Tag Archives: Epic

The Dude Abides

[The man of lawlessness] will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.
2 Thessalonians 2:4 (NIV)

Yesterday, as I was getting ready, I had the Cohen brothers’ classic movie, The Big Lebowski, playing in the background. It’s become one of my all time favorites movies. What most people don’t realize is that The Big Lebowski is basically a classic 1940s film noir detective story set in the early 1980s with an unlikely stoner named The Dude unwittingly placed in the role of the protagonist detective.

I grew up watching a lot classic films and the hard-boiled detective movies (e.g. Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade) of the film noir genre were among my favorites. In The Big Lebowski you have all the classic detective movie motifs: the old millionaire, the millionaire’s daughter with whom the protagonist falls in love, blackmail, rabbit trails, crime lords, a secondary detective, and the protagonist detective getting “slipped a Mickey” (drugged with a drink).

I’ve observed that most people watch films in a vacuum, as though each film sort of stands alone. The reality is that all good stories and films borrow themes and motifs from one another. All of my favorite epics, for examples, have the overarching theme of good versus evil. Usually an epic story is about an ancient struggle coming to a climax. There’s always a prophecy woven into the storyline, as well. In Harry Potter there is the prophecy Harry retrieves from the Ministry of Magic. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe there is the prophecy and deep magic of the stone table. In The Lord of the Rings Aragorn is led to take the Paths of the Dead because of the “words of Malbeth the Seer.

I say it fairly regularly: “All good stories are a reflection of the Great Story.” Our stories reflect our own humanity. Deeper still, I believe that human history is a Great Story being told across the ages. I believe that evil exists and there is a very real struggle between good versus evil. I believe in the prophetic.

Along my life journey I’ve experienced the prophetic. I have found it to be both mysterious and messy and therefore quickly dismissed by many. I have come to believe that tragedy lies on either side of the tension between two possible errors: Dismissing the prophetic altogether or drowning too deeply in the mystery. I’ve always tried to hold the tension between the two.

In the early years of the Jesus movement there were many prophecies given concerning where the plot line of the Great Story was going. This led to many arguments and mistaken assumptions.  In today’s chapter, Paul is addressing some mistaken assumptions  in today’s chapter. Without drowning too deeply in the specifics, I find myself being reminded of two things.

First, there is evil, and evil opposes good. Jesus was very aware of the evil opposing Him. He knew that His coming was prophesied (He proclaimed Isaiah’s prophetic word in His first sermon). He cast out demons throughout His ministry. He knew He was being tempted by the evil one to abandon His sacrificial mission. We don’t like to think too much about the reality of evil, but it exists.

Second, evil cannot create but, instead, it always counterfeits. Tolkien clearly picked up this theme in his epic stories. Orcs were counterfeits made in opposition to elves. Trolls were counterfeits made in opposition to ents. Paul says there is prophesied a counterfeit messiah to come whom he calls the Man of Lawlessness. The Greek term he uses is anthropos (man, mankind, humanity; as in anthropology the study of humanity) anamos (opposition, lawless, wicked; from which we get the English word animosity). Paul explains that it has been prophesied that this counterfeit messiah will come before Jesus’ return in a climax to this Great Story.

In the quiet this morning I find myself pondering all of these mysteries. I don’t want to get lost in them, but neither do I want to dismiss them. Again, I find myself trying to hold the tension. I believe my life journey is part of the Great Story. How it fits and weaves into the larger plot lines is a mystery to me. I’m just trying to stick to the path appointed for me, to follow the steps I’m led, to do the good God calls me to do, and to be shrewd as a serpent and gentle as a dove, aware of both the evil and the good around me.

Or, as Jeffrey Lebowski would put it: “The Dude Abides.”

Abide well today, my friend.

Destined for Tough Terrain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a great week my friend.

The Implosion of Evil

The Ammonites and Moabites rose up against the men from Mount Seir to destroy and annihilate them. After they finished slaughtering the men from Seir, they helped to destroy one another. When the men of Judah came to the place that overlooks the desert and looked toward the vast army, they saw only dead bodies lying on the ground; no one had escaped.
2 Chronicles 20:23-34 (NIV)

In our modern, twenty-first century enlightened world we rarely talk about the nature of evil. I find that, even among those who are followers of Jesus, there is a reticence to even think of the concept of evil. Jesus quite regularly referenced evil. The word or variation is used seven times in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

Over the years Wendy and I have noticed a theme among epic stories regarding the nature of evil: evil eventually destroys itself from within. Sometimes, left to itself, evil naturally implodes. Tolkien used this device multiple times in his stories and it came to mind this morning as I read today’s chapter. As Merry and Pippin are captives of the Orcs it is an internal fight between factions of Orcs and Grishnakh’s lust that ultimately allow for their escape. Likewise, as Frodo and Sam attempt steal their way into Mordor through the stronghold of Cirith Ungol, a massive fight between two companies of Orcs destroy one another and allow the Hobbits to escape.

