Tag Archives: Faith

Life Between the Prevailing Wind and Hard Heart

Then King Ahaz went to Damascus to meet Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria. He saw an altar in Damascus and sent to Uriah the priest a sketch of the altar, with detailed plans for its construction.
2 Kings 16:10 (NIV)

Last week Wendy and I found ourselves in a discussion about the hazing rituals we experienced growing up. For Wendy it was the process of pledging in a college sorority. For me it was being part of a high school swimming team. In both our cases, the hazing was the relatively minor and harmless. It was the ages old exercise of new members demonstrating allegiance and loyalty to the group and its elder members. There are nightmare stories of those who have been forced to do things against their will in order to be accepted. There are also stories of those who choose to behave against their beliefs, morals, or personal values simply to accommodate the prevailing cultural forces. And, it is ages old. These things have always been part of our human experience east of Eden.

Today’s chapter is dedicated to the reign of King Ahaz of Judah. According to the description provided us by the scribes, Ahaz appears to have had a pattern of choosing to accommodate the prevailing winds of his society’s popular culture. Ahab was a follower. Rather than being faithful to the Law of Moses and adhering exclusively to the faiths of his fathers, Ahaz seemed willing and open to worship anything anywhere. He even went so far as to sacrifice his own child which was a common practice among some of the more gruesome Canaanite cults (and explicitly forbidden by the law of Moses). Ahaz also worshiped the idolatrous gods of their northern counterpart, Israel.

When threatened by military conquest by his neighbors, Ahaz was unwilling to stand up and lead his army in defense of his nation and people. Ahaz was a follower. So, he appealed to the biggest bully in the neighborhood for protection: Tiglath-Pileser of Assyria (note: featured photo of this post is a relief showing Tiglath-Pileser standing over an enemy). The Assyrian warlord was happy to take Ahaz’ gold and defend Judah, but protection came with a higher price than just gold.

After the successful defense of Judah, Ahaz had to complete an ancient form of hazing by traveling to Assyria to pay his respects to Tiglath-Pileser and to prove his subservience. While in Assyria, he copied the plans to an altar there and sent it to be replicated and placed in Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. Scholars believe that this altar was likely the royal altar of Tiglath-Pileser, and its presence at the center of the Temple in Jerusalem would have been a sign that Tiglath-Pileser was to be worshipped as their protector. Ahaz, ever willing to worship anything, anywhere was only too happy to make this accommodation.

This morning I’m thinking about character, subservience, and accommodation. There is a fine line between harmless societal rituals and cruel hazing. There are some who will go along with the crowd to the point of losing themselves, and there are also some who err on the side of being so self-righteous about their beliefs that they cannot extend even an ounce of grace and mercy to those who disagree with every jot and tittle of their dogma. Once again I’m thinking about finding the truth in the tension between the extremes. I don’t want to be an Ahaz who simply “goes with the flow” and follows the prevailing winds of culture to the point that my faith is meaningless. I also don’t want to be so rigid and hard-hearted in my personal standards that love, grace, mercy and forgiveness get squeezed out of my life and relationships.

Faith to Reach Out Amidst the Shame

“Then Jehoahaz sought the Lord’s favor, and the Lord listened to him….”
2 Kings 13:4a (NIV)

One of the things that I’ve learned in my years as a corporate coach is that most people are quite aware of their own faults. When I give someone the opportunity to assess themselves I find they are usually quite accurate about the opportunities they have to do better. In fact, I find that people usually have a harder time identifying their strengths even though they can provide a laundry list of their weaknesses. They are generally harder on themselves than I would ever be.

Along life’s journey I’ve found that it’s quite common for my guilt (i.e. “I keep messing up by thinking/saying/doing [fill in the blank]”) to sink into shame (i.e. “I’m such a hopeless case that I’m sure I’m so unlovable/unforgivable/unworthy that I don’t merit anyone’s love or forgiveness“). As I’ve spoken to people along my path I’ve found it quite common for people to feel convinced that God would never love them as they are or forgive them for the things they’ve done (or not done).

In today’s chapter, it is pointed out that Jehoahaz had, throughout his reign, continued to do what he knew was wrong in the eyes of God. He committing idolatry and allowed it to continue in the nation. Yet, Jehoahaz got to the point where he was willing to approach God, despite his guilt, and pour out his heart in seeking God’s favor. Despite Jehoahaz’s awful spiritual track record God listened. God loved. God granted Jehoahaz unmerited favor (e.g. “grace”) and provided deliverance.

This morning I’m reminded that there are times when God seems distant and remote, but it’s my own actions and emotions that have created the distance. Jehoahaz is a great reminder that I must have enough faith to approach God even when my guilt and shame have convinced me that I’m unworthy of doing so.

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.

 

Eyes Open and Aware

And Elisha prayed, “Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.” Then the Lordopened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.
2 Kings 6:17 (NIV)

There was one summer back in my later high school days when I happened to pal around with a couple of guys who were in their early twenties. It just so happened that every time the three of us got together we found ourselves in circumstances in which we had opportunity to  help others. One afternoon we happened upon a boy who had just been struck on his bicycle by a truck. We sprung into action to try and help both the situation and the boy’s family as best we could. Another time we happened to show up at a nearby lake just as a child fell out of the boat near shore and we were able to dive in and help the boy to shore. Upon hearing of our string of adventures, the mother of one of my friends jokingly referred to our threesome as  “Angels Unaware.”

