Tag Archives: Faith

Connected to a Larger Story

Though I scatter them among the peoples,
    yet in distant lands they will remember me.
They and their children will survive,
    and they will return.
Zechariah 10:9 (NIV)

I walked into Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv as I and my friends were heading back to the United States. After spending a week in Israel I had an even greater appreciation for the surreal experience there. Every international airport is a melting pot, but Ben Gurion seemed to take things to an entirely new level. Not only were there people from all over the world, but there was also the unrivaled diversity of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim sub-cultures. My time in Israel was an amazing cultural experience of dining with and making new friends among both Jews and Arabs and from every religious persuasion. At Ben Gurion Airport all of diverse groups were represented and crammed together in one place at one time.

Looking around I saw Hasidic Jewish men in their tell-tale black clothing and hats as well as modern Jewish women with their own distinctive manner that radiates a certain larger-than-life personality. There were Jewish tourist groups from literally all over the world which was made evident by the cacophony of clothing and languages. There were Arabs in their turbans, Catholic priests and nuns in their robes, and even my fellow small-town American tourists with their own distinct drawls and a certain air of cluelessness.

And, of course there was tension. I found that there’s always tension in Israel. I felt surrounded at all times by the uncanny sense that something might just erupt at any given moment. In fact, as my friends and I stood in line at check-in a nearby baggage x-ray machine detected something amiss. Loud sirens suddenly blared at a deafening decibel level all around us. Bright lights flashed out in warning.

Paralyzed by the sensory shockwave, I turned to watch people of every religious, national, and political persuasion bolting for the doors out of fear that a terrorist’s bomb was about to explode. Thankfully, it was false alarm. Still standing in both panic and confusion, I was just as surprised at the speed with which things returned to normal, or what passes for normal in that place.

I mention my experience because, politics and religion aside, my time in Israel gave me a newfound respect for the amazing story of the Jewish people throughout history.  They have been scattered again, and again, and again, and again by wars, empires, politics, and persecution.

In today’s chapter, the ancient prophet Zechariah speaks to the scattering of his people and prophesies their return from the remote reaches of the world. This was a contemporary issue for Zac because he was part of a remnant who had returned to rebuild a destroyed Jerusalem. In the previous hundred or so years the empires of Babylon, Assyria and Persia had scattered his people to those regions. He and his contemporaries were acting in faith that if they took the risk of rebuilding Jerusalem that his people would return.

I’ve mentioned before that prophetic writing is layered with meaning. It can address something in the moment and something in the distant future all at the same time. As I stood in Ben Gurion Airport it was like witnessing what Zechariah wrote back around 500 B.C. :

I will signal for them
    and gather them in.
Surely I will redeem them;
    they will be as numerous as before.
Though I scatter them among the peoples,
    yet in distant lands they will remember me.
They and their children will survive,
    and they will return.
I will bring them back from Egypt
    and gather them from Assyria.
I will bring them to Gilead and Lebanon,
    and there will not be room enough for them.

This morning I’m reminded of the Great Story that God is telling in the life-cycle of human history. It’s part of why I love history so much because I believe that it’s all connected. I believe we are all connected by this same story and we are a part of it. I’m just in a different chapter than Zechariah, but knowing his story and reading his prophetic poem layers my own experiences with new and profound depths of meaning. Even the seemingly insignificant experience of standing in an airport suddenly connects my story to the Great Story that is so much larger than myself.

 featured photo via speaking of faith and Flickr

Mysterious Ways

But Balaam answered them, “Even if Balak gave me all the silver and gold in his palace, I could not do anything great or small to go beyond the command of the Lord my God.
Numbers 22:18 (NIV)

Wendy and I went to see The Color Purple in Des Moines a few weeks ago. It is one of our favorite musicals. The story of a young African American woman on a journey of discovering just how beautiful and strong she is has been a source of fascination and conversation for us since we first saw it years ago.

