they should continue to observe traditional months of fasting. God replied, “Why are you fasting?” God then goes on to point out that what Zac and the boys are not doing are things like being just, showing compassion to people who are different, looking out for the needs of orphans, widows, and the oppressed. The implied question God is asking as I read between the lines is this: “Why would I care if you self-righteously starve yourself in some public display of your religiosity when you’re missing the heart of what I desire from you — to love others as you love yourself?”

Good question, and a good question for those of us who claim to follow Jesus and have wrapped ourselves in religious traditions of all kinds over the years.

“What does God care about? What, therefore, should I really care about? What in my religious practices, rituals, and cultural rules do I make a higher priority than the things God truly cares about?

Leadership and Rabble Cravings

The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat!
Numbers 11:4 (NIV)

Throughout my life journey I’ve had the privilege of serving in numerous leadership positions from small groups to decent sized organizations. Leading others can be both a joy and a curse and it is almost always a challenge. When you step into the spotlight of leadership you immediately become an easy target.

This morning as I started reading the chapter I immediately laughed to myself. We just read at the end of yesterday’s chapter that the Hebrew tribes had finally embarked on their journey through the wilderness to the promised land.  We’re only four verses into journey and people are complaining. Not only are there complaints, but I found it humorous that the author describes the complainers as “rabble” driven by their “cravings.”

Complaints are part of the territory for any leader. Sometimes the complaints are well-founded and point to critical needs that need to be contemplated and addressed by leadership. There are also complaints that arise from disgruntled members whose focus is less about the vision, mission, or good of the whole and more about their individual felt needs and self-centric perceptions. When you’re busy trying to lead a major group effort, these grumblers can be maddeningly frustrating to manage. They drove Moses to such madness that he asked God to kill him rather than have to deal with them. Even God’s reply sounds like an exasperated parent dealing with whining children:

“Tell the people, Consecrate yourselves. Get ready for tomorrow when you’re going to eat meat. You’ve been whining to God, ‘We want meat; give us meat. We had a better life in Egypt.’ God has heard your whining and he’s going to give you meat. You’re going to eat meat. And it’s not just for a day that you’ll eat meat, and not two days, or five or ten or twenty, but for a whole month. You’re going to eat meat until it’s coming out your nostrils. You’re going to be so sick of meat that you’ll throw up at the mere mention of it.”

I’m reminded of whiners and complainers I’ve had the opportunity to manage over the years. I confess that the word “rabble” seems an apt moniker in some cases. In every case, however, I have to recognize that they were/are not evil individuals or bad people. I think today’s chapter is a great object lesson in the fact that whiners and complainers are often individuals discomforted by their own felt needs. These poorly managed inner cravings get expressed as tantrum-like complaints and childish demands that steal leaders’ time, energy, and attention away from more important matters.

This morning I’m encouraged by the truth that Moses, and it appears even God Himself, can reach a point of exasperation. I’m reminded that more than once Jesus expressed exasperation (i.e. “How long shall I put up with you?” Lk 9:41). When I as a leader experience craving-driven whines I am in good company.

I’m also reminded this morning that listening to and addressing complaints is part of every leader’s job description. It comes with the territory and being a good leader means managing complaints, including the craving-driven whines of self-centered rabble. Jesus said if you want to be a good leader you have to be a good servant, even to those can be frustrating and distracting.

God, grant me wisdom, patience and grace in the positions of leadership to which I have been called. Help me to serve well, love well, and lead well – even in my periods of utter exasperation.

featured photo courtesy of Tamara via Flickr

Planning and Embarkation

On the twentieth day of the second month of the second year, the cloud liftedfrom above the tabernacle of the covenant law. Then the Israelites set out from the Desert of Sinai and traveled from place to place until the cloud came to rest in the Desert of Paran.
Numbers 10:11-12 (NIV)

For those who regularly follow along with  these posts, do you happen to remember the first post on this journey through the book of Numbers? I talked about the fact that we were setting off on a journey with the ancient Hebrews into the wilderness. Just last night on my way home from a meeting I was thinking about that post and the reality that here we are a couple of weeks later and the journey hasn’t even begun.

For the first ten chapters of our Numbers journey we’ve been making preparations. There’s the organization of how the nation would  camp and in what order the people would organize for the march. There’s been the organization of how the portable temple tent would be taken down, transported and set back up again. There has been the preparation and organization of how to mobilize and communicate through the use of banners and trumpets. It’s been over two years of preparation and we’re finally setting out on the journey.

This morning I am reminded of two key life lessons in the chapter.

First, sizable tasks require thorough planning and preparation. As a right-brained, go-with-the-flow type I have always been susceptible to spontaneous embarkation on different adventures and pursuits. I have steadfast faith in my ability to “figure it out” as I go along. This mindset serves me well in relatively small, isolated individual circumstances. It’s not a big deal if I’m on my own. It can, however, be disastrous in larger group settings in which the welfare and emotions of more people are involved. Lady Wisdom has taught me that there are times when my go-with-the-flow temperament must hold its horses and take the time to plan and get organized (and fight the urge to throw a passive aggressive fit in doing so).

The second life lesson would fit neatly with the author of Ecclesiastes (and the Byrds) memorable lyrics, “there is a time for every purpose under heaven.” There is a time planning and organization, and there is a time to embark. While there are times for planning and organization, there is also foolishness in endless preparation if you can never pull the trigger and set out. This life journey is filled with well intentioned endeavors that are ceaselessly talked about, planned for, and prepared but never executed. There comes a time when you have to call the preparations good and set out. Lao Tzu famously said, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” At some point, you have to take that step.

God, grant me the wisdom to know when to plan and when to step.