In today’s chapter we find a similar story from Judah’s history. A coalition of enemy armies are gathered to march against Judah and Jerusalem. King Jehoshaphat assembles all the people to seek the Lord. They pray, they fast, they humble themselves. God speaks through the prophet that the battle belongs to God and He will deliver. The people respond in praise. The coalition of enemy armies turn on each other and destroy one another so that when the army of Judah arrives, they find a field of dead bodies.

This morning in the quiet as I mull these things over I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis’ admonishment about the two mistakes one can make about the exploration of evil. One, he said, is to ignore it. The second is to get too deep and take it too seriously. The people of Judah didn’t ignore the threat facing them but focused their energies on seeking after God, trusting, and following. Before the threat could become a battle, the evil had imploded within. I never want to be naive, ignorant, or blind to the reality of evil that exists in our world. Neither do I want to give into fear or be overwhelmed by it:

This is what the Lord says to you: ‘Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God’s.

…and a Time to Return

Set up road markers for yourself,
    make yourself signposts;
consider well the highway,
    the road by which you went.
Jeremiah 31:21 (NRSVCE)

A few years ago I had the privilege of watching as a play I wrote was produced a couple of different times on stage. Having spent most of my life journey in the state of Iowa, I’ve observed a repetitive theme of those who leave our rather quiet, fly-over homeland for more exciting places. Yet, eventually, most every one returns home. The reasons for return are as varied as the individuals who leave, but for most every one who leaves there comes a time to return.

There is a good story there,” I thought to myself. And so, I sat down to write a play and tell the story of a small town Iowa boy who is forced to come home. In his returning he must confront his past and the reasons he left in the first place.

Over the past few chapters in the anthology of Jeremiah’s messages, I’ve mulled over the way the themes of wilderness and exile play into life’s journey. There’s a corollary theme in the return from wilderness and exile. Just as the hero of every epic spends time in the wilderness, so that same hero must return to carry out the purposes for which he/she has been prepared.

In today’s chapter, the theme of Jeremiah’s prophetic letter to the exiles living in Babylon is all about their homecoming. “Drop breadcrumbs along the road to Babylon,” he tells them. “Mark the way because the time will come for your return home.”

Sometimes on this life journey I’ve observed that the return home is long awaited and desired, just as Jeremiah describes in today’s chapter. Other times, like the prodigal son, one’s homecoming is filled with remorse and repentance. Then there are those times when the return home is part of a larger story about the necessary confrontation required in order to progress yet further on life’s road. And, I suppose, there are times when coming home is a cocktail of all these.

As this morning dawns, the little town where Wendy and I live is preparing for our annual Tulip Time festival. As happens each year there will be hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of individuals who will return home to participate in the festivities (we’ll have some of them staying in our house!). I’m thinking about their respective life journeys, the varied stories they represent, and all of the emotions (and perhaps confrontations) that these homecomings will entail. There is a time to leave home, and a time for those living in exile to return.

I’m whispering a prayer in the quiet this morning for each of them, and for God’s goodness and mercy in each of their respective stories.

Jezebel’s Epic End

“Throw her down!” Jehu said. So they threw her down, and some of her blood spattered the wall and the horses as they trampled her underfoot.
2 Kings 9:33 (NIV)

I have long been a fan of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy for the epic story it tells across life and generations. Over the years, Wendy and I have enjoyed introducing friends to the original film over a feast of spaghetti and cannoli, complete with some good Italian red wine.

One of the things that makes a great story is when it is layered with truth and meaning. Epic stories are mines that yield new treasure each time you descend into them. With each telling they reveal something you hadn’t seen before. Yet, even with all of the layers of meaning the narratives of great stories are typically built on something quite simple.

The Godfather epic might be summed up with Jesus’ simple words to his disciple, Peter: “Put your sword back where it belongs. All who use swords are destroyed by swords.” It is a generational tale in which the characters give themselves to “the sword” with what they believe are the best of intentions to protect those they love dearest. Their course, however, only serves to destroy the very things they tried to protect.

This came to mind in the quiet this morning as I read today’s chapter in the handwritten text of The St. John’s Bible. The stories of the ancient kings of Israel and Judah are epic stories, though I find that I have to move beyond the scribe’s text and descend into the story before I begin to see the layers.