The musical begins with a raucous gospel song in which we are told that the Lord works in Mysterious Ways. What proceeds is a story of a young woman who finds herself on an unconventional path out of unspeakable circumstances to discover what a beautiful and beloved child of God she truly is. The Color Purple is not a neat and tidy morality play residing inside the safety of religion’s comfortable box. True to the message of its opening song, the musical reminds us that God, the Creator of this universe, often works outside the boxes we create to put Him in for our our comfort.

Mysterious Ways flitted through my head this morning as I descended the stairs to pour my first cup of coffee after reading this morning’s chapter. Numbers 22 is one of the strangest, most mysterious chapters in the entirety of the Great Story. It is the story of Balaam, an ancient seer. Balaam is not a Hebrew. He is not Jew. He is a non-Jew living Mesopotamia. The Moabites, fearful of this massive wandering nation of Hebrews heading their way, reach out to Balaam to divine some help from the Almighty.

We quickly learn that Balaam takes a night to seek the LORD’s guidance. Balaam says he will report what the LORD tell him. When he reports to the Moabites that the LORD won’t let him curse the Hebrews, they offer him a huge wad of cash. Balaam reports that no matter how much cash he’s offered he can’t go against what the LORD has told him to do.

Time-out. Back the truck up.

This Great Story we’re journeying through is about God working through the Hebrews. They are “God’s people.” So who is this bit player named Balaam who suddenly appears from the wings for this important cameo moment? Where did he come from? How on earth did he forge a relationship with God, which it is clear he has, outside the box of the Great Story?

And we aren’t even to the strangest part of the story yet; The part where Balaam’s donkey speaks to him.

The further I get in my journey the more appreciation I have for the fact that God is, and does, “exceeding, abundantly above all that I could ask or think.” Whenever I think I’ve got God figured out inside the neat and tidy box of my religious doctrine I, like Job, am confronted on the cosmic witness stand as God stands me up and asks,

“Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades?
    Can you loosen Orion’s belt?
Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons
    or lead out the Bear with its cubs?
Do you know the laws of the heavens?
    Can you set up God’s dominion over the earth?”

No, sir.

This morning I am both fascinated and humbled by the sudden appearance of the perplexing character of Balaam and his miraculously anthropomorphic ass. I am reminded that God is not, and can not, be confined. Balaam, much like The Color Purple, reminds me that the Good Lord works in mysterious ways.

The Motivation Behind Life’s Blocking

Nevertheless, in their presumption they went up toward the highest point in the hill country, though neither Moses nor the ark of the Lord’s covenant moved from the camp.
Numbers 14:44 (NIV)

Faith is an amazingly powerful, amazingly mysterious spiritual root force. Jesus said that faith as small as a speck could move mountains.   Repeatedly, Jesus told those whom He healed that their faith was the active ingredient in their healing. The author of Hebrews wrote that without faith it is impossible to please God.

Today’s chapter is an object lesson in faith (or lack thereof). Yesterday the Hebrew tribes spy out the promised land, but swayed by the exaggerated claims of ten of the twelve spies, the people doubt that their conquest will be successful. Swayed by their fears they speak of going back to slavery in Egypt and threaten to stone Moses to death.

When a mysterious plague afflicts the ten doubting spies, the people’s’ fear of God becomes instantly more powerful, in the moment, than the fear of death in conquest that had felt so powerful the previous day. Their fear prompts a hasty decision to move forward with the conquest despite Moses warning that their impromptu actions is doomed to fail. Why? They were acting out of fear, not faith.

What a word picture the tribes provide for fear-based thinking and reasoning. Their actions over the past few chapters have perpetually been motivated by what they feared most in the moment: starvation, discomfort, death, or plague. Fear is the constant and consistent motivator; It is the active ingredient in their words, decisions, and actions. Their fear leads them to false presumptions on which their decisions and actions were based.

This morning I’m reminded that it is that which motivates my actions that is critical to my spiritual progression in this life journey and the activator of spiritual power. If I am primarily motivated by fear or shame, by pride or personal desire my actions will certainly propel me down life’s path just like the Hebrew tribes climbing the hill. My movement, however, will be void of any real progress or direction of Spirit. As any well-trained actor knows, it is the motivation that drives the action of the character. Blocked movement disconnected from the characters underlying motivation becomes prescriptive, mindless action that empties the performance of any real power.