From Spiritual Mountain Top to Relational Valley

Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness.
1 John 2:9 (NIV)

A topic of much conversation in our home and circles of friends of late has been that of community. It’s a topic our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been pushing into. In short, we’re talking about how we all do life together and related to one another. It doesn’t take long for the conversation to bring out three common observations:

  • “It is messy.”
  • “It is hard.”
  • “It is complicated.”

Yes. It always has been, and it always will be living East of Eden.

Along this life journey I often encounter those who love the description of believers in the heady first days of the Jesus’ movement as described by Dr. Luke in his book The Acts of the Apostles:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts,praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

This is often held as an ideal to which all of us should strive and aspire. Striving for unity, sharing, and love in life with others is a worthy goal. I have actually had experiences that feel a lot like what Luke describes.

This idyllic experience usually happens at a camp or some kind of retreat environment. It’s that long weekend or week with other like-minded individuals in beautiful natural surroundings. I often hear it described as a “mountain-top experience.” You want to stay there. You want to bottle it up so you can can continue to consume the experience over and over and over again. When you’re at camp having a mountain-top experience you don’t want to leave and go back to “real life.” You’d love to “stay here forever.”

But, that doesn’t happen.

It didn’t happen long-term for the believers in Jerusalem, either. Jesus’ twelve disciples were scattered across the known world sharing the Message. Most of them endured violent ends. Despite the mountain-top experience of that early period of time, history tells us that the believers in Jerusalem eventually faced persecution, conflict, disagreements, strained relationships, and struggle.

Most of the books of what we call the New Testament were originally letters. The letters were by-and-large addressed to individuals or small “communities” of Jesus’ followers. What motivated the authors of the letters was typically problems that were being experienced in community. There were disagreements, relational struggles, theological controversies, moral controversies, personal controversies, persecutions, attacks from outside the community, and attacks from within the community. Leaders such as John, Peter, Paul and Timothy took up their stylus and papyrus to address these problems.

The letter of 1 John is exactly that. A philosophical movement known as gnosticism had sprung up both outside and inside the community of believers teaching things contrary to what John, the other disciples, and the leaders of the community had originally taught about Jesus and his teachings. John was writing to directly address some of these issues. Breaking down today’s chapter, I find John addressing several of them in and between the lines of almost every sentence.

What struck me this morning, however, was John’s bold claim that anyone who claimed to be in “the light” but hated someone in the community, that person was clearly not in the light, but in darkness. In other words, if you are part of Jesus, the “Light of the World” then your life will be marked by love. Jesus taught that we were to love both our friends and our enemies. John is reminding us of the utter foundation of all Jesus’ teaching. Love God. Love others. Everything else is built on these two commands. We have to get that right before anything else.

This morning I’m thinking about some of the disagreements, controversies, relational strife, strains, and struggles I know in my own life, relationships, and community. I experience the “mountain-top” for a moment or a period of time, but eventually I find myself back in the valley of relationship. Community is messy. Community is hard. Community is complicated. John’s reminder is apt.

As a follower of Jesus, I have to accept that there is no exemption from the command to love. If I’m not ceaselessly, actively working to get that right every day with every relationship, I’m not sure anything else really matters.

 

My Eternal Mystery, My Forever Friend

Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the temple of the Lord.” He gave it to Shaphan, who read it.
2 Kings 22:8 (NIV)

Occasionally I have had people ask me how my “chapter-a-day” journey began. It goes much further back than blogging. The roots of it go all the way back to early 1980s. I was in high school and had only recently struck out on my path following Jesus. I had an after school job, and my boss was also a follower. He invited me to join him in studying God’s Message together, and the first thing he asked of me was to memorize Joshua 1:8:

This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success.

I did memorize the verse,  and I took it to heart. As I meditated on the verse during the memorization process, I came to mull over the word “meditate.” It struck me in those early stages of my journey that God’s Message was to be more than something I give a nod to on Sunday morning when the pastor refers to it. It was supposed to be more than a routine duty that I check off my daily task list of religious self-righteousness. God’s Message was the guide. It was the constant companion and the mystery to be endlessly understood. It was something to ingest and digest on a continual basis. It was something to dive into, excavate, mull over, and apply to my every day circumstances. Success in the spiritual journey came through the conduit of meditating on the Message.

Thus, what became this chapter-a-day blog began in a young man wearing Forenza parachute pants and sporting a righteous mullet. I’ll let that imagery sink in while I transition back to today. 🙂

The setting of this morning’s chapter is Solomon’s Temple. It is the Temple of the Lord built to the exact specifications prescribed in God’s Message through Moses and by plans developed by David. It was built to be the worship center of YHWH whose first command was “don’t have any other gods before me.”

But, over time the temple had become a multi-cultural interfaith religious center filled with the worship of all sorts of local dieties, some of whom practiced all sorts of nasty things we can scarcely imagine today. The scroll of God’s Message had been so long forgotten that the High Priest didn’t even know where it was nor remember what it said. When the scroll is discovered during some Temple renovations, it is a major find. When King Josiah tells the priest to “Inquire of the Lord for me concerning this book,” the priest has to scour the city to find a lone prophetess named Hulda who was “keeper of the wardrobe.” [Note: I’ve learned in theatre to always trust the costumers. They make a lifetime of keeping track of things long forgotten by others!]

The Message had been packed away, put aside, and forgotten. The words that were to be the guide for the journey weren’t even known and barely remembered. Without the guidebook, the people naturally wandered until they found themselves spiritually lost.

This morning I’m reminded of the simple principle that came out of meditating on a verse that I was asked to memorize as a kid:

If I’m going to be successful in this journey of following after God then I have to do my best to do what God’s Message says. If I’m going to do what God’s Message says then I have to constantly discover what that is and what it means. The Message has to become my source material, my constant companion, my eternal mystery, my forever friend.

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.