Tag Archives: Free Will

Unlikely Hero

“And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”
Esther 4:14b

In a couple of weeks, I’m scheduled to give a message among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers entitled “It’s a Secret.” In preparation for that message, I have been pouring over some of Frank Warren’s PostSecret books. For those who are unfamiliar, Warren is simply a small business person who decided to do an art project. He handed out about 3000 black postcards with his address printed on them and asked people to share their “secret” with him. Years later they keep arriving from all over the world and his blog at postsecret.com is among the most popular in the world.

As I read today’s chapter, in which Queen Esther is made aware of Haman’s plot to annihilate her people, I thought about her secret. Esther had successfully managed to become the queen of Persia by being keeping her heritage and ethnicity a secret. She had assimilated into Persian culture. She did not demand a kosher diet, which would have given her away. She did not bring up any moral objections during her year-long education in providing the king sexual pleasure. The evidence would suggest that Esther was not a “godly woman” (by the strict definition of religiously following the tenents and disciplines of Judaism) and the faith of her people does not appear to have been something she practiced or felt compelled to take seriously.

I was also reminded, once again, that God is never mentioned in the book of Esther. It’s also interesting that when Esther asked Mordecai and her people to fast for three days it does not mention prayer in conjunction with the fasting. While prayer and fasting traditionally went together, the prayer part of it is not mentioned by the Queen.

Along the journey, I’ve observed that the institutions and adherents of my own faith like to try and keep God in their own binary boxes. I confess that I have, at times, fallen prey to this notion myself. People are either “sinners” or “saints.” God’s pleasure and purpose are reserved for the latter but definitely not the former. And yet, there are so many examples of God using people who wouldn’t pass our moral or religious litmus tests in order to accomplish His purposes. I’ve come to embrace the fact that when Paul wrote of God who is “able to do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine” it includes working through and accomplishing His purposes through the most unlikely, seemingly unworthy, of individuals.

Esther is an unlikely hero who reveals herself to be, like all of us, very human. I compare her to Daniel who zealously and religiously clung to his faith, religious discipline, and heritage, and he still succeeded to carve out position and purpose throughout a lifetime in captivity. Esther, on the other hand, follows the easier path of cultural compromise. She keeps her heritage, her people, and what faith she might have had in her people’s religion a secret. She likely kept her secret in order to avoid prejudice and persecution. Some would call that cowardice. Her response to Mordecai upon learning of Haman’s genocidal plot reveals her feelings of powerlessness and fear. All of this, and still she finds herself in just the right place at just the right time to accomplish God’s purpose of saving her people.

Ever since I became a follower of Jesus, I’ve sought God’s purpose in my life journey. I’ve tried to be a person of zealous, disciplined conviction like Daniel, but any who care to look closely at my track record will find that it is dotted with the same kinds of compromises, secrets, easy choices, and fear revealed in Esther. My solace is that God did accomplish His purposes in both of them, and I believe that somehow in the mysterious tension between God’s sovereignty and my free will I continually find myself at just the right place, at just the right time, to accomplish the purposes God has for me at this very moment.

And so, I begin another day in the journey. Press on, my friend.

An “Eternal Question”

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
Colossians 3:12 (NIV)

I call them the eternal questions. This is not because the questions have no answers, but rather because no matter how many times you answer them they must be answered again. Perhaps they should be called the “perpetual” questions, but the phrase “eternal questions” has a certain ring to it. The eternal questions are the boulder of Sisyphus, the mythic schlep who perpetually rolled the boulder up the hill only to have it roll back down again. In our home, the most common eternal questions are:

  • “What are we having for supper?”
  • “So, what’s the plan today?”
  • “What am I going to wear?”

I’ve learned along my life journey not to fight the eternal questions. It’s futile. It’s best to make your peace with them. For me, a step in the process of making peace was the understanding that the eternal questions come from an abundance of blessing. We are blessed to have choices. Indeed, we are blessed to have so many choices available to us from which the eternal questions spring.

In today’s chapter, I found myself intrigued by Paul’s encouragement to “clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” We don’t often think of kindness as a garment. I don’t think of myself slipping into gentleness and patience like a pair of yoga pants.

Nevertheless, as I meditated on the word picture Paul gave, it struck me that when it comes to my attitude and responses towards both circumstances and people, I have an entire wardrobe available to me. I can choose that bright rage coat, or I can choose the suede jacket lined with gentleness. I have an entire wardrobe of choices available to me. Welcome to the walk-in closet of free will.

“What should I wear today?”