The story of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, belongs in the same genre of epic stories of those who live and die by the sword. Their tale is about lust for power, corruption, vengeance and blood.  Today’s chapter is the closing scene on their story. Ahab is dead and Jezebel feels her power slipping away as the leader of a coup d’état reaches her stronghold. Jezebel goes back to her tried and true playbook, putting on her make-up and doing her hair so as to seduce her way out of the corner where her own nefarious actions have placed her. But true to Jesus’ observation, the way of the sword ends badly for those who follow that path. The power of seduction fades and becomes impotent. Jezebel’s very own servants, no doubt weary of her wickedness, are only too willing to join the coup, chuck her out the window, and watch the dogs devour her dead flesh.

This morning I’m thinking about epic stories and the way they reveal truths about life and soul. This week at the lake Wendy and I enjoyed much conversation with our adult daughters. Along the meandering path of our discussions was the observation that we humans never seem content with “enough.” Vito Corleone and Jezebel followed the insatiable way of the sword, violently taking all they could for themselves believing that it would provide security of position and provision. They ignored the reality that when you violently take from others there will eventually be others who will violently take it from you.

A Few Thoughts on Prophecy…

Hazael went to meet Elisha, taking with him as a gift forty camel-loads of all the finest wares of Damascus. He went in and stood before him, and said, “Your son Ben-Hadad king of Aram has sent me to ask, ‘Will I recover from this illness?’”

Elisha answered, “Go and say to him, ‘You will certainly recover.’ Nevertheless,the Lord has revealed to me that he will in fact die.” He stared at him with a fixed gaze until Hazael was embarrassed. 
2 Kings 8:9-11 (NIV)

Along life’s journey I have had people speak to me, prophetically, about things that they claimed would happen, or be true, in my life. In fact, it happened to me just yesterday. Sitting down to coffee with a friend and colleague, he started the conversation with, “By the way, my wife had a prophetic word for you.” What it was I’ll keep to myself for now. If there’s anything I’ve learned from experience (and from Shakespeare’s Scottish play) it’s that there are both wise and foolish ways to handle prophetic words.

I’m sure there are those reading this post who think the whole notion of prophecy (e.g. someone knowing and proclaiming something that’s unknowable about the future or about another person), is a bunch of hocus-pocus nonsense. You can’t journey your way through the Great Story God is telling, however, and deny the fact that prophecy is an integral part of the telling. From Isaiah to Malachi, there are 17 books of God’s Message written by prophets. Jesus gave a nod to prophecy when He said that He came to “fulfill the Law and the prophets.” When Paul lists out the spiritual gifts that Holy Spirit manifests in Jesus’ followers, prophecy is smack-dab in the center of the list.

Beyond God’s Message, I have found the prophetic to be part of human experience. Our epic stories always use the prophetic as a device in their telling. From Homer’s Odyssey (Penelope’s Dream) to Shakespeare (i.e. Hamlet‘s Ghost and the Weird Sisters of Macbeth) to Lord of the Rings (“thus saith Malbeth the Seer“) and the Harry Potter saga (“Neither can live while the other survives“) the prophetic is everywhere. Then there are the mystical prophets of history that continue to be pop culture favorites like Nostradamus and the Rasputin. Look back through our history and our stories and you’ll find prophecy all over the place.

Prophecy makes for some dramatic moments. The story in today’s chapter reads like a climactic scene right out of an epic movie.

A man named Hazael, who was a servant of the King of Aram, comes to the prophet Elisha to ask if the King, his master, will recover from an illness. Elisha at first tells Hazael to inform the king that he will, in fact, recover from the illness.

Now, you have to imagine the scene. Elisha glares at Hazael with a long, penetrating look. He’s got an icy gaze like Michael Corleone in The Godfather. The look from Elisha cuts right through Hazael as the tense silence is filled with low, ominous sounding music swelling beneath the scene. Suddenly things are getting really, really uncomfortable…

“Nevertheless,the Lord has revealed to me that he will in fact die,” Elisha says in a slow sonorous statement that hangs out in space and drips with the prophetic.

Elisha continues his Michael Corleone stare. Shame is all over Hazael’s face. He can’t look at Elisha. His eyes dart back and forth and to the ground. His hand fumbles in his pocket for his fidget spinner…

Can you see it? Man, what a moment.

The King of Aram must have had the 24 hour flu because the very next day (in Macbeth like fashion, I might add) Hazael kills his master and assumes the throne of Aram. This morning I find myself mulling over whether Hazael had already conspired to kill his master the next day, or if Elisha’s prophetic revelation pushed him over the edge. That’s a great conversation for Wendy and me to have over breakfast this morning.