Throughout God’s message there is reference made to a spiritual dimension that exists all around us. We are, for the most part, completely unaware. There are multiple instances across the Great Story of people being visited by the divine, or by those from the spiritual realm. From the early chapters of Genesis in which Abraham receives three mysterious visitors to the visions of Revelation which, John chronicles, were revealed to him while he was “in the Spirit.” Paul speaks of being caught up to heaven “in the Spirit.” The author of Hebrews tells followers of Jesus to be hospitable to strangers because you never know when you might entertain “angels unaware.” Thus the moniker given to my trio of friends back in the day.

Here in the west our culture is one of science and reason. We tend to believe only what can be quantified by our physical senses and proven by science. I find it fascinating that science is now pushing into places that a generation ago would have seemed the make-believe world of science fiction. Physicists tell us that there are 10-11 facets, or dimensions, to what we perceive to be reality. In other words, there’s a whole lot more going on than that which our physical senses perceive. Fascinating. I find that not unlike what Elisha’s servant experienced in today’s chapter. There was a reality that existed in the spiritual dimension that he couldn’t see until his spiritual eyes were opened. The further I get in my journey the more I have come to believe that the lines between science and spirit is not as distinct or defined as many scientists and/or theologians would have us believe.

In his letter to the followers of Jesus in Ephesus, Paul wrote, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened….” I think that’s what happened to Elisha’s servant. I think that’s what happened to Jesus companions on the road to Emmaus. There are physical eyes that see things in the physical realm, and there are spiritual eyes that perceive things in the spiritual realm.

This morning I’m thinking about the spiritual realm and the eyes of my heart. I hope that as my physical sight continues to diminish that my spiritual sight becomes more acute. I pray that the eyes of my heart will be enlightened in unimagined ways that I may see things clearly that I once may have never perceived. Until then, I hope that my physical eyes will be more attuned to identify daily opportunities to be someone else’s “angel unaware.”

God’s Will for Your Life. Really.

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NIV)

I have noticed that throughout life’s journey there distinct stages in which followers of Jesus spend a lot of time preoccupied with the question of “What is God’s will for me?” For those who are not so spiritually inclined to consider God in the equation, there are still natural periods of life’s journey when we ask, “Where am I going?”

The first major phase of questioning comes around the time of high school when decisions about college or military service or entering the work force are staring down at you. This can be a nerve wracking time. So many options leading down different paths. Which one is correct? Does God or fate have a role to play? What if I choose wrong?

Another round hits post college or military service when careers and/or family generally merges with life’s natural path. Wendy and I have walked along side our daughters in recent years as they’ve navigated those decisions. “Where am I going?” “Where should I live?” “Do I take the job I’m not sure I want or hold out for the one that I do?”

As a child, I observed that my grandparents and parents generations often settled onto a path for 35-45 years until retirement, when the next round of “What do we do now?” began. Increasingly, I observe that mid-life career changes, a rapidly changing economy, and a mobile society have thrust some of us into ceaseless questioning. It can create all sorts of anxiety, fear, and doubt.

On occasion our daughters and others have asked me my thoughts on these big decisions about life’s direction. I don’t profess to be a Sage, but there are a few things I’ve come to understand. The bad news is that I don’t have a crystal ball. I can’t tell you with certainty God’s will for the choice of your life’s direction, college, spouse, or vocation. The good news is that I can speak with certainty about God’s will for you.

I think we do ourselves a disservice looking for some singular, well defined path that God has ordained for us. While that may be the experience for some, I’ve definitely found that it’s the exception and not the rule. Jesus definitely foreknew that certain things would happen, like Peter denying Him three times, or Judas’ betrayal. Jesus even gave Peter a shadowy prophetic word about how his life journey would end. But Jesus fell far short of providing his closest followers a detailed road map for their lives after His ascension. Life is a faith journey, not a Google Maps prescribed expedition.

What is God’s will for us, however, is well defined. It’s simply and directly provided in today’s chapter.

Rejoice always. Good times are for thanksgiving. Stretches of monotony are for developing patience and persistence. Bad times are all about growing perseverance and character. Rejoicing in each moment, no matter where we find ourselves on God’s road, is God’s will for us.

Pray continually. This life journey is about process. It’s not just about our destination, but about the development of ourselves and our relationship with God. God doesn’t abandon us to figure it out for ourselves, but is with us each step of the way. If we continue to ask, seek, knock, and conversationally process with God, I believe we progress much faster. That’s why it’s God’s will that we dialogue with Him.

Give thanks in all circumstances. It’s easy to fall into the cycle of self-centered pessimism. I do it all the time. Willfully choosing to think about each and every person and thing for which we can be thankful gives us much needed perspective throughout each stretch of life’s journey. I have one acquaintance who, every night before she retires, tweets what she is thankful for. I appreciate her example, and it reminds me that God wants me to do the same.

What is God’s will for your life? If you’re asking me what college you should go to, what career to choose, or whether you should get married then I’m sorry I can’t do any more than help you weigh your options and apply what wisdom is available in making your choices. I can tell you however, without question, God’s will for your life:

  • Rejoice always.
  • Pray continually.
  • Give thanks in all circumstances.

Perhaps if we focus on these three every day, the answer to all the other questions we have about God’s will for us on this life journey will organically take care of themselves.

 

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.