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking about the actions on my multiple test lists. If, as the Bard wrote, “all the world’s a stage” then my task lists are my prescribed blocking in life’s script. Go here, do this bit of business, then go there and do that bit of necessary action so that she can proceed with her bit. Family tasks, business tasks, personal tasks… What’s the active, motivating ingredient?

Is it faith?

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.

Personal Faith & Systemic Conscription

The king stood by the pillar and renewed the covenant in the presence of the Lord—to follow the Lord and keep his commands, statutes and decrees with all his heart and all his soul, thus confirming the words of the covenant written in this book. Then all the people pledged themselves to the covenant.
2 Kings 23:3 (NIV)

I was a young man when I made a decision that I would be a follower of Jesus. I was a normal teenager who did the normal things that teenagers do when testing the boundaries of parents and other systems of authority. Looking back at that boy from 40 years down life’s road, he seems rather innocent and naive. But I still remember that with my decision to follow Jesus came a responsibility to make some changes.

In today’s chapter we read the story of King Josiah’s great reform of Judah. After the scroll with the law of Moses is discovered during renovations to Solomon’s Temple, Josiah calls for a national gathering. The Law of Moses (e.g. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) is read to all the people. Josiah makes a decision and a commitment to follow God and keep the Law. He makes an ancient form of binding contract, called a covenant, to do so. The people follow suit.

The rest of today’s chapter is a blow-by-blow description of Josiah wiping out all of the competing local and regional deities. Reading the chapter we begin to understand how prevalent the worship of these gods had become. There were male prostitutes (which were quite common in idol worship in ancient times) who were operating out of Solomon’s Temple. There was child sacrifice to Molech and the worship of the golden calves that Jeroboam had set up when he led the northern tribes to secession hundreds of years earlier. Josiah purged the land of all of it, and pledged that the nation would follow the God of Moses alone.

As I read the chapter over my first cup of java this morning, there were two prevailing thoughts that struck me.

First, we read that Josiah called the nation together, made a covenant to follow God, and the people followed suit. Did they choose to follow Josiah’s lead of their own free will? Did the people even have a choice? A study of history would lead me to conclude that they did not. It was quite common for ancient nations and empires to follow whatever religion the king chose. That’s why Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 313 A.D. When Caesar Constantine became a Christian, then all the people of the Empire became Christians as well. I would argue that the results were not good.

I find this an important point. At the end of today’s chapter we read that Josiah’s son led the people right back to the worship of the local and regional gods. In our journey through 2 Kings we’ve read what seems to be a  game of religious ping-pong. One king follows the God of Moses and the people follow. The next king follows Baal and the people follow. Back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth.

National religion and forced adherence to faith is not really faith at all. It’s conscription. When I chose to become a follower of Jesus it was my choice and my decision. To this day I find that human systems (i.e. families, denominations, communities) use subtle forms of conscription and social pressure to ensure that the members of the system (i.e. children, grandchildren, neighbors, community members) adhere to the system’s sanctioned form of religion. That’s when personal faith is diluted down to blind religion. Jesus spent his entire earthly ministry fighting against that dilution. Blind religion nailed Him to the cross.

The second point that struck me this morning was Josiah’s reform. When I became a follower of Jesus there were some things that I was doing in my life that needed to change, as silly and innocent as some of them seem in retrospect. There were some unhealthy teenaged behaviors that needed to cease, and some healthy mature habits that needed to be developed. When faith is personal, it transforms the person.

This morning I’m thinking about my own children, and my grandson whom I can’t wait to meet in a few months. I don’t want my legacy to be religion instilled by force, conscription and systemic pressure. I want our daughters and our grandchildren to follow Jesus because it’s their own decision, their own choice, their own personal faith. The best thing that I can do to ensure that is not to instill rules, regulations, and mandatory religious observance. The best thing I can do is to model exactly what Jesus did and calls me to follow: love.

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.