Of course, if you’re anything like me there are those “go to” choices that don’t seem like a choice at all because they’re easy and require no thought. No effort needed, and the choice is oh so comfy. Passivity slips on me like a familiar old sweatshirt. I’ve worn prejudice so long I’ve worn holes in it like my ancient pair of 501 blues. And then there are those well-worn flip-flops of pessimism I can just slip into as I head out on my daily trek.

I once had a prophet who was given a word picture for me. It was the image of Father God handing me a shirt to put on. It was a shirt I would have never picked for myself, but once I slipped it on and looked in the mirror I realized it looked so good on me.

That came to mind as I meditated on the notion of choosing what I’m going to clothe myself with today. My spiritual closet is stocked with love, kindness, patience, joy, peace, gentleness, and self-control. How often do I reach down to the dirty clothes scattered on the floor of my closet and slip into my old stand-bys of resentment, apathy, impatience, complaint, discontent, bitterness, and indulgence?

This morning I’m once again asking myself the eternal question “What am I going to wear?” This morning, however, it’s not about the clothes I put on my body. I’m on a business trip and there’s only one outfit in the suitcase for today. Today, the eternal question is about how I’m going to clothe my spirit, temperament, and attitude as I work with colleagues and clients. Father God has an outfit picked out that I might not normally choose for myself. Maybe I should try it on. I bet it’ll look fabulous.

Dress well, my friend.

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.

Rolling the Dice

“You shall describe the land in seven divisions and bring the description here to me; and I will cast lots for you here before the Lord our God.”
Joshua 18:6 (NRSV)

Throughout the Great Story we find the practice of “casting lots” which is basically an ancient version of rolling the dice or drawing straws. In today’s story, the division of land between the remaining tribes was determined by casting lots. In the story of Jonah, the sailors figured out Jonah was running from God because they cast lots. Jesus’ executioners cast lots for his robe. The successor to Judas Iscariot among Jesus’ twelve disciples was decided by casting lots.

The practice of making decisions with the drawing of the short straw or a roll of the dice seems ludicrous in our age of reason and science. Nevertheless, the practice reminds me that there are many times in life when we are required to make life decisions and reason does not provide any clarity. The fork in the road beckons us to choose and our Excel spreadsheet of positives and negatives are equally balanced.

We roll the dice in life on many occasions. No matter how much we beg and plead for God to give us a sign, the silence from heaven seems deafening. I have come to understand that there is a mysterious dance between my decisions and divine guidance. It is the eternal tension between free will and predestination. I choose the path only to find along the journey that there was a reason for my choice that I did not understand at the time. God weaves His will in and through our choices to make the tapestry of our lives, our stories.

Today, I sit in my hotel room a thousand miles from my loved ones and stare at a long day with my client. I’ll be honest: It feels like a mountain sitting in front of me and I’m short on mustard seeds. This is part of the journey. We throw the dice. We make choices. We fumble and fret and second guess our choices amidst the daily commute. We trust God to lead us and weave His will and purpose through our daily slog. We press on. We continue on the path despite our doubts and nagging second guesses… being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

 

 

Chill, and Follow

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”
John 14:1a (NRSV)

When I was a boy, my mom used to complain about my pessimism. I fretted and fussed on a regular basis. The glass was clearly half empty in my mind, and I was perpetually certain that life would soon suck the other half dry and leave me with nothing. I have distinct memories of sitting at our kitchen counter and getting a lecture from my mother about always being a pessimist (and not really knowing what a pessimist was).

Jesus said that there is “fruit” that becomes evident in the lives of those who follow Him. As I look back at my life journey to this point, one of the things that is evident to me is that my relationship with Jesus has taught this pessimist about living with faith.

Wendy will tell you that my pessimistic spirit has not completely left me, and there are still times that my heart slips back into my natural, glass half-empty fame of mind. However, what Jesus has taught me over the years is that there is a “letting” that occurs with a troubled heart. “Do not let your heart be troubled,” He said. I allow my heart to be troubled. I choose in to the anxiety. I give fear and anxiety permission to place shackles on my spirit.

The other choice Jesus gave His followers was to believe. “Don’t let your heart be troubled,” He said, “believe.” Believe that Jesus is working all things together, even my present circumstances, for the good. Believe that God will provide. Believe that there is purpose in my present pain that I cannot see in the moment. Believe that if I embrace the mystery of the moment I will someday look back and see with clarity what that purpose was. Believe that God is with me. Believe that God is for me. Believe that God will direct my steps. Believe that God’s grace is sufficient.