The story also has me mulling over prophesy in broader terms. I do believe in prophesy. Not only because it’s such a part of the Great Story, but also because I’ve had too many experiences with it to be utterly dismissive. I have also learned, however, that I’ve got to handle the prophetic wisely.

For what it’s worth, here’s what I’ve learned:

  1. When someone shares a prophetic word with me I receive it, but hold it very loosely. False prophesy is every bit a part of our stories as well. I don’t want to be too quick to cling and I don’t want to be too quick to reject. Chill, let it sit, and contemplate. Pray. Mull. Chew.
  2. I will share the prophesy with my closest, most discerning friends who know me well, who know my journey, and who in my experience have proven wisdom. Their reactions to what ever prophetic word I’ve been given tell me a lot.
  3. I never try to make what’s been prophesied happen. That’s the road to tragedy (just ask Lady Macbeth and her husband).
  4. I confess to myself that prophetic messages can be layered with meaning and may have a very different interpretation than what I’m thinking. The scholars of Jesus’ day read the prophets and had a very different picture of Messiah than the one Jesus fulfilled. It would be just as easy for me to hear a prophetic word and interpret it one way (e.g. the way I want it to mean) when its true meaning is something altogether different.
  5. I continue to repeat step one. I continue to hold on to the prophesy, but I hold it loosely. I contemplate and consider, but I keep pressing forward in my journey day-by-day. Obsessing on the prophetic usually leads to paralysis which leads nowhere fast. Some of the most ineffectual people I’ve ever known are those who’ve mired themselves and their lives in the prophetic. This is another place where I find I must put the “faith” in  “faith journey.” There is a flow to life and story. What will be will be. The prophesy someone gave me will happen or not. I’ve got to keep pressing forward.

And now, it’s time to do just that. If you’re reading this (thank you) I hope you have a great day today.

 

 

Prophetic Pattern, Hero’s Journey, and the Belly of the Whale

 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord,

“when the reaper will be overtaken by the plowman
    and the planter by the one treading grapes.
New wine will drip from the mountains
    and flow from all the hills,
    and I will bring my people Israel back from exile.”
Amos 9:13-14a (NIV)

Life sends us all into places we don’t expect or desire. This is a journey and every journey includes both ups and downs. A friend who is a regular reader and fellow wayfarer recently referenced Joseph Campbell’s outline of the hero’s journey in a comment on one of my posts. This prompted me to refresh my memory of Campbell’s work, in which he explores the power of our myths and epic tales in understanding both ourselves and our stories.

Follow the path of this journey closely and you will recall specific episodes from all our favorite epic heroes from Harry Potter to Luke Skywalker to Bilbo Baggins. Yes there is treasure and reward at the end of the tale as well as magic and adventure along the way. Yet, the journey also includes reluctance, fear, trials, flights from danger, the need of courage, and a final battle. How often I appreciate the trials and struggles of my favorite epic heroes but want to shortcut past the trials and battles right to the treasure and reward in my own life.


Infographic: Hero's Journey | Venngage
Chart courtesy of Sara McGuire. See this on Venngage Infographics.


Just as there is a pattern to the hero’s journey, there is also a pattern to the poems and visions of the ancient prophets. Their prophetic visions are mostly filled with doom, gloom, and predictions of pestilent woe. They don’t mince words in their warnings or their calls to repentance and spiritual reformation. For this reason, I know many who prefer to avoid reading or studying the prophets altogether. It often feels like such a downer.

Yet the prophetic pattern almost always ends with redemption and hope. The poetic visions of the prophets are eucatastrophic in nature. Yes, we make a mess of things and that mess will lead us through consequences that produce all of the dark moments of any hero’s journey. At the end, however, the divine light shines in the darkness. Hope breaks through the dark clouds when we least expect it. Redemption graciously appears and leads us to the reward and treasure.

In today’s chapter Amos ends his volume of prophetic poems in the same pattern. After slogging through eight chapters of doom we end with the hope of restoration, repair, blessing, and abundance.

I confess that I begin this day of my journey feeling a bit like I’m in the belly of the whale. I have a sense that I’m moving toward a prescribed place, but here in the belly of the whale I can’t really feel the momentum, I can’t see where this is all headed, and I don’t particularly like the environment at the moment. It is dark, cramped and a particularly odorous stench. Yet, Amos and Campbell remind me this morning that doing a stretch in the belly of the whale is part of life’s journey just as it is part of any good story. Hope and redemption lie ahead. I will cross the threshold at the right place and time. Faith is required at the moment, as well as perseverance.

Pinching my nose. Slogging on.

Thanks for your companionship.