Today, I am reminded just how much I have come to trust God and how much of my daily life has become predicated on faith. It’s a bit wild, actually. Taylor likes to blog about writing letters to her younger self, and this morning I find myself thinking about writing a note to the pessimistic boy getting lectured by mother at the kitchen counter.

Listen to your mother, little man, and don’t let your heart be troubled. Choose to believe what Jesus tells you. You can trust Him. Chill, and follow.

Difficult Paths; Explicable and Not

The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to us and to our children forever, to observe all the words of this law.
Deuteronomy 29:29 (NRSV)

My life journey has led me on some difficult paths…

Some paths were difficult, but I willfully chose them knowing full well where they would likely lead. As Bob Dylan put it, “like a bad motorcycle with the devil in the seat, going 90 miles an hour down a dead-end street.” Those difficulties and the natural, negative consequences which affected myself and others are on me.

Some paths were difficult because of the willful choices of others and their natural, negative consequences which directly affected me in hurtful ways. Those difficulties are on the individuals who made those choices.

Still other paths were made difficult because we live in a fallen world in which sickness, disease, and inexplicable tragedy may suddenly affect any one of us at any time. Those difficulties are on Adam, Eve, and all of us who tread this earth east of Eden.

Some paths are made difficult because we live within a Great Story of good and evil. Evil exists in the world carrying out its chaotic and self-centered motives to destructive ends. Whether through direct attack or ripple effect, those difficulties are on the evil one and all who follow.

Then there are difficult paths I tread and I cannot explain them. They don’t fit neatly in any of the previous sources I’ve identified. These are the most perplexing. These are the things which I place within the description found in today’s chapter. These are the secret things that belong to God. I don’t see God’s purposes or perceive His reasons, and I struggle perpetually to find a place of contentment or peace in the mystery of it.

This is why it is called a faith journey.

 

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Yes, and Yes (?)

red pill blue pill

Paul said, “I am appealing to the emperor’s tribunal; this is where I should be tried. I have done no wrong to the Jews, as you very well know. Now if I am in the wrong and have committed something for which I deserve to die, I am not trying to escape death; but if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can turn me over to them. I appeal to the emperor.” Then Festus, after he had conferred with his council, replied, “You have appealed to the emperor; to the emperor you will go.” Acts 25:10-12 (NRSV)

While under Roman guard in Jerusalem, Paul received word from God telling him that he would bear witness in Rome. At that point in time, the situation was tense and events seemed to be moving swiftly toward a foreshadowed end for Paul. Then, Paul became a guest of the Roman political bureaucracy. Over two years of house arrest. Paul was a pawn in the Roman governor’s desire to keep peace with the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem.

In today’s chapter, we have a de ja vu moment as the newly appointed Governor sends for the Jewish leaders once more to make their accusations against Paul. I tried to put myself in Paul’s sandals this morning as I read. He’s been accused multiple times now by the Jewish trial lawyers as they drag out their same old, tired lies and accusations. The new Roman Governor seems to be like the last. He knows that Paul is innocent, both he and Paul know it, but they also both know that Paul makes a good bargaining chip with the Jewish leaders. It appears to be a stalemate. So, Paul makes a fateful choice.

Roman citizenship carried with it certain privileges, and Paul was well aware of this. Tired of waiting for the Governor to decide his case, Paul claims his right to appeal his case to the emperor’s court in Rome. Having been told by God that he would bear witness in Rome, Paul chooses to take fate into his own hands and make it happen. The decision effectively ended the stalemate between the Roman governor and the Jewish leaders, and there was always the chance that the Jewish leaders would choose not to pursue the case all the way to Rome.

Today, I find myself once again mulling over one of the classic, on-going debates of Christian theology. Do we have free will to make our own choices and play our own hand (e.g. Paul appealing his case to Rome) or does God predestine our lives and the events therein (e.g. Even if Paul didn’t choose to appeal, to Rome he would have ended up there as God had promised).

Classic, on-going debates occur when clear answers are not easily found. I  have heard the answers at both extremes of the debate and have found them wanting. Truth appears to me to be found at the mysterious point of tension between the two extremes. It will be suggested in tomorrow’s chapter that Paul would have been set free but for his appeal to Rome. Should Paul have waited so he could have chosen to journey to Rome of his own free will in obedience to God? Or, was God at work in Paul’s choice, knowing all along how things were going to play out? Perhaps the answer to both questions is “yes.”

Some mornings I leave my quiet time with God having more questions than answers.